Academic journal article Gender Forum

The Mother of Elephants: 'Lek' Chailert, Elephant Nature Park, and the Gendering of Elephant Husbandry (Op-Ed)

Academic journal article Gender Forum

The Mother of Elephants: 'Lek' Chailert, Elephant Nature Park, and the Gendering of Elephant Husbandry (Op-Ed)

Article excerpt

Today we celebrate Lek, who devotes her life to helping the elephants of Thailand. With trunks full of love and passion Lek is changing lives everyday and today we celebrate the mother of the Asian Elephant of Thailand.

- Patty Enp

Elephant Heaven

1Often described as 'elephant heaven', Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a verdant sanctuary located in Chiang Mai Province in Northern Thailand. Begun in 1995 by Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert with a single elephant, ENP is now home to over sixty elephants rescued from the illegal logging industry, trekking camps, circuses, street begging, and other forms of animal labor including forced breeding. [1] Here, the elephants wander across open grass, wallow in mud baths, play with 'toys' specifically designed for physical and mental enrichment, and - in some cases - receive special diets for digestive or dental problems as well as medical treatment for wounds or long-term disabilities. They are not, however, the park's sole residents. A veritable Noah's Ark, ENP also houses rescued cows, some twenty water buffalo, more than two hundred cats, and over four hundred dogs. It also plays host to a steady stream of elephant-loving humans from across the globe.

2Tourists wishing to visit ENP can choose between booking a day excursion or a weeklong stay; those staying at least a week are designated as 'volunteers'. [2] The park has offered a form of 'voluntourism' since its inception. Broadly defined, voluntourism (or volunteer tourism) is a form of travel in which participants pay to volunteer in development or conservation-oriented projects (Conran; McGehee; Mostafanezhad; Rattan et al.). Not only has voluntourism generated a growing body of scholarly literature, it is also now one of the fastest growing alternative tourism markets in the world (Conran 1454). Volunteers at ENP pay 12,000 Thai baht (approximately $400 US) for the privilege of living at and 'working' for the park ("Visit and Volunteer"). Because the park is privately owned and does not receive financial assistance from the Thai government or a private sponsor, its survival depends wholly on the income generated by tourism and donations (Rattan 6). [3] The accommodations consist of dorm-like rooms equipped with beds, ceiling fans, and mosquito nets. Although some rooms have en-suite bathrooms, the majority of volunteers share common bathroom facilities and showers. Meals are served buffet-style, include both Thai and western cuisine, but are vegetarian in keeping with Chailert's own beliefs.

3Volunteers, who can number over fifty in a given week, are divided into teams. The teams are assigned a rotation of duties to help maintain the park and its nonhuman residents. Common duties include cleaning the elephant shelters, unloading truckloads of fruits and vegetables and then washing them, clearing the park grounds of elephant dung and uneaten fodder, and traveling offsite to harvest banana stalks or corn. Other duties may involve general park maintenance, such as fence construction or tree planting. Typically each team will receive both a morning and an afternoon task, most of which involve physical labor. One afternoon 'task', however, usually consists of a guided, educational tour through the park during which volunteers learn the histories of individual elephants. During this time they are also given ample opportunity to observe the elephants in close proximity as well as enjoy limited contact with them, for example, by feeding them fruit. Volunteers are also welcome to take part in the twice daily snack feedings and almost daily bathings that are held for single-day visitors. It should be noted that the hand-feeding of elephants is strictly controlled. Visitors and volunteers are only allowed to feed specific elephants (in most cases, fully grown adults with mild temperaments), and the snack baskets are customized according to the elephant's age, nutritional needs, and dental health.

4I visited ENP twice in 2015. …

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