Walk around anywhere in Thailand and you will surely see a ton of elephants. Not necessarily the actual animals, but symbols of elephants are everywhere. Elephant pants, elephant t-shirts and bowls, elephant statues sold as souvenirs and displayed in temples. Basically elephant-on-elephant-on-elephant. So it’s no surprise that elephant tourism is huge in Thailand.
Like most things that involve animals, it’s always best to do your research before going. Animals are often not treated well, especially in developing countries like Thailand. As majestic and colossal as these elephants are, they are no exception to this rule.
We debated long and hard about going to an elephant park. So many pretend to be sanctuaries who treat their animals ethically, but once the tourists are gone, it’s a different story. That’s why we’re really happy a friend told us about the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.
Elephant tourism in Thailand and SE Asia
All over Thailand, you will see tons of offers to see elephants and play with them. It’s very important to know that if they offer you to ride an elephant, to watch it paint for you or to see it do tricks for you, you should know that these are unethical elephant practices and you should find a different place to visit. Maybe even yell at them a little for being cruel animal-torturers. We kid, but barely! These are all places that abuse their elephants. With roughly only 6,000 Asian elephants left in Thailand, we all have to do our part to help save these majestic creatures.
The best way to do this is for tourists to stop going to see these abused animals. If they do, their caretakers (known in Thailand as mahouts) will have to find ethical ways of treating them. If you see someone sign up for this type of activity, kindly and gently remind them what they are actually supporting. Most of the time, people just don’t know how these animals are treated, and the cycle of mistreating elephants will repeat itself.
What was hard to see during our drive to the Elephant Nature Park, was that there were other parks lining the road on the way there where many tourists were riding elephants. Had they chosen to go a few hundred meters further, they would have participated in a much more ethical form of tourism.
Our day at Elephant Nature Park
Our day started much earlier than we’re used to. At around 8AM, a mini van came to pick us and the rest of our group up from our respective hotels. We all had a chance to bond a little during the ride and get some backstories. We had the pleasure of visiting the Elephant Nature Park with couples from Spain, the US and Turkey. One couple was on their honeymoon, another was eloping and getting married at the Elephant Nature Park! We can’t blame them. What a magical setting getting hitched surrounded by these gentle giants!
During our ride, we had a chance to watch a video that spoke about the Elephant Nature Park, the elephants there and their journey. They also showed us what unethical elephant tourism practices are, such as having them perform tricks, riding them, seeing them beg for money in the streets of Bangkok. Interesting information, but heart-breaking all at the same time. More on that later.
Our arrival at the Elephant Nature Park was amazing , we spotted the kittens right away, cuddled up in their Cat Kingdom. Yes! We’re in heaven. After a few cuddles with some cats and dogs, we were taken to the main seating area, where our delicious vegetarian lunch would be served later on. As we got there, another man brought out a huge basket of bananas and watermelons. Like clockwork, an elephant approached us. It was time to eat!
We were then told that this elephant was working in the logging industry until she was injured and could not work anymore. She gladly accepted all the fruit we offered her… except the peels of watermelon. She didn’t like those too much! It was still impressive to see her shove a bunch of 10 bananas in her mouth all at once. She was insatiable! We learnt that all elephants are, they eat up to 10% of their weight in food every day! That’s about 200kgs of corn, fruit and leaves (long live the vegetarian diet). The Elephant Nature Park grows some crops, but has to purchase a ton more because of the sheer amount of food these mammoths consume.
We then spent most of the day walking around the park, learning about their various elephants, feeding them along the way, and just showing them some love. Something they had been lacking for most of their lives. It was so good to see them walking around the park, free to enjoy the rest of their days living a carefree and peaceful life.
Some of the stories we heard about these elephants broke our hearts. The pain and suffering they have been through is quite shocking. It’s hard to believe that humans, who are usually empathetic and compassionate beings, can be capable of causing so much pain to animals.
We heard about elephants that were working in the logging industry and were forced to continue even after breaking a leg. One elephant that was blind because her mahout stabbed her in the eye after she disobeyed. Another who was hit by a car while begging in the streets of Bangkok. It’s hard to imagine what these elephants have been through, but one thing for sure, they finally have a life they deserve.
We loved our time at Elephant Nature Park. It was truly one of the most magical days we have spent on our trip so far. Surrounded by these gentle giants, we watched them play together and bathe like they didn’t have a care in the world, fed them insane amounts of food and gently pet their mud-covered skin. There can be nothing better! We hope that one day, you will be able to experience this, because as much as we can try to describe it, nothing quite beats the feeling of being there and connecting with these spellbinding creatures.
