We decided to volunteer for a week with the Elephant Nature Park (www.elphantnaturepark.org).
It stands apart from the many elephant camps around Chang Mai as it is specifically set up to help elephants as a centre for conservation. The founder and director Mrs Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert has won numerous conservation awards including Hero of Asia by Time magazine and is a crusader for elephant welfare.
In Thailand, as in many other countries elephants have been used for trekking, riding, circus shows, street begging, painting shows and other tourist sport attractions such as football and polo. The elephants used for this have either been captured and smuggled from the wild or nature reserves (Thailand or Burma most commonly) or were previously logging elephants until the national ban on logging. Registration of the elephants is very poor. The 'domestic' elephants are the private property of their owner who can do with it as they choose. There are no laws to prevent cruelty or ensure proper care of the elephants as they are still classified as draft animals under Thailand's 1939 Draft Animals Act.
Added to this, as now well published, is the continued high rate of poaching of elephants from the wild and reserves for their ivory, teeth and bones which are prized as status symbol carved ornaments and as talismans. Their ears are often removed along with their tail as people think they will protect them from black magic. It is estimated by some that worldwide the elephant population may be extinct in 30-40 years.
This is a vast topic, and if you want to know more 'the Elephant Voice' is a good source that is updated frequently and speaks out about the plight of Asian elephants. www.theelephants.org
We chose to support a program run by the Elephant Nature Park called 'Journey to Freedom', which was one of the more final steps of their vision to enable a few very lucky elephants to return to their natural environment - the strips of remaining forests in Northern Thailand.
Over the next few posts we will do our best to explain our volunteer activities over the week and their context in the overall ENP strategy. As well as supporting a very worthy cause we made long lasting friendships with our fellow volunteers and learnt an unexpected amount about the countries they came from.
Dawn breaks over our Karen Tribe village 7 hours north of Chang Mai
Deforestation is a huge problem, land is cleared to grow crops, this leads to landslides in the wet season, wildlife is diminished as is the natural food for elephants
There are no roads here just dirt tracks - dust bowls in the dry season and impassable in the wet
A mother and her twins who we met, owned by one of the Karen people
A cheeky seven year old male who we bring banana palms for extra nutrition
Bananas are also a favourite of an elephant at the Nature Park