Visit to an elephant conservation camp - Monday, March 15, 2004

Chiang Mai is filled with travel agents offering many types of hill-tribe treks, cooking school classes, and elephant camp visits. We decided not to go to one of the touristy elephant camps after learning about Elephant Heaven, an elephant conservation center. It turns out that most of these tourist outfits don't treat their elephants very well - overworked and controlled with ropes and chains. We would have never known this and gladly taken a trip with one of those of those outfitters had we not stumbled upon Elephant Heaven.

As we described from our visit to Pai, the air in Northern Thailand is full of soot and ash as people are burning down the forest to make room for more farmland. As the population continues to boom and clear the land, wild elephants are left with no space to roam. Also, domesticated elephants, whose occupation was logging until it was banned in '89, have no understanding of how to live without their handlers. These domestic elephants are now employed at elephant camps for tourists or can be seen with their mahouts (handlers) begging for food on the streets of Bangkok. Wild elephant numbers have dropped by 95 percent over the last century!

Elephant Heaven is a conservation camp founded by Sangduen "Lek" Chailert for abused working elephants. Lek also provides free elephant medical care to anyone who asks throught the country. At her camp, elephants live without chains for the first time in their lives or are born into a life of freedom. Follow this link to learn more about the camp and the some of the herd we met during our visit.

It took us an hour to drive to the hills where we ate lunch and watched a National Geographic video which won a bunch of awards (Genesis Award, a Cine Golden Eagle Award, a Finalist Award at the International Wildlife Film Festival, and was nominated for an Emmy). Good stuff. It was a tear jerker and gave us an appreciation for Lek's hard work. We learned about the trials and tribulations these animals were put through in their working lives. After the video, we got to hang out with these gentle giants now living in freedom for the first time in their lives. Lek (the founder), the mahouts (elephant handlers), and the volunteers love these animals and just want to provide these animals a bit of peace.





Too bad we didn't know about this place earlier in our trip, or we would have spent a few weeks there volunteering.

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