Crunching whole pumpkins as if they were peanuts, and with toenails bigger than watermelon slices, it’s no wonder that we tangled ourselves into an anxious flap as an enormous elephant charged towards us at full speed.
Echoes of its trumpeting trunk thundered as it made its way directly towards our group in seconds from the other side of a plain, and even crossed the river that I thought reassured our separation.
In awe companions stood still and surprised at what seemed splendorous without even blinking an eyelid. Whilst my sister and I immediately remembered being at Chang Mai Elephant Sanctuary two days before(to which this rescue elephant belonged).
These are dangerous animals that belong in the wild, many encountered by tourists are tortured into being tame and timid.
What had caused this mighty mammal such distress?
Learning of many heartbreaking stories whilst visiting Chang Mai Elephant Sanctuary I was struck by one in particular.
An elephant had become so scared of the sounds of vehicles, that this eventually caused her to miscarry due to stress upon hearing traffic. Afterwards she fell into depression and whilst still being used for labour, one day collapsed climbing a mountain. Then blinded in the eye by her captor in order to taunt her back into work.
A friend ,my sister and I had decided to embark on this two day trek into the North Thai jungle. The guides owned elephants, rides on which were a main attraction of the tour (which I opted out of). Tied up and swaying from trauma, an ironic contrast to the beautiful beasts that roamed free next door.
Coincidentally our camp just so happened to be alongside the elephant sanctuary we had been to prior. This was discovered as we made our way out of camp on the back of an open pick up truck. As we had passed the sanctuary, the truck got stuck deep in mud. The loud rev of the engine had caused the defensive and territorial elephant to make a beeline across the vast valley, hence fears of us being chased and trampled.
Panic is contagious and much to the hilarity of our tour guides it took three of us a very long time to make our way past this creature, with one trip back to camp, the consideration of walking to the main road – and an offer to ride on the back of a moped instead.
To my dismay our tour operator withdrew a slingshot from his pocket and aimed at the animal. Then to my surprise, after teasing us for our reactions, I was given a scroll of paper upon eventually parting. ‘Freedom’ it said, with a lovely pencil sketched elephant inside. Perhaps a portrayal of how he wished for his tours to be advertised, the geographical imagination of riding freely on one of these animals through the wilderness. My heart sunk for a moment, as I started to empathise and feel like a guilty backpacker. Whilst it is no justification for animal cruelty and exploitation, the rural village we camped in was not so affluent and so resorting to capitalising from native wildlife seemed understandable.
Chang Mai Elephant Sanctuary is a charity and all proceeds are donated to the rehabilitation of elephants. Cats and dogs are also rescued. There are many volunteers, and tourists who visit are allowed to feed fruit to the elephants and also bathe them in the river.