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December 30, 2011

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A working holiday with the elephants

GUESTS volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park don't have phone service or television, and Internet access is limited to a single area. But what they get instead of TV is ele-vision, all day long.

They can see elephants eating, playing in the mud, bathing and even floating in a river. They can watch large family groups and their ever-shifting relationships, which one observer compared to a soap opera.

And while first impressions might suggest there is nothing subtle about a six-ton animal, by the end of a stay at the Elephant Nature Park, most guests come to realize there's a lot about elephants that's easy to miss.

There's the rubbery rasp as they exhale through the trunk, the leathery skin and sharp bristly hair, the pink-orange patch between the eyes, and the freckles that run down the trunk and across the lower part of the ears.

I learned all of this during a week of observing and helping out at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai province, northern Thailand. The park is home to 36 elephants, most of them rescued from handlers who had them begging for food in the streets or hauling timber, carrying tourists on treks, or doing tricks in "elephant shows." The elephant is Thailand's national symbol, but tame elephants are considered livestock. Most of the park's elephants endured brutal training and decades of work, and some are now disabled. A few have been crippled by land mines.

The Elephant Nature Park offers sanctuary and a calmer life, and its founders are hoping to show Thailand that there is another way to treat elephants. They believe that tourists will come to Thailand to see elephants in a more natural setting.

The elephants include family groups surrounding the park's babies, Chang Yim and Faa Mai, rambunctious bull Hope, and duos like Jokia and Mae Perm. Jokia is blind, and Mae Perm has become her "seeing-eye elephant." The elephants have deep and complex bonds, but there are often conflicts and jealousies. The elephants also have personality to match their size, and their trunks give them an almost endless variety of facial expressions.

The park is home to more than just elephants. It's become an animal preserve of its own, hosting a water buffalo, a few horses and other animals.

Some areas of Thailand, including Bangkok and parts of Chiang Mai, were flooded earlier this year, but the park noted on its website that it was unaffected by the floods in part because its "strong river wall" protected it from the waters. According to the latest US State Department travel alert, floodwaters have mostly receded and the situation in damaged areas is improving.

The Elephant Nature Park offers a series of packages starting with day trips costing about US$80 per person, while a week's stay as a volunteer costs under US$400 per person, including food and a place to sleep. The newer rooms are spacious and the park is building new rooms quickly. There isn't all that much privacy and the accommodations are pretty Spartan - there's no hot water - but the food is delicious.

Volunteers spend three or four hours a day working at the park. They mash up bananas and clean fruit in the elephant kitchen, plant trees and sugar cane, build fences, and clean the elephant shelters. Yes, that means we paid them to let us shovel elephant dung.

But it's worth the work to see and interact with elephants in a way you won't get if you're just riding them or watching them perform.


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