15.09.2015 - 15.09.2015
JOURNEY TO FREEDOM is a project that can't be described, it has to be experienced. It is one of those once in a lifetime, life changing experiences that impact more than just the purpose of the project itself.
Journey to Freedom is the ultimate vision of an amazing women called 'Lek' who has dedicated her life to helping elephants. Their website http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/volunteer/journeytofreedom/index.htm described the volunteer position I signed up for as follows:
Journey to Freedom was created by Elephant Nature Park in June, 2010 to allow elephants owned by the Karen tribal people to retire from trekking camps and return to living in the jungle and hills near their villages. The project enables the elephants to live a more natural life and restores the close connection that the Karen people traditionally have with their herd.
A home stay has been set up in a village south of Chiang Mai for volunteers to learn about Karen culture and watch the elephants roam freely in this remote mountainous region. Fees paid by volunteers are used to compensate the tribes-folk for the income they would have received from leasing their elephants to tourist camps. It is hoped that the interest and affection shown toward elephants will spark a similar drive amongst the younger Karen generation.
Funds from the project flow into the local school where volunteers teach English, plant elephant’s food, build elephant shelters, toilets and other community facilities. Karen women have the opportunity to trade their beautiful hand woven textiles. This community project, run in cooperation with the Karen people, provides an economic boost to the villages and benefits the entire community.
My experience is more or less as outlined. With the exception, that we didn't stay in a Homestay but in a wooden hut, 'on site' which meant miles from anywhere. It was a real back to nature experience and we were hosted, in the main, by the Karen Hill Tribe who looked after us amazingly; cooked us delicious food and basically saw that all five of us were happy and safe throughout. The nearest we came to accidents, were lost shoes in the muddy jungles or urgent tramps through undergrowth when the elephants decided they wanted to walk where we were standing. Pretty hairy on times, but all good.
As a volunteer, I also got involved in the community development aspect of the programme which I absolutely loved. It involved building a road, literally and every day after our jungle Trekking we got to meet with local children; playing with them and talking with them, so they could improve their english. On the Friday we also got to go to the village kindergarden and host a class each (or in twos) (mainly games). We stayed to help with lunch and the whole experience was an absolute delight. The excitement and pleasure shown to us by the children and teachers was evident and every moment was a pleasure.
The project is based just outside a tiny village called Mae Joom Sam, high up in the mountains about 3 hours north of Chiang Mai. It's focus is on rescuing elephants that have been abused in captivity. (Trekking camps, circus shows, logging, begging etc.). It returns them to their natural habitat, and works with them to help them learn how to be elephants again.
To fully understand the project it is necessary to share some of the experiences that these magnificent animals have been through so you have a full appreciation of the scale and enormity that faces the project. I'd also suggest you take a look at the Elephant Nature Park website as a starting point to learning more, if your interested. For now, I'll try my best to share what I learned. Keep in mind, I may have some of the detail wrong, as I'm relying on my 'amazing' memory, but I should be able to give you a flavour. I should warn you, some of it may not be easy reading.
IN THE NAME Of TOURISM
Just some of the things I learned during my time volunteering with the rescued elephants and visiting the Elephant Nature Park which I think should be shared with anyone thinking of riding an elephant.
Forced breeding (the method accepted as standard by trekking and performance camps) results in crushed pelvises of many female elephants.
Their babies are taken away from them and these mothers often fall into a depression refusing to work. This results in more cruelty and brutality as their Mahouts (elephant carer/owner) trying different tactics to continue making money out of them. One of the worst I heard of was stabbing one such elephant in the eyes until she was eventually blinded (she's one of the rescued elephants I had the pleasure of meeting)
Elephants giving rides to tourists on their backs are chained all day and night when not working. As large carnivores they eat vegetation for 20 hours a day! Sleeping for the remaining 4 hours. Or that's how it should be. Of course when working for 10 hours a day that's impossible.
Elephants are wild animals and taught to be submissive and have their spirit broken, so they can be controlled. This is done in a brutal fashion, using bull hooks, prods etc. When a tourist elephant is coming towards you and it's ears are flapping. Look close and you will usually see it's because the Mahout is jabbing it behind the ear with the bull hook to keep it going.
I mentioned that elephants should eat for 20 hours a day. Look closely at the tourist elephants and you will see their trunks sniffing along the floor, constantly searching for food. Withdrawal of food is another way the mahouts control them. Also, it's impossible for the Mahouts to feed them the varied vegetation diet they need, so generally they are fed high sugar diets of bananas, fruit etc. they like this food but it's not good for them and is often what eventually kills them. Prematurely.
It is not uncommon for the renting camp or mahout to give trekking elephants drugs, or speed, to keep them carrying tourists all day, then begging for money on the streets all night.
The performing elephants (painting pictures, playing musical instruments or doing headstands) are put through additional training methods which are the most violent form of animal abuse And often results in the deaths of the baby elephants put through it.
Street begging elephants are often seen with tell tale signs of mental illness, rocking and head bobbing, elephants have extremely sensitive feet which detect sound from miles around and help them to communicate. the city and all its noise literally drives them crazy, if they aren't hit by a car which happens often. they are often hit by cars.
ELEPHANT NATURE PARK
Lek also set up the Elephant Nature Park for the elephants she's rescued that are too damaged to live in their own environment. As part of my time in the Journey To Freedom programme, I also stayed overnight at the park where I met several of the damaged elephants. There were several rescued from Burma that had land mine injuries to their feet. Others with broken hips, legs etc. Injuries caused by working in the logging industry.
Tourist Trekking is a huge industry in Thailand that should be illegal in my view. I also think that if people were more aware of the suffering the elephants endure, so they can have a ride and take a picture less people would want to ride an elephant. It isn't a simple message though and there are lots of misconceptions around the industry.
Oh, did I also mention the Elephant Nature Park also houses 400 rescue dogs which have their own volunteer programmes along with hundreds of rescue cats. An amazing place and an absolute privilege to have been part of it, even for one week.