Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park: Day 3

This week is all Elephant Nature Park (ENP), all the time. Every day will be a detailed post on a day or two of the seven days I spent at the park in February 2013. I hope that those researching volunteer opportunities will find the detail helpful in determining if this is a week and $400 they want to sign up for. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it! Once again, thanks so much to donors who made this week possible. For more info on the ENP, you can visit their site here and learn more about the individual elephants here.

Day 3

Our second day of work, our group started with a leisurely walk across the park, visiting with some elephants along the way. I watched one ele pick plants with her trunk, gathering more and more without dropping a single stalk, and then she swung it all into her mouth. She patiently let us stroke her side and her trunk, but she was focused on eating that grass. Eles do eat 5-10% of their body weight each day, after all.

Good morning

Good morning

Then we were on mud pit duty, which as far as we could tell, was the only straight-up busy work they gave us. When elephants bathe, they get out of the water and head straight to a pit of mud, which they fling all over their bodies. The mud acts as natural sunblock and cooling aid, and it also keeps parasitic bugs from laying eggs in the folds of their skin. So our job was to make the mud pit more comfortable for the eles, but I don’t really see how we did that.

Mud pit

Mud pit (thanks to Christine Barnett for the photo)

We waded into the muck and scooped water out with buckets, chucking it into the grass. A park employee then immediately refilled the hole with a hose that sucked water from the river. Next, we dug in the muck with our fingers and pulled up any rocks we found—although they were as likely as not to be clods of manure. All this work for the half of the mud pit that we never saw the eles enter; they stayed on the other side, out of the water, on solid ground. So what were we doing? The only possible response to such a seemingly pointless task was to go all in, so of course we got in a mud fight. Followed immediately by a dip in the river and a quick shower. No shower, no dinner!

This doesn't look like work, but trust me, I'm searching for rocks with my toes. (Ow.)

This doesn’t look like work, but trust me, I’m searching for rocks with my toes. Ow. (Thanks to Julie Warren for the photo.)

That afternoon, we stood up in the back of a pickup truck and drove out of the park for about 10 minutes, and parked in a lay-by. We scrambled up the bank of the hill on the side of the road and everyone started hacking away at bamboo with small shears and secateurs.

Standing in the back of a pickup was scary

Standing in the back of a pickup was scary

We formed a human chain and passed armloads of leafy bamboo branches down the hill. I stood at the bottom and threw them all in a ditch to form a large pile, which we later trucked back to the camp.

Cutting bamboo

Cutting bamboo

We stripped the leaves off the stalks in the ele kitchen and put them in baskets for the eles with high blood pressure. That done, we went to the skywalk outside to watch the eles use the mud pit we’d fixed up that morning.

Founder Lek is the woman in the center of the photo

Founder Lek is the woman in the center of the photo

The baby elephant, Navaan, was 3 months old and mischievous. He would run to the pit, nuzzle his mom and the two elephants who acted as nanny and grandmother, then awkwardly canter out again, and the mahouts would have to chase him back. The adult eles formed a protective circle around Navaan in the mud pit, and while they stood still and moved only their trunks in lazy arcs, to slap mud on their backs, the little ele never stopped moving. He just fit under the stomachs of the adults, and he’d push his way through from under one patient ele to the next, nibbling at the mud with his trunk, scratching his side against the leg of his mother, and generally having fun. It was delightful to watch.

Mud pit nuzzling

Mud pit nuzzling

There’s one mahout per elephant, and it’s meant to be a lifelong partnership of trust, although of course it doesn’t always work out that way. We learned about the awful ways most mahouts learn to interact with their eles, starting with the phajaan and through to using the metal hook when they’re riding or guiding them. Phajaan, or “the crush,” is the breaking process whereby a young elephant is taken from his mother for the first time in his life, put in a wooden cage almost too small for him, and beaten with sticks topped with nails by many shouting men. The beating goes on for at least three days, during which time the elephant is denied sleep and food, and must learn to obey commands to step into shackling ropes to limit her own movement. This is the traditional taming method used by elephant trainers in India and Southeast Asia; its proponents believe that an elephant must fear its mahout in order to ensure obedience and the safety of the mahout. When we drove out to the cornfield on our first day of work, we saw tourists riding in chairs on the backs of elephants from the nearby resorts, and the mahouts who sat on the ele necks beat the ele heads and ears with their hooks. How you could see that and continue riding on the elephant, I don’t know.

enpThe mahouts at the Elephant Nature Park have had to relearn how to interact with the elephants, and they mostly use a reward system of bananas. They all carry cloth bags full of bananas, which they toss out to their elephant any time they want to encourage the elephant to move somewhere—to the river, away from the river, etc. They also use verbal cues, a short call that sounds almost exactly like the “hut! hut!” of a quarterback at the snap. (Which makes perfect sense, according to this article on how “hut” is a normal animal training sound adapted by the military and later by football teams.) Many of the mahouts at the ENP are Burmese refugees; it’s nice to be in a place that provides security for humans who have escaped persecution, and animals that have been saved from mistreatment.

Leading by banana

Leading by banana

A herd heads in for meal time

A herd heads in for meal time


4 thoughts on “Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park: Day 3

  1. Your description of the phajaan technique almost had me in tears at my desk. (Guess which Disney movie always makes me cry.) I’m glad you’re in a place where the animals are treated humanely and hope that you carry these memories, good and bad, with you.

    • No problem! I should add that if you go to a place that has a baby on show, that baby was probably acquired by very shady methods (because everyone loves a baby elephant, so people running shows will go to great lengths to get one for their show).

      There are a few other elephant parks in Thailand that are supposed to be ethically sound, and there’s at least one I’ve heard of in Laos that is also doing great things. I hope you do get to visit a place with elephants! I know you’d love it.

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