World Elephant Day, which occurred on August 12th, is a global campaign to help raise awareness of the dangers and cruelties elephants worldwide face everyday. In Africa and Asia, these gentle giants are slaughtered for their valuable ivory tusks which are used to make jewelry, statues and a variety of other household art. In Asia, elephants are used extensively in the tourism and logging industry.
Like most people who have visited Asia, I never gave thought to how a mammoth animal can be so well trained to let humans sit on their back for a joy ride. Nor did I ever wonder how an 11,000 pound body can perform such amazing acrobatic feats in circuses around the world.
I soon found out when I met Lek Chailert at her elephant sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chailert has devoted her life to recusing elephants and educating the world on the horrors that they face in the tourism and logging industries.
Born in the rural villages in Northern Thailand, Chailert was rescuing and caring for ailing animals since childhood. As an adult, Chailert channeled her energy into raising awareness about the abusive tactics used to “train” elephants.
Elephants, by nature, are very friendly but incredibly protective of their families and themselves. To have an elephant abandon their natural defenses, their “mahout” must first break the will of the elephant. This is a torturous process of which I will spare you the details. But I encourage you to research this practice. Having witnessed parts of this practice myself, I can tell you that it is not only cruel, but barbaric.
I first visited Elephant Nature Park in 2013 as a guest of Chailert who allowed me to document the work that the hundreds of employees and volunteers accomplish on a daily basis. When I first met Jokia, a 55 year old female who was blinded by harsh work in a logging camp, I was moved by the hard lives these elephants had lived. Land mine accidents and scars from “training” are visible on many of the elephants that Chailert has rescued. Besides the physical pain, almost every elephant has lived much of their long lives in emotional distress.
Elephant Nature Park was founded on the premise that elephant tourism can be accomplished in a safe and healthy environment for the animals. Instead of riding on the back of an elephant, day visitors bathe and feed the elephants on their afternoon trip to the river. Instead of performing tricks in a circus like environment, the elephants play with old tires to the delight of visitors who fire off photographs at a rapid pace. Chailert travels throughout Asia on a mission to convince elephant tourism operators that responsible business practices, not just elephant riding, can also lead to a profitable business. So far in 2015, she has freed almost 100 elephants from abusive situations.
Elephant Nature Park doesn’t only cater to elephants. On site, there is over 500 dogs, many of whom were rescued from the catastrophic floods of Bangkok in 2011. Chailert’s husband Darrick Thomson, a Canadian who moved to Chiang Mai after meeting his wife, has a soft spot for the dogs that roam in the numerous “runs” across the road from the elephant’s land. Elephant Nature Park Dogs provides vets, medicine and a home for these forgotten K9s. With over 200 cats, countless water buffalo, and even a recent rescue of a starving horse, Chailert refuses to turn away any animal in need, and continues to obtain more land in order to expand her rescue efforts.
I have met many people in my extensive travels, but none have inspired me more than Lek Chailert. To watch her compassion and determination to provide all animals the happy, fearless life they deserve is truly amazing.
I returned to see Chailert and Thomson this last March and spent almost a week filming the tireless work that they do in order to save as many animals as possible. While my final films are not yet ready, you can see a small teaser of an afternoon at Elephant Nature Park in the above film. I have also assembled some of my favorite images from my time with the amazing people who devote their lives to saving these beautiful animals.
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All photos by Michael Bonocore.