Published: Veterinary Practice April 2010 Page 60 Wildlife
ERIKA SULLIVAN reports on her visit to Thailand to experience the work of the Elephant Haven or ‘heaven.'
Providing a Jungle Retreat for Maltreated Elephants in Thailand
Welcome to Thailand! A country recognized for its warm weather, famous beaches, alluring cuisine, spiritual temples, and elephants. It was these qualities, coupled with my passion for contributing to animal protection and wildlife conservation that brought me here. As a visiting veterinarian and volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) near Chiang Mai, I acquired a new perspective on large animal medicine, and understood the hardships facing Asian elephants today. This cultivated my newfound fondness for a gentle endangered species and special sanctuary for animals.
The Elephant Nature Foundation
The ENF is a non-profit organization that advocates and acts on behalf of Asian elephants in Thailand. It was created in 2005 by an inspiring woman named Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. Its goals are: to increase awareness about the plight of the Asian elephant, to educate locals on humane care for their elephants, and offer a sanctuary for rescued animals at the ENP. Elephant Haven is a jungle retreat offered by the project where visitors are taken, and allows the elephants to relax in their natural environment. The Jumbo Express program is another facet of the organization that offers emergency medical care to injured elephants, while creating sustainable bonds with local populations. A recent addition to the organization is their elephant project in the province of Surin. Here, ENF is working closely with the Surin government to promote responsible tourism as an alternative to street begging, circuses, and elephant trekking. With the financial support involved, elephant families in Surin are able to roam free in their natural habitat, while providing their mahouts (elephant keepers) with steady income. ENF promotes responsible tourism through education, which ultimately contributes to the survival of the Asian elephant.
Meet the Elephants
Located in a mountainous valley 60 km outside of Chiang Mai, ENP is a sanctuary for over thirty elephants. Visitors to the park (day, overnight and weekly volunteers) provide financial support required to safely care for these animals. These elephants share similar stories of deceitful lives and violent upbringing. Some were forced to paint pictures with their trunks or perform demeaning circus tricks, while others were subjected to arduous labour in the logging industry; and almost were trained weapons such as ‘the elephant hook’ and left chained for hours. They are all victims of Thailand’s hardships facing elephants.
As a visiting veterinarian I was brought to the sanctuary hospital, where I met two elephants requiring medical care. Ratee arrived that day on a 22-hour journey from the province of Surin. Ratee, meaning "night time," is 35-years-old. Her previous owner used her solely in a breeding program, causing her lifelong injuries. Our first assessment of Ratee revealed that she suffered nerve damage to her pelvic spinal cord, and her muscles were extremely weak. She was painful to walk and her hind feet dragged, causing her to fall over. Her skin had several wounds caused from previous abuse with an elephant hook. The psychological affects of Ratee’s mistreatment were evident by her moaning, drooling, listless trunk, and constant swaying. Despite her fear of humans at this time however, she was food-motivated, which allowed the staff veterinarian and I to treat her pain and wounds. My first experience with elephant medicine however did not stop there. Our next patient was Somboon. Somboon, born in 1967, used to be a street-begging elephant. Exposure to traffic lights, noise, and pollution has caused her permanent damage to her eyesight and hearing. Somboon was suffering from a painful bowel condition, similar to what horses experience in colic. Her body posture was suggestive of pain, and she had not eaten or produced feces in three days. Fortunately, our daily treatments consisting of analgesic medication, assisted-feeding, exercise, and enemas, we were able to save her from this attack. ENP provides necessary veterinary care required for all its resident rescued animals.
The other elephants at ENP range in age from months to years. Malai Tong (photograph 3) was rescued from the logging industry, where she endured near life-threatening injuries causing a permanent disfigurement to her right hind foot. Jokia was born in a small village near Burma and was used in logging. In 1989, anti-logging laws were passed by the government of Thailand, leaving Jokia jobless with no means to financially support her family. Her family sold her to an enterprise that used harmful training practices, leaving her blind in both eyes. Financial support from special volunteers enabled Lek to rescue Jokia. ENP is home to many other elephants with similar stories of abuse prior to their rescue. Many will never successfully be reintroduced back into the wild, as their previous life experience has denied them the skills required for survival. Fortunately their new life of semi-captivity at this sanctuary offers them a chance to roam, play, swim, share a family, and have as much or as little human interaction as they choose.
The Elephant in Thailand
Elephants have played an important part in Thailand’s culture. In 1900 it was estimated that 100,000 elephants existed in the wild. Today, that number is approximately 3000, with half of these elephants living in sanctuaries or national parks. Historically elephants were used in warfare, and later to carry timber for the logging industry and construction of temples. When the government of Thailand passed anti-logging laws due to deforestation concerns, many domesticated elephants were rendered jobless. This, in addition to a food shortage crisis affecting many villages, forced mahouts to subject their elephants to careers in street-begging, circus entertainment, or riding camps for tourists, in order to provide an income for their family. Unfortunately, tourists visiting Thailand continue to fund these enterprises. Illegal poaching and logging are the major threats affecting survival of wild Asian elephants. In both situations however, if the current rate of slaughter and abuse continues, many of Thailand’s elephants will disappear, along with the forest and culture of its indigenous people.
The ENP offers visitors an opportunity to learn about elephants, their environment and threats to their survival. I hope that my experience in Thailand will further global awareness toward this issue and ultimately help end illegal elephant practices being used on domesticated elephants today. The elephants at ENP serve as an important reminder of the causes for the disappearance of Thailand’s wild elephants, while living their forever-changed lives here in “Elephant Heaven”.