As Jokia ambles down the riverbank, the crowd of bucket-wielding tourists grows silent. Parting into two groups, we watch and wait as this huge, 55-year-old Asian elephant, wades into the shallows and eases herself onto her mud-covered side, her trunk snuffling through the water.
Then, as her mahout gives a quick nod, a riotous mood envelops the 50 or so watching bystanders. Within seconds, all of us are scooping and throwing water across Jokia, the thick cake of mud, dirt and grass across her back washed away as grown men and women go wild with excitement. Best of all, she’s loving it too, throwing her trunk into the air in appreciation. I swear I can see a smile on her face.
Jokia is one of 50 elephants living and roaming free here at the Elephant Nature Park, 60km north of Thailand’s second city Chiang Mai. She was saved by the owner, Lek Chalert, after she was blinded by her previous mahouts for refusing to work. It’s a brutal story, but Jokia’s is by no means an isolated case. Many of the elephants here have been rescued from abusive owners, after working for years in the lucrative, but harsh tourist industry.
Here though, while huge numbers of visitors pay to visit for a day, or to volunteer for a week, the elephants are allowed to roam free and aren’t forced to perform. Those who come spend their time learning about the plights of each elephant (from females crippled by over aggressive males to babies born and raised here without having to go through harmful domesticating rituals), feeding and bathing them. There is no riding.
Lek’s work has been well-documented. Her plans for an ‘elephant heaven’ were the subject of a 2001 National Geographic documentary, shown at the park as a way of giving insight into he plight of the 2,500 domestic elephants in Thailand. Today, the Elephant Nature Park is the culmination of Lek’s early plans, with attention now turning to releasing some of her ‘big friends’ into the wild, via a groundbreaking scheme involving local villages.
Today though, is all about giving these huge creatures a good time. Chowing through bucket after bucket of sweetcorn, watermelon and pineapple, they seem quite content to have landed in this mountain paradise. In learning about how they’ve been treated, as well as seeing how elephants are still abused for tourists benefit, hopefully more people will want to simply wash and feed them, rather than needlessly clamber on their backs for a few cheap laughs.