Award-winning travel writer and Holiday Goddess editor Julie Miller  meets some remarkable rescue elephants in a sanctuary created by one Thai woman – and a Texan millionaire.

It’s feeding time at Elephant Nature Park, and it’s hard to tell who’s enjoying the experience more. Safely out of harm’s way on a raised bamboo platform, 20-odd day-trippers and volunteers laugh, chat, take photos and cautiously pat 30 prickly pachyderms, who’ve congregated expectantly for their daily feast of fruit salad.

This is just one of many special moments during a day at Elephant Nature Park, located in the beautiful misty mountains 60 kilometres from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Later, we’ll take the elephants to the river to wash them; then they’ll get dirty all over again, wallowing in a sticky mud pit.
Sometimes we’ll just sit quietly, and watch the elephants interact with each other.

Here, nothing is staged for the visitors. There are no demonstrations of strength or working ability, no rides or treks and no displays of musical or artistic talent. At this peaceful and inspirational sanctuary, it’s all about elephants being elephants. And it couldn’t be more entertaining.

Every elephant on this 18-hectare sanctuary has a story to tell, each tale more heart-wrenching than the next. Some are blind, while others have been horrendously maimed, beaten and abused in the course of their work in the logging or trekking industries.

There are several orphaned babies, rescued from certain death and given the chance to join a new extended family. There are even some with a violent past, rogues who, in a fit of anger turned on their mahouts, causing injury and even death.

The driving force behind Elephant Nature Park is as diminutive in stature as her pachyderm charges are enormous. Her name is Sangduen Chailert, better known as Lek (meaning ‘small one’) a gorgeous Thai woman who has devoted her life to rescuing elephants and fighting for their rights.

Born into a hill tribe community in Northern Thailand, Lek grew up around elephants, and her bond with these creatures is clear to anyone who sees her in action. As well as running this property – donated to Lek’s mission by a Texas millionaire – she also has an 800-hectare mountain jungle patch she calls ‘elephant haven’, where the elephants can roam free for several days at a time.

She also operates a free mobile vet clinic called ‘Jumbo Express’, checking on the health and wellbeing of elephants in surrounding elephant camps. Many of her charges at Elephant Nature Park have been discovered during these forays – Lek then buys the abused elephants, often at exorbitant prices, to bring them back to her sanctuary.

Lek’s conservation efforts have been widely recognised and applauded – in 2001 she was named National Geographic Society’s ‘Hero of the Planet’, while in 2005 she was honoured as Time Magazine’s ‘Asian Hero of the Year’. But her efforts are not without controversy – many elephant owners treat her with suspicion and contempt; she’s even had death threats made to both herself and her elephants.

While the Thai government has its own programs designed to protect its national symbol, Lek’s park receives no government funding or support; it relies totally on donations from benefactors and the efforts of volunteers, who come for a week at a time to mend fences, slash corn, and pick up elephant dung – loads and loads of it.

But manure never smelt so sweet, and hard work was never so rewarding.

Elephant Nature Park

Images: Christian Haugen at Flickr.