After researching the most ethical way to meet elephants in Thailand, we decided to visit The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Having heard that the day was an amazing experience but an emotional rollercoaster, I was a little nervous before the day arrived.
Bright and early on the day of our visit the park minivan picked us up and began explaining what the day would involve. They informed us that they would be educating us on all aspects of the elephants’ care, along with what their life before looked like. They started playing a documentary and shots of wild, relaxed elephants walking and playing in large groups gradually morphed into images of elephants painting, giving rides, working in the logging industry and most perversely of all spinning around on one leg on stools in shows. The film began explaining the process of training these elephants and my stomach filled with a sickening dread. They explained that it was viewed as best to capture elephants from the wild when they were young, as they were easier to ‘break’. It would usually be necessary to kill the mother, who would fiercely protect her young. In order to render elephants, whether young or old, docile enough to begin training by humans they would then be put through a process nicknamed the ‘crush’. This involves tying up the elephant in a position of severe discomfort with sharpened sticks inflicting chronic pain from various angles. Food, water, sleep and rest are withdrawn for the entire process which can last up to a week. By the end, the elephant is not just suffering from the physical effect of torture but extensive psychological trauma. This is the desirable state for them to be in when training begins.
The video went on to explain that elephants that give rides are usually overworked, kept in poor conditions and as they are sociable animals that live in herds, suffer distress by being chained up on their own. When you see them performing tricks and giving rides you can be certain they have suffered considerably to get to that stage. As an example, when they are painting the mahout is jabbing a nail behind its ear causing pain. All of this leads to horrendous health conditions and suffering everyday.
My god, it was horrible. The images will haunt me forever, the girl in front of me was openly sobbing, and there were parts of it where I had to look away. The worst thing for me is, I have been that tourist myself, (twice in fact!) on package adventure excursions a few years earlier. I did not imagine that the elephants suffered but now I look back I can see (especially for an animal lover such as myself) that was shockingly naïve. I feel a profound sense of guilt in connection to those trips, and after hours of self criticism have decided to turn that energy in a positive direction and raise awareness wherever I can. I feel I must help the ‘saddle off’ campaign by sharing what these amazing animals go through, and for what? A 30 minute experience and a facebook photo? If someone had told me before there is no way I would have supported those camps.
After the video we ended the journey in contemplative silence, disembarked and washed our hands in order to begin feeding the recently rescued elephants. These elephants will not be able to return to the wild after being in the tourist industry for so long. The park allows them to roam through the national park at their leisure, with humans only interacting with them to feed them and bathe them.
We began feeding them over a fence, so they could get used to being around us. Obviously after a lifetime of service to tourists they are naturally wary of new people! They grabbed the food we handed to them out of our hand in their trunks and shoveled it into their mouths, occasionally throwing away a piece they deemed less than delicious! It was crazy how strong their trunks were! You could feel it when they took the fruit from your hand.
We walked with them through the park, watching how they interacted with each other. One young one, called Lucky, had a bell on and was particularly mischievous! It was amazing to watch them in the water, although one that had been most recently rescued, within the last two months, was still too nervous to bathe with the other three. Hopefully the time will come soon when she will be able to enjoy her freedom.
We had lunch, and then headed to the water where they soon appeared and joined us. Absolute chaos commenced, as the elephants, mahouts and us chucked water all over one another. It was one of the best moments of my life, I felt overjoyed at being able to experience this with the elephants. Two of the elephants lazed in the water playfully kicking water over each other, it was beautiful to see.
Later that day our guide showed us around the rest of the centre, where volunteers prepare tons and tons of food for the 70 elephants to consume every day. They also explained that there is a home for rescued street dogs there which was set up after the tsunami left many abandoned. We were shown images of some of the elephant’s injuries and conditions they were suffering from when they arrived, which was a sad reminder of what we had learnt at the beginning of the day.
Our guide during the day was knowledgeable, passionate about elephant welfare and had a great sense of humour. It was an incredible day: educational, emotional and fun. If you want to meet elephants, don’t ride them! This was a far more rewarding and enjoyable experience, and you will not be part of the pain and suffering that riding them causes. We were told to be wary of ‘sanctuaries’ that claim to care for elephants but still offer rides, as rides are never in the best interest of the elephant.
I am always saddened to see how elephant riding and shows are extensively advertised in Thailand. I’ve begun commenting on photos on instagram about the ethics of riding, leaving reviews on trip advisor calling companies out when they advertise shows and rides, and talking to as many people as I can, as I believe the vast majority of tourists/travellers will make an ethical decision if they are more aware of the context in which these rides take place.
You can visit the Elephant Nature Park website on this link- Elephant Nature Park
It may be a bit more expensive but you know that your money is going to an amazing cause. Some of the money goes to the elephant owner’s family, as by retiring their elephants from camps they are giving up the income that elephant would usually provide. They also carry out education projects in the local community, to spread knowledge on elephant care and behaviour. The money of course also buys tons and tons and tons of food for the 70 elephants!
Are you an elephant lover? Do you have any ideas of how we can raise awareness about this?