About Elephant Nature Park
The Elephant Nature Park was established in the 1990’s to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants. The Elephant Nature Park is part of the Save the Elephants foundation. It is located 60km from Chiang Mai, and is home to over 70 distressed elephants that were rescued from all over Thailand. To rescue the elephants, the Park must buy them from their previous owners. This can cost them anywhere between USD$4,000 to $125,000 or more depending on the elephant’s gender, age and health.
The Park is also home to water buffalo, dogs, cats, monkeys and pigs. All these beautiful animals were rescued from difficult situations – strays that lost their homes due to flooding, saved from slaughterhouses or from abusive owners. If you choose to go to the Elephant Nature Park, you can either go for a day tour or stay and volunteer for a few days.
The elephants there were all rescued from a troublesome past. Most were abused since they were calves, working either in the circus, part of night acts, working in the logging industry, abused for forced breeding or even begging in the streets. The Park rescues one elephant at a time because 85% of the elephants they save get to the sanctuary with mental health problems caused by the abuse they have suffered. By focusing on one rescue at a time, they allow them to recover and integrate into the herd naturally. They usually end up herding around a female elephant.
The oldest elephant at the Park is 94 years-old. Although she’s the leader of the pack, she’s actually a bitter old lady! She just wants to sit in the river the whole day and hates socializing with others. Sounds like my grandma!
The oldest male is nowhere near her age. He’s actually only 18. Him and his 2 other vigorous male friends have to all be locked away and separated from the herd. They are far too fertile and want to get with all the ladies. What players! A fun story we heard was that one of them actually managed to get one of the ladies pregnant through his gate. Talk about having game! Because of the cost of running the Park, they have to control the population there. Even with their efforts, the Park has seen 8 baby elephants born in captivity. The love is strong!
The majority of the proceeds needed to feed and rehabilitate these elephants come from tourists visiting the park as well as a smaller portion coming from private donors and companies. The ultimate goal of the park is to release the elephants into the wild once they have been properly nurtured back to health. If you want to help support the Elephant Nature Park, you can do so!
Elephants are the largest land mammals and are highly intelligent. Their brain weights 5kgs (or 11lbs), which is 4 times more than a human brain… our guess is that they are more intelligent than we are as well. Seriously tough, it is often said that their intelligence is comparable to those of primates and cetaceans. We have all heard the saying that someone has a memory like an elephant, and that is also true! That’s why it takes so long for them to get over their abusive pasts.
They can communicate together through touch, sight, smell, and sound – they use infrasound, and seismic communication over long distances. Plus, they appear to have self-awareness and show empathy for dying or dead individuals of their kind.
While at the Elephant Nature Park, we were told of two elephants who had become friends and would hang out together all the time. One day, the eldest of the two fell ill and passed away. Her friend, heart-broken about the ordeal, would spend her days searching for the fallen elephant, crying out to her day-in and day-out… until she got over it one day and found herself a new friend!
Elephant abuse is nothing new. Often, many tourists just don’t know about how these gentle giants are treated to be able to put on a “good show” for tourists. To get these wild animals to interact with humans, they must first undergo a cruel breaking process called “Phajaan”. This will ultimately render the elephant submissive to their human trainers by breaking their spirit.
The Phajaan starts at a very young age – usually baby elephants are taken from the mothers between three to six years old. They will keep the babies in small crates with their feet tied with ropes and their limbs stretched. They will be repeatedly beaten with sharp metal hooks with hits to their head, slashing their skin and tugging their ears, constantly being yelled at, and they will be starved of food. That’s why most elephants you will see in captivity have shredded or torn ears.
Eventually, the ropes will be replaced with chains, but the abuse will not stop. The Phajaan may last for weeks and these poor animals will have no rest from physical torture and mental domination. The elephants must never be left alone because often, they will try to commit suicide by stepping on their trunk. Gradually, their spirits break and their handlers achieve the control they seek. The mahouts will not be the ones abusing the elephants, instead, they will come in and “save” them by offering them their first meal, and by taking them away from their crate and chains. Just another form of manipulation.
We said it once, and we’ll say it again. Research is imperative to be sure you are supporting the right type of organization. Of the roughly 6,000 elephants left in Thailand, two thirds of those are in captivity, and as of 1986, have been considered to be endangered.
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