At one with the elephants at a sanctuary in Thailand

Lillian Cunningham / The Washington Post /


There are two dozen of us bathing elephants in the silty river. Some young Canadian women, on break from nursing school, take turns photographing each other wading into the current with the five chang, the Thai word for elephant. Farther down the bank, an Irishman who forgot his swimsuit and can’t cuff his pants up high enough drops trou and scurries into the muddy waters in his briefs.

We form a small bucket brigade to wash down the animals. Their bodies are covered in wrinkles, but not the loose ones of old age. The wrinkles on an elephant are firm, rough furrows. Even wet, they feel like sandpaper an inch thick.

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 and 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.

One of her most generous supporters is longtime American television host Bob Barker. “He is our elephant angel,” Lek says to me in her soft English.

She was on a site visit while I was at the park, so I called her a few days later to talk about her work. When Lek started the sanctuary, no one thought that she could sustain a model where visitors pay to feed invalid elephants (almost constantly) for a day, interrupted only by bathing them and hearing some educational talks. Now, about 15 years later, owners of camps across Thailand are asking for her help in converting their businesses. They’re slowly seeing that an elephant without tricks is the new premium rarity.

All day, we dance from one side of the elephants to another as they move around us. We try, as our guide, Anucha Jiwju, tells us, not to stand on their blind side. We realize just how blind they are when one elephant lopes off into the open field and runs smack into a concrete scratching block. Often the animals form pairs at the sanctuary, the seeing ones linking trunks with the blind, but this chang bolted too fast for either its partner or the mahouts — their human caretakers — to help guide it.

The elephants roam free across 250 acres of parkland, though they have such big appetites that many of them hover near us and our buckets of fruit all day. They eat even during their baths. I feed bananas directly into one elephant’s mouth and feel her huge tongue and wet gums against my hand. It makes me giggle like a 5-year-old. Others nudge acorn squash out of my hands with their trunks and feed it to themselves. But nothing makes me laugh as much as when the elephants crunch into half a watermelon, rind and all. It’s the biggest, juiciest, most joyous chomp.