Like so many tourists who visit Thailand every year, I imagined sitting atop a majestic Asian elephant wandering through a forest would be an epic, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I began researching elephant riding and quickly realized that there is a side that few tourists are aware of, but are beginning to discover. I chose not to ride an elephant while in Thailand, but found an alternative that left me with unforgettable memories.
Let’s start at the beginning…
In Thailand elephants, are a symbol of power and peace and are held in high regard. The Thai people used elephants to fight wars and to help build their country by logging…all while destroying their own habitat.
The government realized that if continued to allow logging throughout the country, their forests would soon be completely destroyed. In 1988, logging became illegal in Thailand and the need for domestic elephants who did this work was eliminated. Some elephants were abandoned, others were sold into Burma where logging was still legal, while others were introduced to tourism via elephant rides and walking the streets of major cities.
The Dark Side
What many people do not realize is that it is not natural for an elephant to walk in circles while people sit atop their backs. In order to do this, the elephants are put through a Thai tradition referred to as Phajaan (google at your own risk). A young elephant is separated from its mother to be trapped within a small cage where they are tortured. The elephants are beaten, stabbed, deprived of food, water and sleep for days until they reach the point where their spirit is broken and they become submissive to human control. Absolutely heartbreaking.
Once an elephant is domesticated (and used for tourism), they are classified as livestock…the same as cows, pigs, and chickens. The laws (or lack thereof) that govern abuse against livestock are the laws that ‘protect’ elephants as well. The laws are rarely enforced and abuse and neglect continues to happen every day.
Elephant Nature Park
There is an amazing 90 acre rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand that is dedicated to saving abused and neglected Asian elephants. In 1995 an amazing Thai woman, Lek Chailert, rescued her first elephant and started Elephant Nature Park (ENP). Today ENP is home to 38 elephants that have been given a second chance at life and have learned to live in peace. ENP offers an amazing alternative to tourists that have a desire to interact with elephants.
Our day began at 0800 when we were picked up from our accommodation in Chiang Mai and made the hour drive to ENP. Each group visiting the park is kept small (about 12 people) and a guide so you are able to ask questions easily. We spent the morning being introduced to the elephants, their individual mahouts (elephant caretakers), and fed them loads of fruit for one of their many meals!
We learned that when each elephant is rescued, they receive a new name. Although it may take them awhile to learn their new name, they feel it is important to leave behind any connection the elephant may have to their abusive past. Each elephant has a mahout that is dedicated to them and their care and strong bonds are formed between the two. You will not find any bull hooks or sticks with nails used here….just a lot of love, patience (in the beginning), and positive reinforcement.
We then took a walk through the park where we had an opportunity to touch and take photos with several more elephants as they roamed freely. Each elephant had a story that so tragic and heartbreaking – full of abuse and neglect. One elephant was blinded after her owner shot her eyes with stones repeatedly because she would not work after losing her baby. Another elephant’s feet were so badly damaged from being forced to walk the streets of Thailand on hot pavement, made to beg for money from tourists, that he now has to wear custom made boots in order to just walk. Yet, these amazing creatures have learned to trust humans again and are the most beautiful ambassadors of Thailand.
We enjoyed a delicious lunch buffet and then watched a documentary that highlighted the abuse of domestic elephants that left nearly everyone with tears in their eyes. As difficult as it was to watch, I believe it was important to understand and so that we never become naïve as to what is happening “behind closed doors”.
Following the documentary, we had an amazing opportunity to help wash the elephants! Equipped with a sturdy bucket, we waded into the water with a beautiful girl to help her cool off from the brutal heat. Such an awesome experience!
We watched a group, complete with a baby, eat up loads of fruit and then roll around like little kids in a massive mud bath! Quite hilarious to witness!
We met a 7 month old baby, along with his mother, nanny, and grammy…who happened to be blind and missing half of her foot, due to a land mine. It was incredible to see how the family network worked so closely with this group.
Finally, this is Medo…my absolute favorite. She was forced into logging at a young age and her back leg was broken when a tree feel on it. It was never cared for and did not heal properly. Her owner tried to sell her, but no one wanted a lame elephant that couldn’t not work. She was sold to breed and was attacked by a vicious male that broke her back and hip. She was then kept chained up for 15 years before Lek found her and rescued her. Since being at ENP, her spirit has been renewed and you can tell how grateful she is to have her new life. Love.
Lek has also opened her sanctuary to hundreds of dogs, cats, buffalo, and cows. After the catastrophic floods in Bangkok in 2011, many dogs and cats were left abandoned and homeless. Lek built homes, dog runs, swimming holes, and a vet clinic to care for the animals. Lek is truly dedicated to saving all animals…large and small.
One of the amazing things about Lek and what she is trying to do, is that she realizes that she cannot save all the elephants in Thailand. Instead, she works closely with elephant camps and hill tribe villages (like where she is from) to provide medical care and to educate the owners and mahouts on proper care and treatment of the elephants in order to help end the cycle of abuse. How amazing is she?
I realize that the underlying problem of abuse and the treatment of elephants will not be eliminated overnight as it is deeply rooted in Thai culture. I cannot help but think that by participating in elephant riding or supporting street begging, we are just enabling the cycle of abuse. As tourists, spending thousands of dollars each year, we have the ability to help move tourism in Thailand toward ecotourism and the protection of endangered species. I would ask that if you do find yourself in Thailand, you would reconsider your desire to ride an elephant.
Educating ourselves on what it means to be a responsible tourist should be priority and not an afterthought.
What you can do to Help
- Visit the Elephant Nature Park – or better yet, volunteer!
- Forgo elephant riding
- Do not give money to mahouts with their elephants in the streets (I know, it’s hard)
- Educate those that may be planning on visiting Thailand
Elephant Nature Park offers a variety of options for visiting and volunteering. I chose the full day visit at 2,500 Baht. It is more expensive than an elephant ride, but I guarantee you will feel no guilt walking away from this experience! You will be contributing to saving this endangered species, operating costs (over 70 full time staff!), raising funds to purchase more land and creating a better life for Thailand’s most majestic creatures.
Have you ever been to Elephant Nature Park? Or had an experience riding elephants in Thailand? I would love to hear about either…leave your comments below!