A mistimed bucket load of brown river water had just soaked me. But looking around it seemed I’d got off lightly as Hayley had been hit full in the face. All part of the fun, though when you’re attempting to wash a beautiful 40-ton lady elephant called Pop.
The highlight of our visit to Chiang Mai was also to be a birthday treat for my brother, Craig who’d joined us in Thailand along with his wife, Hayley. We were stood in the Elephant Nature Park, the brainchild of the indomitable Lek Chailert, who as a result of a lifetime love of these huge gentle creatures has established an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre.
Set in the jungle about 40 miles outside of Chiang Mai, the park is home to some 35 blind, arthritic and previously maltreated elephants, and a scattering of orphans. Lek and her team are a driving force in Thailand and elephant conservation globally. Having rescued dozens of elephants to date, she continually lobbies the Thai government for the improvement of the elephants’ working conditions in the tourist industry.
Ellies are used traditionally for logging, and more recently in the tourist industry providing rides. Commercial logging has in theory been outlawed in Thailand, so this leaves owners with animals that are expensive to keep and with little capacity to make them money. As a result, they’re often abandoned, especially if they’re sick or injured.
The tourist industry is also suffering, as more and more tourists decline to ride elephants. It’s a practice which is harmful and cruel as elephant spines are simply not designed to carry our weight. Nor those awful metal cages they strap on first to make us more comfortable. Worse still is the “training” the elephants have to go through to make sure they are submissive enough to be trusted to let us ride them.
Young elephants are removed from their mothers and subjected to what is known as “the crush”. It’s a technique where the mahouts (elephant handlers) effectively break the animal’s spirit. Using what are effectively torture techniques, the animals are deprived of sleep and food in confined spaces. And they’re repeatedly beaten with bullhooks and nail-spiked bamboo sticks. As a result of this barbaric treatment, the elephants lose their will to live. They can then submit to the will of the mahout, and as such are sufficiently malleable to withstand 12 hour days working in the heat of the jungle for tourists’ pleasure.
As you’ve probably gathered, I am vehemently against the riding of elephants. As tourists, we have the ability to lead change through our choice of where we spend our pound, euro or dollar. Tourists understandably want to see these amazing animals. We did. And the Elephant Nature Park is one of the very few places in Northern Thailand where tourists are given the opportunity to see and interact with these magnificent creatures in a calm and unthreatening environment. Which is exactly why we chose to spend our tourist pounds there.
We started the day by being collected by ENP along with a minibus full of like-minded tourists. Our guide, Si played us a short video explaining the do’s and don’ts while we were at the park. It’s a very necessary infomercial given that many of the elephants are still being rehabilitated and are quite skittish around humans. Si explained that we weren’t to touch any of the elephants unless he specifically said it was safe to do so. The park was their home and we were very welcome guests, but they weren’t just there for our amusement. Amen to that.
So, with that said, we arrived. The 150 square kilometre elephant camp is quite surprisingly also home to cats, goats, buffaloes and over 400 rescued dogs. We knew about the dogs as a friend of ours had recently spent a rewarding week volunteering at the park, but the rest of the menagerie was a surprise! The cats sleep anywhere they can, as cats do. The dogs wander around the common areas mingling with tourists and securing an ear tickle and a fuss off any willing passerby. ENP also offer an adoption scheme – we had to drag Hayley away!
First things first – second breakfast (as you do if you’re an elephant). They eat around 200lbs of fruit, vegetables, and vegetation each day! It was a remarkably humbling experience to feed them and the group of us quickly emptied the ample basket of watermelon, pumpkin, cucumber and bananas into their patiently waiting trunks.
During the day we were introduced to six different groups of ellies. Much like us humans they are very social creatures and form bonds, which last a lifetime. Once rehabilitated into the park they soon find a group that they are happy with. Again just like us, they don’t always like the individuals they’re with, which quickly becomes apparent to their mahouts and they are moved. Each elephant has its own mahout, with whom they develop an unbreakable bond. But this doesn’t mean that they always take to the other handlers. We witnessed one who’d hung his bag on a nearby tree only to have it munched and crunched!
Si was full of knowledge about the individual elephants and explained to us the background stories to each one. Many of them had very obvious historical injuries, such as mangled legs from land mines and broken legs that hadn’t been set properly. Others had dislocated hips from being forced to carry the weight of humans daily. Lek has a team of vets at the park, who do everything they can to “mend” them when they arrive. But sometimes it’s just too late, which was the case with three old girls that we were introduced to.
Ranging from 50-65 years old these three are a gang and they’re the best of friends. Two are blind in one eye, the left and right respectively. And they both use their remaining “good” eye to look out for their pal who is totally blind. Her injury was sustained by a particularly violent mahout who blinded her in one eye with a bull hook. When attacked elephants are not docile, so she promptly broke his leg. But he then went on to stick the hook in her remaining good eye, leaving her totally blind.
Lek and her team come across treatment like this far too regularly, and whenever they can they will intervene. They’ve rescued animals from all over Thailand and even Myanmar. And the often 20-hour journey by road is no mean feat for an elephant.
Later that afternoon the heavens opened and serious monsoon rain pelted us. We initially saw this as a negative until Si pointed out how lucky we were. Elephants apparently love nothing more than to play, roll and generally enjoy themselves in the mud. He wasn’t wrong, they bloody love the stuff!! It was here that we were introduced to Kham Paan, self-appointed Nanny of Navann, a very high spirited three-year-old. We watched as they and a few others in their group took advantage of the rain turning the ground sloppy, and in they went. It was nothing short of a joy to behold, and there were a few moist eyes in the group.
Ultimately, this is what elephants would be doing every day if left to their own devices in the wild. The only thing that threatens them is us humans, and that frankly needs to stop. Which is why Lek and her team continue to raise awareness and lobby on behalf of these beautiful creatures. She gives them not only a safe home where they are fed, loved and treated. But crucially she gives them something they haven’t had before, and that’s a voice.
You can find out more about the Elephant Nature Park and its work by visiting their website. We can also recommend you read a more recent experience of the park from our fellow blogger, Tasha Amy at Backpackers Wanderlust.
- One Night In Bangkok
- Trekking And Caving Around Tham Lod
- Reflections On Koh Phra Thong
- Confronting Snakes, Bats And Spiders At Cheow Lan Lake
…or visit our Thailand page.
What did you think? Have you been to the Elephant Nature Park? What are your views on elephant welfare? Or maybe you’re thinking of visiting the Nature Park soon. Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.