By Lillian Cunningham
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.
It hasn’t rained yet today, even though it’s summer and monsoon season. Forests cover the distant hillsides. Down here, the earth is exposed and the sunshine feels heavy. 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. More....