Elephant sanctuary

In Chiang Mai we spent a day at an elephant sanctuary, where elephants have been rescued (bought with government assistance) from a life of hard labour and cruelty. Most have visible signs of abuse such as cuts, missing tusks and even holes punched in their ears, where they were previously chained to a tree.

The ones we visited now lead much happier lives and we had a great time feeding them, walking with them, giving them a mud massage and then showering them. Although I’ve seen elephants before, in zoos and on safari in Africa, I learned a lot. Here are some of my observations.

They are eating machines

In the morning we were given a bucket of bananas to feed the elephants. I asked whether they should be peeled first. One of the handlers found this hilarious, even mimicking me “should I peel this?” Fine, I thought huffily. I was only trying to be considerate.

As the day went on it became clear how ludicrous my question was. An elephant will basically consume an entire tree and fibrous balls of poop will emerge from the other end. What the hell is happening inside that thing? It’s not as if a lot of chewing is going on either – they just crunch up the tree into swallowable chunks. I know elephants have a poor digestive system and don’t take up a lot of nutrients from what they eat but still, the transformation of material between entry and exit points is astounding.

They like to be pampered

The elephants submitted to a massage as easily as I do. Once in the water they lay down and dozed, with just the end of their trunks poking out of the water for breath.

They are intelligent

The elephants have been trained to understand and respond to certain commands, including:

  • Kep kep – food coming by trunk
  • Bon bon – raise your trunk, food coming by mouth
  • Di di di – good boy/girl
  • Toi – back up, you’re about to trample the nice tourists who are trying to feed you

That trunk is everywhere

An elephant’s trunk contains over 40,000 muscles and if you have food, it will find it. If you’re not careful with your bucket of bananas it will hoover up a  bunch of 15+ bananas straight into its mouth. If you don’t monitor the elephant around your newly growing banana trees it will uproot them out of the ground before you even realise it.

They are motivating

We walked up a hill to cut bamboo and sugarcane for them to eat. With two elephants lumbering up the hill behind me I wasn’t complaining about the heat, or stopping for a rest, or asking “are we there yet?” I was just moving as quickly as I could. They’re excellent exercise companions.

If you ever get the chance to go to one of these places I recommend it – it was one of the best days of our trip so far.

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