“Look,” says Lek, as we watch Jokia and Mae Perm amble towards the riverbank for a mud bath. Hovering over Jokia, nudging her with her trunk and communicating with subtle squeaks and louder squeals, the older elephant keeps her from bumping into a fallen tree. Amazingly, Jokia deftly steps over it. Mae Perm rarely leaves her blind companion’s side. “Nothing will ever happen to Jokia as long as she lives here. Mae Perm will see to that,” says Lek.
Some of the elephants were abandoned, and some bought (for as much as $10,000) to rescue them from abusive owners. The biggest, 3.6-metre-high Max, worked as a
elephant on the streets of Bangkok. On a dark night after he finished his rounds, an 18-wheeler knocked him down and dragged him along the highway for six metres. He could barely walk when he arrived and was little more than skin and bones.
Riding on an elephant’s back is a no-no for visitors, and none of Lek’s charges perform for them.
“This isn’t a circus,”
she explains. But visitors are encouraged to feed, bathe and virtually live with them.
As I walk with Lek through the park, dodging bowling-ball size elephant droppings, we spot a group of elephants making their way into the muddy Mae Taeng River that winds through the reserve. Lek smiles broadly, hands me a pail and a scrub brush, and says: “We’re going to give them a bath.”
The massive beasts wheeze, snort and swing their trunks from side to side. One swat from a 130-kilogram trunk could flatten me like a fly. “You’re not afraid are you?” asks Lek as we approach. “Of course not,” I lie.
Bellowing with delight, the massive animals wade into the shallows and playfully soak us with trunks full of warm river water. Nervousness forgotten, I scrub the bristly, grayish-brown forehead of seven-year-old Jungle Boy. He stares at me with a deep black eye, encircled by thick, butterfly lashes. As I fill the pail to dump on his head, he blasts me with water. It’s like being sprayed with a fire hose.