I have been involved in Overland trips since the summer before freshman year. This past summer I went on my fourth Overland trip. I chose Field Studies Thailand because the description sounded so neat. We would get to work with elephants, which is a rare opportunity I didn’t want to turn it down. I got really lucky because the Elephant Nature Park, the organization we volunteered at, is nothing short of remarkable.
Cleaning up after the elephants.
What makes the Elephant Nature Park so special is the woman who founded it. Her name is Lek, which in Thai means small. It is wonderfully ironic that such a tiny woman dedicates her life to saving such large animals. Lek’s mission has two parts: saving the Asian elephant and educating people about its plight. Lek’s goals parallel how we do service at Friends. While we complete physical acts of service, we also aim to educate others about the issues. I think many of us at Friends are of the mindset that knowing about a cause makes the volunteer work more meaningful.
Lek’s mission is completely visible. Education is weaved into every activity at the Elephant Nature Park. At the beginning of each week, volunteers watch several films dedicated to explaining both the history of the Asian elephant and its future. The most pressing issue is that the elephants domesticated for the logging industry have had no place to go since Thailand banned logging in 1989. Like any domesticated animal, they can no longer survive in the wild. When Lek has the funds, she purchases elephants from tourist camps or illegal logging companies and brings them to the Elephant Nature Park. Located 60km from the city of Chiang Mai, the Elephant Nature Park is a reserve for the 34 elephants Lek has rescued. Lek and the staff at ENP work to rehabilitate the elephants, hoping to prepare them for life back in the wild.
The Elephant Nature Park is a part of the eco tourism movement. Basically volunteers are paying to help out, which is great because it both supplies the organization with the funds and the volunteer work it needs to function. Work at the Elephant Nature Park consistedof feeding and bathing the elephants, cleaning up after them, and planting and painting around the park. My group was also able to help the park’s vets prepare medicine for the elephants that were sick or had infections. In addition to working with the elephants, we helped take care of the stray cats and dogs that live at the Elephant Nature Park. We also wrapped cloths around the trees on the outskirts of the park. The cloths were blessed by monks, making it a sacrilege for anyone to cut those trees down. The diverse range of service gave volunteers a chance to connect with at least one value of the park.Whether it was preparing elephant medicine or walking dogs, ENP volunteers cannot reflect back on the Elephant Nature Park and feel their work was useless.
Something that was especially fun for me was that another Friends student, sophomore Elinor Weissberg, was on my trip. It was so cool that Elinor and I could experience summer service together. I think most Friends students miss our community over the summer; I definitely do, so it was nice for me to have Elinor doing service alongside me. Working alongside elephants, especially with someone else from our school, made for an absolutely memorable summer.
 The techniques used to train elephants to carry tourists or to perform in shows are animal torture. Elephants working for logging companies (both in Thailand and in Laos) are also abused and malnourished. These animals are often severely injured or sick when they come to the Elephant Nature Park.
 A few years ago, Bangkok was hit by severe floods. Many dogs and cats were left in the streets without shelter or food. Lek and staff at the Elephant Nature Park traveled to Bangkok to the rescue the strays. After giving them treatment and food, Lek did not want to release the animals back onto the streets, Now the Elephant Nature Park has over 200 dogs and around 20 cats in addition to its 34 elephants.
 Deforrestation is also a huge problem plaguing Thailand. Lek also works to prevent deforestation and to rebuild forests. Needless to say, Lek is a very busy woman.
Some more photos from my trip: