Thailand loves elephants! Just look around the markets, elephant everything! Hippie pants, notebooks, bags, purses … the list goes on.
Thailand’s tourism industry used to make an absolute shed load of money from elephant related activities. It still does. Thankfully awareness is being raised about how these elephants are treated and the industry is declining. When I first visited Thailand 10 years ago I am very sad to say that I was one of those tourists who paid to go and ride an elephant through the jungle. My friends and I were between 19 and 21 and had absolutely no idea what happened to the elephants. Sadly it didn’t cross our minds.
For a country that loves elephants so much, they certainly don’t treat them very well!
You are constantly having activities recommended to you. Ride an elephant in the jungle, get a lift up a hill on an elephant, watch an elephant do tricks… Thankfully as we realise how the elephants are trained people are turning down these ‘tourist trips’ and choosing to visit sanctuaries such as Elephant Nature Park instead.
Elephant Nature Park is in Chiang Mai, North Thailand.
It was set up in the late 90’s to provide a place where rescued elephants could go and live, without any more abuse in their lives. The founder of Elephant Nature Park, a lady named Lek has dedicated her life to rescuing elephants from the logging and tourism industries. She was even awarded ‘Asian Hero of the Year’ in 2005. The park has had a lot of good press coverage over the years from the likes of National Geographic, the BBC and Animal Planet. So when looking for a sanctuary to visit this one is head and shoulders above the rest.
In the beginning though the work they were doing wasn’t well received by the tourism companies. The more people learnt about the negative treatment the less money people spent on elephant related tourism.
Now, luckily, others are catching on and setting up similar projects. It’s so sad to hear how the elephants are treated in order to get them to a point where they will be ridden or do tricks. They are basically abused into submission. After being treated so badly they become depressed and loose the will to fight against their captors.
In Elephant Nature Park you will see that the elephants can roam around freely. There are no walls around the park. Only natural boundaries such as rivers and forests, but if the elephants wander out of the perimeter they are just left until they come back. Which they do, as they want to get fed!
So why should you visit?
This park is extremely expensive to run, there are over 40 elephants housed there … imagine feeding all of them! For this reason Elephant Nature Park was opened up to the public. You can take a guided tour around the park where you will be told about individual elephants and their stories. Some have visible injuries, eyes gouged out, ripped ears, broken legs that haven’t healed properly. Others are just sad and living in solitude, they mourn the dead. So once their close friends die they often live alone from then on.
To keep the money coming in the park was opened up to visitors and there are a few different options. I just took a day trip, but you can opt to stay and volunteer for a week or two. I understand that while there are no walls the elephants are still technically in captivity and under human control to a certain extent. But most of these elephants probably wouldn’t have survived in the wild had they not been brought here.
The guides are very specific with their instructions, they will tell you which elephants are safe to approach and which you should leave to walk past. The care for the elephants comes above the desire to make the tourists happy. It’s so beautiful to see them walking around you. There are two babies that live in the park, and we stood back as one passed, surrounded by other elephants for protection.
Later we saw them all eating, again, surrounding the little baby one to keep him safe.
Learning about each elephant.
As I mentioned earlier, the guides are very specific. They know so much about each elephant they can tell you how they got there and what has happened to them.
This pretty lady is Kabu, she has to be kept isolated because she’s a greedy little thing. If you look closely at her leg, it is severely damaged. After being broken while logging it never healed properly – so when she’s a little piggy and gains too much weight it means she will do further damage and struggles to walk.
This elephant on the left is Saza. She was really badly treated before arriving at Elephant Nature Park and was extremely thin and weak. Once arriving at the park it was realised her teeth are badly worn away and she can’t absorb any nutrition from her food. She is now on a careful diet and doing much better. Saza really made me laugh to watch, she would sift through the grass and pick the best bits that she would eat. Sneakily getting her trunk in her neighbours pile too to make sure she got the best bits!
Location and development.
The park really is set in a beautiful place. It’s 60km from the city and really peaceful. The surrounding area is full of hills and trees and those working at the park are planting new trees are trying to re develop the rainforest.
They have built shelter where they can for the elephants to cool off when they need to, and there is a huge river they are free to get in when they fancy a mud bath.
Over the years they have managed to provide a home for other animals too. There is now a rescue division for dogs, cats and water buffalo. They have also spread the elephant programme across Thailand and into Cambodia. The work being done is amazing and it’s really encouraging to see copy cat sanctuaries popping up around Asia.
I really can’t recommend Elephant Nature Park enough, it’s an easy day trip from Chiang Mai and really opens your eyes to the way elephants need our help to be protected.
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