Walking Among the Elephants

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Posing with elephants is not necessarily the cute, care-free activity it may seem to be on social media. I actually found it to be quite intimidating. While I did manage to score a handful of quality photos, it wasn’t without some squealing and squirming. Standing next to a gigantic elephant felt like cliff jumping- your instincts tell you not to but it’s too awesome to pass up.

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My elephant journey happened alongside the volunteer crew (minus James- he stayed in Phrao for a boxing/festival event). If I’m being honest, we were fairly hungover from the night before in Chiang Mai but the headaches and nausea went away as the adrenaline kicked in. We all struggled in the morning to get up at 6am and onto the Songtaew (red pick up truck taxi) but eventually made it to the elephant camp, called Into the Wild, after an hour and half journey winding through the mountains.

As we made our way from the truck down the mountain to where the camp was, we were greeted by a mother and newborn baby elephant. The baby was only 15 days old and still blind so it looked so helpless and lost but even the more lovable. After that exciting introduction to the camp, we had a really interesting lecture by the camp owner, who spoke really good English. He explained to us that while Thailand’s elephant camp’s have a reputation for being abusive to their elephants, it is in fact the camps that keep the elephants healthy and alive (there are still better camps than others, however). We learned that while elephants traditionally were used for hard labor in Thailand, such as pushing down trees, there has since been an effort to stop using elephants this way. But since the elephants have already been raised with humans and depend on human feeding and care, they cannot be released into the wild because they will not be able to fend for themselves and will probably be killed by wild elephants. So, the alternative is to have camps, where owners can make enough money off of visitors to pay for the elephant’s food and care, without making it do hard labor. The owner of Into the Wild, for example, cares a lot for his elephants, who were rescued from people who were using them for labor and works hard operating his camp so he can have the money to keep them healthy. His insight gave me a totally new perspective on the elephant issue and also gave me relief knowing I was supporting the health of the elephants, rather than taking away from it.

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We headed into the woods after our briefing with three of the elephants walking in front of and behind us. At times, one of them would pick up speed or try to turn around and we would all have to move to accommodate them. As in every group, there was the slow one who just wanted to stop and eat and another who kept finding trees to itch herself on. The trail we walked on with them wasn’t big so sharing such a confined space with three massive animals was an adventure.

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The last big activity we did was the mud bath. All the visitors gathered around this muddy area and dumped handfuls of mud on the elephants since that is apparently something they like. Of course we also dumped mud on each other in the process…

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To clean ourselves and the elephants off, we swam in a waterhole on the site and splashed water all over the elephants until all the mud was off. Swimming around with these gigantic elephants in a body of water the size of a pond was also pretty intimidating – but really cool. They looked so happy having water splashed all over them but as soon as they got out of the water, they threw dirt all over themselves again.

Spending the morning and most of the afternoon with these creatures was unforgettable. They are very intelligent and even seemed to have human-like expressions.  Staring into their eyes was fascinating because it made me realize how much life was behind those long eyelashes. Until next time, big guys.

-Annaleigh

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