Our guide tells us that’s why many of Thailand’s chang are blind, because the quickest way to punish an unruly elephant is to stab it in the eye. It takes a lot more work to beat one to the point of pain, since the animal’s hide is so tough.
I’m visiting a conservation center for elephants in the Mae Taeng valley, in the mountains of northern Thailand. Like my fellow visitors, I was drawn by the prospect of seeing and touching the largest creature to walk on the Earth. My hotel in Chiang Mai had given me a binder of pamphlets on nearby elephant treks and camps, but I felt guilty about riding an elephant or watching it paint and play instruments. Instead, I decided to get as close to one in its natural environment as I could.
The Elephant Nature Park is home to 35 pachyderms, who came here blind and disabled from abuse in the logging or tourism industries. The park is one of the few rescue outposts in Thailand, a country that has fewer than 5,000 elephants now, compared with 100,000 a hundred years ago. Elephants here have been hunted, chained, made to perform and beg for money on the streets of Bangkok, sold to circuses in China.
Just the day before, I’d seen elephant statues adorning Buddhist temples and elephant figurines being sold in markets as totems of luck. And yet standing here in this lush valley, my feet suctioned to the muck of the riverbed as I splash a blind elephant with water from a day-glow green bucket, I can’t help feeling that the country’s reverence for this creature seems mostly hollow.
You can’t say that about Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, though, the woman who co-founded the sanctuary in 1996. Lek is a small woman, hardly the width of an elephant trunk. At 52, she still has the long black hair of a teenager. Her smile is big enough to make her eyes squint. Raised in a nearby tribal village, she formed a strong and early bond with a chang that her family tended, which led to her work rescuing the animals. Some have dislocated hips from logging, while others have old gashes from bull hooks — a training device designed to club or jab elephants, depending on which end you use. In almost every case, Lek has needed to raise money to buy the animals from their abusers and bring them to her haven.