I received heart-breaking news on the morning of March 5th, 2013. An elephant I had befriended at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai had passed away during the night.
Little is known about the abusive and tragic history of Kwanjai before she was rescued by Elephant Nature Park, but when I spent my amazing week there as a volunteer, I got to see a gentler and resilient side of this beautiful, yet traumatized creature. It is under these sad circumstances that I finally write about my experiences at ENP.
One of my biggest dreams and goals when I set off in 2009 to travel the world was to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park. In fact, volunteering at ENP was one of the driving forces behind me leaving New York in the first place. I wanted to leave my mark on the world by making a difference in some way and Elephant Nature Park kept drawing me in. For a number of reasons, unfortunately, I didn’t quite make it to ENP until November 2012. It was a special birthday gift to myself and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday than with these amazing, beautiful creatures.
The weeklong volunteer program was, by far, one of the best weeks of my life. It just felt so good to be doing something worthwhile and meaningful during my travels, and it was a week spent with elephants, so really, why wouldn’t it have been an unforgettable experience?
I also spent the week working besides some of the most fun, interesting, and diverse group of people I could ever hope to meet in one place. On my team, I had a spunky 60-year old Australian woman who wasn’t shy about getting down and dirty in the mud, or throwing mud at anyone else for that matter! Our group also had a mother and her two adolescent kids who never once complained about any of the chores – in fact, they were usually the first ones to dive right into the task, particularly if it involved wielding a machete. There were a pair of Canadian women traveling together for the first time and they were downright hilarious. One was always off doing things that she thought the other would disapprove of. “Don’t tell Karen!” became our anthem of the week. Then there was a sweet, innocent young man from Melbourne who became everyone’s adopted son or brother. My favorite line from him: “Oh, is it an important one?” when he overheard me talking to another American about the 2012 presidential elections.
And then there were the elephants. Every encounter with one was always pure magic, a true marvel. I loved waking up every morning and going to say hello to them, especially two-week old baby elephant, Navaan, who was the most impossibly adorable thing I have ever witnessed in my life. I befriended his Burmese mahout (caregiver) and had the truly incredible experience of spending extra time with Navaan away from the crowds, where he felt comfortable and brave enough to come out from under his doting mother to play with me.
The feeling that will remain with me the most about my time at Elephant Nature Park is just how incredibly happy I was. It didn’t matter what I was doing; whether it was shoveling mountains of elephant poo, clumsily cutting bamboo stalks with machetes (a true miracle that I didn’t lop off my own leg), or unloading a gazillion pumpkins and watermelons truck after truck, I was happy — nay — euphoric, doing it all because I knew it was for the elephants. I knew that in my own little way, I was helping them lead the life they were born for: a life of freedom, away from abuse, pain, and servitude.
And that was exactly what I had set out to do in 2009. With the help of Elephant Nature Park, my fellow volunteers, and of course, the elephants themselves, I had finally made my dream come true. I will be forever grateful for that and I thank Kwanjai for being a part of this wonderful experience. It saddens me that she is no longer with her loving family, elephant and human, but it humbles me deeply to know that despite enduring a lifetime of pain and torture, she was still able to show forgiveness and tenderness.
These elephants have so much to teach us and I am grateful to them and to ENP for allowing me the opportunity to learn and grow from their example.