A blissful day communing with the animals at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand


In that the feed baskets weren’t out yet, I think this elephant was having a bit of a yawn.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

An elephant’s flexible, mischievous trunk could be the most amazing appendage in the animal kingdom.

Its dexterity is such that it can pick up a tortilla chip without breaking it. It’s strong enough that it can uproot a tree or help to push it over. Somehow the elephant knows how much force it needs — or conversely how gentle to be — to get the job done.

Personally speaking, I found this jam-packed collection of highly integrated muscle groups more than a bit intimidating. (Sources differ widely on how many muscles are in a trunk — from 40,000 to 150,000.)

My friend Susan and I had the chance — several chances really — to feed Asian elephants at the Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation center, in November 2011, in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The curling and uncurling motion was almost hypnotic as the trunk flared its nostril, sniffed the air and reached out hungrily for the next piece of melon, or squash, or banana or whatever fruit and vegetables the keepers had cut up for that meal and placed in a large colored plastic laundry-size basket for visitors to draw from.

The elephant formed a “U” shape with its trunk tip, providing an inviting platform on which to briefly balance the offered morsels, and swiftly delivered it to an eager open mouth.

Elephants have huge molars, so it didn’t take long to grind the veggies to smithereens and swallow. (Tusks are teeth also, sort of like incisors in humans. All African elephants have them; generally only the males and only a few females of the Asian species do.)

And then the trunk came back for more, the gray, prickly-haired snout stretching again toward an extended hand dangling food. Once I got the hang of working with the elephant’s rhythm, I became a better food delivery partner.

(Asian elephants have one “finger” at the end of their trunks; African elephants have two. The Asian species is smaller in height and weight. The African species has larger ears — the shape resembles the continent of Africa — and bigger feet.)

Elephants are eating machines, consuming hundreds pounds of food a day, though their inefficient digestive system processes only about half of that. In the wild, they would be eating more grasses and green vegetation. They drink up to about 40 gallons of water daily.

Just checking to make sure that no food had been overlooked.

As feeding time wound down, the elephants crowded closer to the concrete platform where we were standing behind a do-not-cross red line and shin-high metal railing, laying their trunk flat on the pavement, sweeping it back and forth, making sure that nothing remained unconsumed.

I’ve loved elephants since childhood. I don’t know if my affinity was triggered by reading the Babar books or a trip to the zoo. I love their intelligence, the way they flap their ears, how they shyly peer at the world from beneath their heavy eyelashes, and the way they care for their young.

When I was little, I drank from a handmade teal blue-and-brown ceramic cup. Its solid, protruding ears were the handles, and though I could sip from the sides, liquid could also be drawn up through the hole in its upturned trunk. Yes, I still have the cup.

In my travels, I’m always on the lookout to add to my collection of elephant figurines and elephant-themed textiles. Recent additions include the blue-and-black elephant print harem-style pants that I bought in Cambodia in March 2016, the blue-and-white silk pillow cover I purchased in Bangkok, Thailand, in November 2011, and the Herend painted porcelain sitting elephant that I adopted in Budapest, Hungary, in October 2015.

So a joyful day spent among the elephants at the nature park was a dream come true. We fed them, petted them, observed them, bathed them in the river (twice) and then fed them again. I’m embarrassed to say how many photographs I took.

At Elephant Nature Park, visitors do not ride the animals, which at the time I visited, numbered around 36. (Current tally is around 70, a figure the park provided, but something may have been lost in translation.)

The elephants do not paint pictures, they do not perform tricks. They are simply elephants allowed to be elephants, sometimes gathering in familial groups, roaming the property freely (with minders nearby) without fear of man or predator.

Many were still healing in body and spirit after years of abuse and neglect, having been beaten and injured while forced to work in the logging industry, beg on the streets of Bangkok, or entertain in circuses.

The keepers told us a little about the history of some of the elephants, much of it terribly sad, and indicated which animals we should distance ourselves from because of their unpredictable personalities, still angry from the treatment endured in their former lives.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 elephants are left in Thailand, and fewer than 30,000 Asian elephants worldwide.

When we arrived at the park, we were given a lecture about safety and then allowed to wander among the animals in the barn area. After we fed the elephants, we assembled in two buffet lines for our own lunch. All vegetarian, choices ranged from stir-fry noodles, to rice dishes to curries, spring rolls, soup and fruit.

The person by the elephant’s trunk is its minder. The man in the blue T-shirt is giving the animal a scrub with a small brush.

Fully sated, it was time to follow the elephants down to the river for bath time. We were each given a small black plastic bucket to scoop up water and toss over the hulking animals standing beside us. A few visitors had hand-size brushes and gave the animals a bit of a scrub, too.

It’s not mandatory to do this, of course. Some opted to climb up to the shaded viewing platform and watch the activity below.

The riverbed was rocky and slippery, and the water was barely calf-high. I was wearing sandals, and it was difficult to get a good foot-plant for my basket scoop/water toss. No matter, I was still having enormous fun. The docile elephants, with their always-present minders, seemed happy in the cooling, cascading spray.

Bath time over, we followed the elephants toward the viewing stand, where we were allowed to pose next to them for pictures and watch them amble around the field. Need I say that the babies were particularly adorable?

This youngster was happy to be among the bigger animals on the field by the viewing platform.

The next activity was to watch a film about elephant rescue and conservation, and as admirable as those goals are, I didn’t think that was the best use of our time. So Susan and I skipped the film and went back to the morning feeding area to contemplate the movements of the real thing standing before us.

Another feeding session followed, and my masticating companion and I emptied nearly a full basket of melon and bananas by ourselves.

Then we followed the elephants back to the river for another bath, and too soon the trip back to town.

Elephant Nature Park was founded in the 1990s, by Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, who is also the force behind the Save Elephant Foundation. Her work has been much lauded and recognized by international media and conservation groups.

In addition to elephants, the park is home to rescued water buffalo, dogs, cats and other assorted critters. Its mission statement includes a commitment to rain forest restoration by planting trees in the surrounding area, preserving village and cultural life, and educating visitors about endangered species.

Elephants can live up to 70 years, so it’s reassuring for this elephant-lover to know that the residents at ENP should have a peaceful and contented existence for many years to come.

Quick reference: Elephant Nature Park: The park has a variety of programs. Visitors can spend a day, several days or a week, visiting or volunteering (fee involved). Prices vary according to program. Some of the longer programs feature interaction in tribal villages. Pickup from your hotel or a designated location is included. From Chiang Mai, it’s about 60-90 minutes to the park; you’ll be shown a video about elephants en route. Daylong visit is generally 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or later. 2,500 Thai baht, about $73. Vegetarian lunch is included. Reservations are mandatory. Bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, a change of clothes (if you bathe the elephants you will get wet), flip-flops or sandals,  towel, insect repellant and walking shoes. And a camera, of course. http://www.elephantnaturepark.org

The program has expanded from its Chiang Mai location to include experiences in Surin and Kanchanaburi, Thailand, and near Siem Reap, Cambodia.

To see an elephant pick up a tortilla chip with its trunk: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/01/watch-elephant-pick-tortilla-chip-her-trunk-without-breaking-it


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