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Eye of Heaven

A gray trunk stretches over the wooden barrier in search of a hand that may provide watermelon, corn, or pumpkin. Jokia, a 10,000 pound Asian elephant, is blind. Her Mahoot, or elephant keeper, spends nearly every waking minute by her side. He guides her through her natural routine of grazing, eating fruits and vegetables, taking cool baths in the river and relaxing under the shade trees. Because the tear-ducts in her eyes aren’t functional, herbal salve is rubbed around her eyes every few hours to keep her skin from becoming chapped. The thick ointment makes her appear as if she is crying.

“Thailand was built on the backs of elephants,” says Ern, one of 70 employees at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For thousands of years, the people of Thailand have used elephants for farming, hauling resources, assembling buildings and traveling cross-country. Elephants often spend hours with their owners in the hills pulling down rubber trees and hauling logs to designated areas where the trees are chopped into timber and loaded on to a wagon that the elephant will pull to a lumber processing center. All over Thailand, elephants can be seen walking with their mahoots along roadsides and through villages hauling timber.

Jokia was found walking alongside a country road, pulling a load of rubber tree logs. A young woman named Sangduen Chailert, better known as “Lek,” was walking along the same road when she noticed the elephant. The owner was straddling its neck and jabbing his heals into the sides of its head to make it go faster. Lek realized that the elephant was blind. She stopped the owner and asked what had happened to the elephant to cause her blindness. The owner told her that the animal had misbehaved and he had taught it a lesson. Lek asked him what the elephant had done to deserve such a lesson. Without hesitation, he told her the story.

A few months back, the owner and his elephant were working on a hillside pulling lumber to a collection bin at the top. The elephant was pregnant at the time but he needed her to finish the day’s work. Instead, she went into labor. He pushed her to the top of the hill where she gave birth. The hill was too steep and after the baby hit the ground, it rolled to the bottom. The mother ran down the hill to save her baby. She was too late.

For weeks, the elephant mourned, refusing to work.

Finally, in order to get her to work, the owner gouged out one of her eyes. She turned to attack him, so he cut out the other eye with a bamboo rod.

Lek asked the man how much he would sell the elephant for and made arrangements to bring her to the elephant sanctuary. She named the elephant Jokia. It means “Eye of Heaven.”

Thailand’s culture has always held the image of elephants in high regard, worshiping them as gods and treating their image with utmost respect. In thousands of businesses and households throughout Thailand, statues of elephants decorate shelves and counter tops. The Thai god, Phra Phikanet, bringer of good fortune and remover of obstacles, has the head of an elephant as a sign of great respect. However, because most elephants have been used for labor for so many years, Thailand’s government categorizes them as domestic livestock which excludes them from any governmental protection that a wild or endangered animal would have. It is legal to mistreat domestic animals. Wild elephants are categorized differently than elephants used for labor. Since wild elephants have never interacted with people, they are considered by the Thai government as wildlife that cannot be captured, domesticated, or harmed in any way. Domestic elephants cannot be released into the wild. Out of 4,000 elephants that inhabit Thailand, 2-3,000 of them are wild. Due to limited reinforcement of the law, it is legally easier to kidnap a wild baby elephant and domesticate it than it is to release a rehabilitated elephant back into the wild.

Hill tribe villages are small communities located in the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand. These tribes have existed for centuries and are governed by specific traditions based on superstitious myths that came into belief long ago. While the tribes are technically under the Thai government jurisdiction, officials rarely regulate them.

Lek is five and a quarter feet tall and is as slender as bamboo. Two long, ebony braids hang from under a dark brown hat. She wears a black short sleeve shirt and matching pants tucked under shin-high black rubber boots. Her cinnamon complexion accentuates a bright smile that is always at the ready. She smells of rich dirt and watermelon after having prepared over 30 elephant sized lunches. Lek grew up in a small hill tribe village in the mountains North of Chiang Mai. Her father was the Shaman and leader of the village and taught her everything he knew in the art of herbal medicinal healing and animal husbandry. When she was young, Lek’s father gave her a baby elephant as a gift. She instantly fell in love with it and was diligent in its care. When she was 13, the elephant died of respiratory complications. From then on, she swore to always care for any injured, sick or abandoned elephant that crossed her path.

Lek started a small rehabilitation facility for abused elephants in 1995. It was called Elephant Haven Rehabilitation Center. A young female journalist aided in acquiring the funds and the land for the project. Word spread about an elephant sanctuary and it soon became apparent that more land was needed to house the number of elephants that were being donated. A man from Texas, Bird Van Romer, who had never met Lek or visited the center, was so moved by the project that he decided to contribute enough money to buy 50 acres of jungle and resources to build a visitor’s center, a food preparation unit, an elephant clinic, and dormitories for employees and volunteers. Lek was able to build a full-scale sanctuary, employ 70 people, feed 1,000 pounds of food to each of the 34 elephants on a daily basis, and open a beautiful viewing deck for visitors. She named it, “Elephant Nature Park.” Now, the park’s primary source of income is from visitor contributions.

Lunch is ready to be served. Volunteers and visitors are given the opportunity to feed the elephants a healthy lunch.

Several years after the Elephant Nature Park opened its doors, Lek received a phone call about a distressed wild baby elephant that was found in the jungle. The mother had died shortly after giving birth to the infant and it was estimated that he had been alone for three days. When Lek arrived, she found the baby huddled next to his mother, nodding his head under her trunk. Squeaks escaped his shriveled body as he tried to nudge closer to her.

