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 camp. 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 develop.

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 show. 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 guess. 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 (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). 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 much publicity 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.

Fascinating Facts:

* An adult can run at speeds of up to 22km per hour.

* Working elephants have a career of about 50 years.

* They can live for eighty years or more.

* 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 damage.

* 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 its mother.

* 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)

Contact Info:

Tel: (053) 844818, 844914

Mobile: 01-8839688

Fax: (053) 844818

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