Elephant Freedom Project #4 (Karen Village)

I have been looking forward to this day for months! We are going to walk with elephants!!! And not just any elephants... rescued elephants! On our hour and a half long journey out to the hill tribe village where these elephants live, we learned a lot about the terrible things that Asian elephants go through. The unbelievably brutal lengths that trainers need to go to break and train an elephant and the constant pain they need to be kept in to execute their tasks. I hope I never have to see another image of the Phajaan, the most inhumane tradition and method of torturous training I have ever seen. Every elephant that works in tourism endures this training. Look it up if you're interested, but I can't unsee it.

The hill tribes in Thailand used elephants to work for them in logging, until 1989 when it was banned. The villagers, needing to make an income off their animals, would typically rent them to riding/trekking companies or sell them to the entertainment industry or street begging. The elephant nature park enables these villages to keep their elephants, keep them free and happy and make an income by bringing guests to be with them in their natural habitat. They have a large park near Chiang Mai where they keep most of their rescued herd and all of the animals that need special care for injuries or disabilities. But they also have several of these "freedom" projects all through the country. If you'd like to see more about this wonderful organization, and you should check them out. Go to www.elephantnaturepark.org.

The elephants that we met were a mother and her two sons. Mom - about 50 years old and her oldest son who's 20 were both used in trekking companies and the youngest son who is 16 was used in some form of entertainment. He still has a few habits from his training like honking for food and holding his leg and trunk up like he's waiting for praise and/or a photo. He was the most hammy of the three and was always posing. He gave us quite the photo shoot as we were leaving. His name is Dodo.

We got to the village and were introduced to the man owns the elephants and is the leader in the village. He gave us all traditional Karen ponchos and a hat to wear as we walk with the elephants and so that they slobbered on the poncho and not our clothes. Then we grabbed several bins of bananas and headed over to meet the herd and bring them their morning snack. You know... a light snack of 30 kg of bananas.

After they were done eating... correction... after we ran out of food in the snack bins... it was time to fill our provided side bags with bananas and lead them on a walk through the forest so they could eat all the plants.

All three of the elephants had a human buddy, like a boy and his best friend. The gentleman paired with the old mom was just the sweetest.

It was a wonderful walk. Watching these beautiful creatures pulling sweet vines out of the trees, being beside them and experiencing how big and how gentle they are, and watching their personalities interact as a family. Brothers are brothers in every species... ha...

After the walk the village treated us to a delicious vegetarian lunch and then led us out to share a mud bath with our new friends.

Cole wouldn't get his feet in the mud... I'm usually the one taking pictures, and I think he knew how excited I was about this, so he stayed out of the pit to take photos... even though I tried to tease him into getting in with us.

Then of course.... after we all get covered in mud... there is a good ole river water fight to get clean. The water was too cold for the momma, but the boys had a good time with their new friends.

After the bath, the elephants get another big snack. This time with rice balls and many more bananas and leaves. Then as we leave we get to take a quick walk through the villages rice fields where the harvest was underway. Cole even got in on the work.

What an amazing way to interact with these animals and meet some incredible villagers.

And as we were finally walking over the bridge to leave Dodo showed up to give us a little photo shoot to end our visit.

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