Lek knew that the infant would die soon if they didn’t get him to the sanctuary. She had brought several bottles of liquid formula to feed him, but he wouldn’t budge from his mother’s side. After hours of diligent persuasion, Lek and her team of volunteers were able to load him up in the truck and take him to the sanctuary.

The whites of the infant’s eyes seemed to glow in the moonlight as he darted around his new enclosure at the sanctuary. After hours of pacing, he collapsed in a corner of the building, exhausted. For three days and nights, Lek stayed awake, force feeding him formula every few minutes, but the infant hardly moved from the spot where he had collapsed. Lethargic and feverish, he could barely drink. “He had lost all hope,” said Lek, recalling the incident, “I thought I was going to lose him for good.” By the middle of the third night, Lek had reached the point of complete fatigue. She fell into a deep sleep.

In the morning, she awoke to a small trunk nuzzling her face. The baby was standing in front of her, his tiny tail whipping back and forth. He gave a high pitched squeal as he followed Lek across the enclosure to the formula cabinet. Lek expressed her astonishment, as she watched the week-old infant drinking bottle after bottle of formula. “I gave him the only name that made sense,” she said, “I named him Hope.”

Hope is the only Elephant Nature Park resident that is considered a “wild elephant” by Thailand government definition and is the only one that can be released back into the wild.

This little elephant is not Hope, he was born at the sanctuary by a female elephant who had had her back broken during a violent mating ritual. The baby and his mother are safe now at the Elephant Nature Park.

The “Crush”

The Pa Jon. Among individuals at the Elephant Nature Park, the name is whispered. Faces tighten, neck veins stretch and become visible and tears even threaten to slide from the corners of eyes when asked to talk about it. The Pa Jon is an ancient ceremony conducted by the elders of a hill tribe. It is based on a ritual that dominated hill tribe culture for several hundred years. It is the method of domesticating a juvenile elephant by separating it from its mother and family and forcing it to rely on humans. When an elephant is five to seven years old, still dependent on its mother and the rest of the herd, the men of the village capture it and confine it in a cage made of bamboo rods that force the elephant to stand up straight. The elephant is kept in this cage for at least three days and nights without food, water, or companionship. The men in the village take sharp sticks and stab at the elephant’s feet, ears, and trunk, the sensitive areas of the body, for the duration of the ceremony.

This process is thought to sever the elephant’s spirit from its mother and meld it to the village so the elephant will feel compelled after the ceremony to work for the good of the villagers. Nearly 97% of the population of domestic elephants that are used for labor, tour agencies and entertainment venues have passed through the Pa Jon. Many times, Lek is called to Pa Jon ceremonies to clean wounds and give antibiotics to the elephants after a ceremony. One male elephant that Lek treated was confined to the Pa Jon for five days and nights. “They still continue to do this after all these years and they fail to see the harm they do to the elephant,” she said. “The young people of the tribes are starting to understand that the Pa Jon is medieval and unnecessary, but the tribe leaders are stubborn. It is going to take another generation before we start seeing a positive change.”

The elephant on the left is a female who's back was broken during a mating ritual that went violently wrong. At the park, she is safe and able to enjoy time with fellow elephants and her mahoot.

Thailand’s number one economic source is tourism. If a visitor wants an elephant ride through the jungles of Chiang Mai, numerous companies will provide that service. The chairs that fit on an elephant’s back, used for tourist safaris, weigh at least 100 pounds each and are very painful for an elephant to wear. Lek spends much of her time teaching owners new ways of caring for their elephants. For example, she suggests using a lighter seat strapped around the elephant’s neck so one individual could sit behind its head, where its bone structure is strongest, rather than on its back. The elephant could work more hours without straining its body. Positive reinforcement, less work, more time to graze and more baths promote good health and a happy elephant that will live longer and work harder and is therefore, more economical.

An elephant tooth. One of the learning tools used to demonstrate how large elephants can get.  

Alas, Lek has made little progress with elephant tour companies and businesses that exploit elephants for tourism. “But, if tourists know that these actions are detrimental to an elephant’s health and they witness or learn about the atrocities elephants suffer, then maybe they would be more interested in spending their money at places where elephants are healthy and relaxed,” Lek said.

Across Thailand, ecotourism is beginning to spread. More wildlife sanctuaries are utilizing tourism to get appropriate messages across that the mistreatment of elephants is not profitable and shouldn't be tolerated. The majority of Thai people respect and honor elephants and are disgusted to see them treated wrongfully. Now, with programs to educate tourists of the inner workings of a few specific businesses, visitors are encouraged to spend their money at other places like the Elephant Nature Park, where they can view elephants in their natural setting. “It is much more fun to be able to feed watermelon by hand to an elephant and give it a bath than it is to ride it through the jungle,” said Stephanie Giannoulis, a student volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park. Visitors are invited to eat at the Park’s buffet for lunch and afterward watch a documentary about the treatment of elephants and tourism.

Jokia is one of the many elephants who enjoys meeting visitors and plucking melon from their eager hands. When Jokia arrived at the Elephant Nature Park 20 years ago, she was greeted by three other elephants. Lek remembers being concerned about the elephants accepting the new arrival into their herd. Jokia stood alone in the middle of the park; her trunk stretched out and waved back and forth in the morning mist. Soon, the three elephants appeared and one by one, soft as feathers, they touched their trunks to Jokia’s eyes.

August 11, 2015

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