When most people think of
elephant parks, they usually think of tourist traps ripping off farangs and
treating elephants poorly. But the Maetang Elephant Park, located 50 km north of
Chiang Mai, is totally different.
This park cares about its
elephants and the majority of its profits are plowed back into the park to
improve the lives of the pachyderms, their mahouts and the conditions in the
The park believes in the
sanctity of the elephant. But the park is also saving the rich heritage of the
Karen mahouts. These mahouts, themselves an endangered species, don't have a
great track record, once they leave their chosen profession. Many, because of
lack of skills in other fields, turn to crime, which is very sad because they
really do possess an extraordinary skill, which Maetang is trying to foster and
The park was started five years
ago by the five Chailert sisters: their aim being to stop the elephants from
being used for logging and to get them off of the streets of the cities. They
took a simple rice paddy and transformed it into a beautiful park, which is now
home to forty-three elephants and their handlers. The mahouts sleep in bamboo
huts or hammocks besides the elephants.
At night, the elephants cover
themselves in mud and dirt to prevent insect bites. In the morning, the mahouts
then wash them off in the river providing a lively and entertaining show for
visitors to the camp.
The Chailert's oldest sister,
Songun, has since gone her own way, and the youngest, Ben, is not as involved in
the running of the camp, so its Wassana, Parvay and Phetrin who now run the
Two of the sisters have married
farangs: Parvay marrying American Ken McGregor, an interior/exterior designer;
and Phetrin marrying American Greg Sayles, who is in the construction business.
And these Americans have played a large role in trying to improve the park.
Ken McGregor says the park uses
Karen mahouts because, "they have a special relationship with their
charges. They sleep with them, bathe with them and they will rarely rent their
elephants out. Karens tend to keep their elephants within their families, so a
father will pass an elephant on to his son, or a brother will pass one on to his
brother. This means that they tend to take better care of their elephants and
understand their needs better."
The Karens are a nomadic race,
having originated in Tibet and traveled to Thailand through China, Burma and
Laos. These mahouts luckily can be granted hilltribe status, which allows them
to stay in Thailand.
The downside of making logging illegal in Thailand was that aside from walking the city streets, the elephants needed to find work. You've probably heard the numbers before, there are now only 3,000 domestic elephants left in Thailand and a another 2-3,000 in the wild, whereas in 1900 there were 100,000 elephants working in Thailand. The Asian elephant is truly an endangered species.
One of the problems associated with elephants forced into logging is that unfortunately many are force fed multiple amphetamines to get them to work harder and quicker. This can shorten an elephant's life in half, as well as provide for a number of very uncomfortable side effects for the pachyderm.
The mahouts in the camp carry
with them a nail, or small hook, to prod the animal if it gets out of line. Some
may think this is cruel but while the elephant is basically a very gentle
animal, remember it can kill you in a second.
Luckily, Maetang, hasn't had any
nasty incidents, although it did have a bull in heat ("musth"), who
just before he decided to take off and charge through the jungle, took the
Japanese tourist, which was on its back and calmly deposited him on the branch
of a large tree (the Japanese guy by the way loved it, and is now a hero in his
hometown.) When elephants do go into musth, the park separates them from the
herd and puts them on a special diet of pumpkins and bananas cut into small
sections and large amounts of water.
The park rents the elephant and
mahout for Bt8,000 a month. It then takes care of all the elephant's and
mahout's needs e.g. in the past, mahouts have been scared to tell other camps
that their elephant is sick for fear of losing their jobs, but Maetang urges its
handlers to be straight with them, and tells the mahouts it will pay for their
medical expenses, and, in exchange, simply asks the mahouts do odd-jobs, like
cut the grass, until their elephant is better.
Maetang will not necessarily
rush sick elephants to the Elephant Hospital in Lampang, unless they are
seriously ill. You see, the elephants themselves have an amazing ability to find
the cure for what ails them in the wild itself - "elephant medicine" I
As the elephants eat so much -
up to 300 kg of corn, grass, and sugar cane a day - the park has a problem of
regenerating its surrounding area of 200 rai, so it has gone on a massive tree
planting campaign. This is a problem that elephants in the wild don't face as
their migratory pattern allows their grazing areas to replenish themselves.
The park does have the elephants
put on a daily skill, dexterity and logging display but this is done in a way so
as not to exploit them, but to show their intelligence. Maetang wants to prove
that they can follow and execute commands and to show that they do have that
great memory associated with them. And although you will see them kick a soccer
ball and dunk a basketball, Ken McGregor, says, "We want to minimize the
circus tricks, that's just not what the elephants are all about."
The park's webmaster is Philip
Ward (firstname.lastname@example.org). He
designed the park's website and it's the only site he will work on. Philip is
driven and is dedicated to seeing that elephants stay on this planet for as long
as possible. He wants to see the plight of the elephants get as
muchpublicity as that of the humpback whale. He has even gone out into the homes of the mahouts and taught them English for free, in the hope of having them be better able to communicate their problems and concerns to Maetang.
* An adult can run at speeds of
up to 22 km per hour
* Working elephants have a
career of about 50 years
* They can live for eighty years
* Their large soft feet
distribute their weight without crushing the ground
* They beat any animal or
machine for their ability to move through a jungle with minimal environmental
* Elephants have small eyes in
comparison to the size of their head, and are short-sighted. But they do have a
wonderful sense of smell, and their large ears amplify sound. These attributes
alert them to danger long before it sees any threat.
* Asian elephants are smaller
than African elephants and have much smaller ears.
* Elephants without tusks can
actually be stronger than those with tusks.
* When a male elephant is in
"musth" glands behind the ears secrete an oily substance with a
pungent aroma that attracts the female. The substance flows slowly from the ear,
along the cheek and finally into the mouth. At this point, if a bull has not
found a mate, he will go berserk.
* Elephants mothers carry their
calves for 22 months
* Just before an elephant gives
birth, she will choose a midwife because after giving birth, she can become
agitated and easily crush her baby calf underfoot. The midwife, therefore,
stands over the baby to protect it from harm, and also breaks the placenta by
pulling at it with its trunk or rolling the baby over to break the membrane. The
midwife will stay with the mother and baby constantly for the first few days,
then it becomes the baby's aunt, and will help care for it until adulthood.
* The white elephant is not
truly white, it's multicolored. To be a true white elephant, the animal must have
seven colors on its body: white, yellow, green, black, purple, and steel gray
with a general skin tone of whitish gray. It will have white eyes and white
nails (20 in total, two more than an average elephant). It will have some white
hair and Thai folklore has it will be fragrant smelling and it will definitely
not snore when it sleeps.
* The average age of sexual
maturity is 13.
* Elephant males can pleasure
themselves by rubbing against the trunk of a tree.
* Between the ages of three to
five, baby elephants are weaned from their mother, when they are put in a
holding frame made out of logs and rope, and are unable to move for a period of
three to five days. Two mahouts play good cop, bad cop, during this time in an
attempt to break the elephant's will, so that it is able to live independent of
* Similar to whales and
dolphins, elephants make sounds (elephant language if you will) that allows them
to communicate with each other, so for example, during the weaning process,
although the mother cannot go near the baby she will know it is alright.
* The Maetang Elephant logo
represents a female elephant who was killed after being hit by lightning and her
baby. The baby was brought back to camp but unfortunately wouldn't take to
another mother and unfortunately died soon after its mother.
(Source: Lonely Planet, Maetang
website & Ken McGregor)
Tel: (053) 844818, 844914
Fax: (053) 844818
E-Mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org