Reporter's Notebook: Elephants Heal at Thai "Heaven"

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Today
October 17, 2002

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Jennifer Hile, a freelance journalist and documentary-maker, spent two and a half months in Northern Thailand investigating the plight of domestic elephants. During her visit she sent frequent dispatches to National Geographic Today. This one describes her experience with elephant orphans and "Elephant Heaven"—a sanctuary for abused elephants founded by Sangduen "Lek" Chailert. Chailert is a well-known Chiang Mai–based activist who runs Jumbo Express, a program bringing free veterinary care to elephants.

It's not easy babysitting an elephant. I spend most of the day running around after four-month-old Geng Mai, making sure a bottle's on hand when he's hungry, and shooing him out of bamboo huts where his caregivers sleep at night.

Geng Mai was orphaned at three days old. His mother was shot after wandering into a corn plantation. When villagers stumbled on him three days later, they called Lek Chailert, who hauled him to her sister's farm in the village of Sampayang, in Northern Thailand, to nurse him back to health.

I showed up in Thailand two months ago to make a film about why Thailand's domestic elephants are in so much trouble, and what's being done to save them. It's been invaluable getting to know the animals under Lek's care. Their stories represent the plight of so many elephants here.

The first thing Geng Mai teaches me is how curious these animals are. He uses his teeny three-foot trunk to get into everything. It's the equivalent of a Hoover vacuum, a water gun, and a lawn mover. Nothing escapes his attention, including my camera. He hooks it with his trunk and fogs up my lens every time I swoop in for a close-up.

Ascent to "Heaven"

When he's older, Lek will take Geng Mai to a mountaintop sanctuary she runs called "Elephant Heaven" just an hour north of Chiang Mai. She created this place for domestic elephants she rescues from abusive owners—a big problem here.

Most mythical heavens have a bathing ritual at their entrance; this place in no exception. When Lek and I arrive at Heaven, nine adult elephants and their mahouts were waiting for us at a river that runs the base of the mountain. Elephants love baths—it's a chance to cool down, as well as wash off insects or any injuries.

From there we hitch a ride on some of the elephants up to Lek's camp—a two-hour ride to the top of the mountain. There are no seatbelts, no saddles. I sit behind the animal's head, one leg behind one of her ears, and try not to look down. For 7,000-pound Mae Perm, I am the equivalent of wearing a small backpack.

Lek's camp in Heaven is a bamboo hut in the jungle. Abused elephants live out their lives here in peace—there are no chains, nor any 12-hour workdays. It is a beautiful oasis and as far as I know, this private sanctuary is unique in Thailand.

The stories of the animals here are wrenching.

Continued on Next Page >>




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