We both visited Elephant Nature Park, just north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the spring of 2019. And we were both completely taken by the majesty of the animals and the ethical elephant treatment at this particular sanctuary. But I admit I was so focused on capturing the beauty of the animals that I hardly peeled the camera away from my eye. So I know I missed a lot of the information that was shared with us by our guide. Enter Alicia, an avid learner and communicator. I think you will see that she captured the knowledge and shares it so well here.
All photos are © Barbara Cameron Pix, unless otherwise noted.
Elephants: Thailand’s Biggest Tourist Attraction
Thailand is the ideal destination for these parks. Asian elephants are native to Thailand, and the country’s national symbol.
What most tourists don’t realize is that you should think twice before choosing which elephant park to visit.
Why? Because 77% of the elephants at parks in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and surrounding areas are treated in an inhumane way and live under cruel conditions.
There is an underside to this industry and as the ones making travel choices, we have the power to shape that industry into an ethical and sustainable one.
This was my first experience getting to touch an elephant. Their skin is so rubbery, yet soft and just a little bit hairy.
Choosing An Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
None of this information I knew before our time in Thailand. All I knew was that I had to see an elephant. We were living in Chiang Mai, home to 20% of the elephants in Thailand. It’s a very popular destination for tourists looking to check this travel experience off their bucket list.
Remote Year, our travel program, offered the chance to spend a day with elephants at a neighboring sanctuary. Many of our group chose that option since the park had a great reputation.
Two mahouts (caretakers) deliver water and observe the elephants at Elephant Nature Park.
Elephant Nature Park: Award-winning Ethical Elephant Sanctuary
When we visited in March 2019, they had over thirty elephants living there, and have rescued eighty-six since they have been in business.
Most of their elephants were rescued because they were too abused and damaged to be wanted by their captors anymore. Many have broken bones, burns, missing parts of their body and all have suffered severe trauma. The park is essentially a rehabilitation center for rescued elephants.
Lek is well-known for her tireless activism, which keeps Elephant Nature Park funded, gives the attention it deserves, and sets it up to be a recipient of numerous international awards.
Choosing Ethics Over Business
Their decisions to stay as ethical as possible has caused some tourists to stay away. They don’t offer the range of activities that the rest of the industry does. For example, when Lek and her team stopped allowing bathing with elephants, it caused a 50% drop in their business.
Lek’s aim is to create a park that allows elephants to return to their most natural state possible—without actually returning to the wild. She feels it is necessary to limit human and elephant contact to uphold this mission.
While there, we were allowed to touch an elephant if it approached you, but we had to touch respectfully. All of our interactions with the elephants happened in relation to their feeding times.
I’ve learned that since we visited, Lek made the hard decision to stop allowing touching altogether, for the same reason they do not allow bathing.
An elephant is helped while bathing, from a respectful distance, by its caretaker (known as a mahout).
Creating a Natural Elephant Habitat
So why does Lek still allow visitors and why doesn’t she just set the elephants free? In short, to support the elephants.
What we paid for for the weekend, a little under $200 USD, goes a long way to support Lek’s cause. This allows the park to feed the elephants, pay for necessary medicine, rescue more elephants, expand the park and their habitat, pay and house the staff and volunteers, maintain their local agriculture site and purchase the rest of the food locally, among other things.
Releasing the elephants is not an option because they have nowhere to go. Land has been too developed at this point, meaning there is no wild home left for elephants to inhabit. Because of this, they are extremely vulnerable to poachers and trekkers if they are released, or they will die of starvation, as they cannot naturally feed themselves in the current habitat.
Elephant Nature Park is one of the few places left in Thailand where elephants can still live a protected and almost natural life.
It is also where they can heal from the abuse they’ve suffered, at the hands of the same species that abused them—humans.
Elephants use their trunks to feed themselves, like hands.
Why You Should Not Bathe with Elephants
Elephant parks that allow bathing have a constant stream of tourists coming in and touching the animals, sometimes even getting on top of them. Elephants experience stress and anxiety, and for babies especially, this is particularly hard.
As we wandered through the sanctuary, observing the elephants and feeding these gentle creatures, we learned some truly horrific stories about where they came from. The most notable being the breaking-in process they experience as babies.
Elephants and humans do not naturally interact, so in order to force an elephant to behave around tourists and clients, for bathing or being ridden, they have to be broken in.
The elephant’s caretaker, or mahout, is always close by. But guests and volunteers at Elephant Nature Park are not allowed in the water to bathe with the elephants. It’s the parks mission to provide as natural an existence as possible to the animals.
The Breaking In Process: Abusing Elephants
There are numerous methods to break in baby elephants but they all involve brutal torture, beating, being tied in a small cage, and possibly starved. It’s done so that these naturally lively and animated creatures won’t react to the humans around them.
Elephants can experience trauma and psychological damages. Elephants have fantastic memories. Which is why elephant abuse is so effective at controlling a species that could otherwise kill us in one little kick.
This type of abuse is mostly prevalent at trekking companies. Once they are too damaged to be used as a tourist attraction, these parks have no use for the animals. They will most likely be killed or let go. Unfortunately, once elephants have been broken in and abused, they can’t survive in the wild. They have been conditioned to be dependent on humans.
Thankfully, this is where Lek steps in, if she can, and brings them to safety at Elephant Nature Park.
The elephants at Elephant Nature Park have all been rescued, and many previously suffered unbelievable physical abuse. This elephant will forever have a broken leg as a result.
How to Choose an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary
Elephant Nature Park recommends some easy ways to tell if the park or sanctuary you are visiting is actually an ethical place, and treating elephants fairly.
They recommend only visiting an elephant park or sanctuary that:
- never separates mothers and babies
- never allows riding of elephants or bathing with them
- and, to ensure that the facility supplies ample land, is chain-free and has enough shady space for protection
How to Help Elephants: Vote With Your Money
I left the park wondering just how many people don’t know what these elephants go through and as tourists, what they unknowingly participate in.
My instagram feed is filled with images of people who visit elephant parks, with the majority of them bathing with elephants. The elephants appear happy and healthy.
We don’t understand the stress, trauma or capacity for emotion that these beautiful animals hold. We don’t understand what has happened to their habitat and what they have endured. We love them but we keep harming them.
As tourists, the best thing we can do to help elephant activists ensure the survival and ethical treatment of animals is to put our money where our mouth is.
Yes, advocacy is important. The real effect, though, comes from voting with our dollars. Choose to support places that are doing truly good things for elephants and it will cause change.
On the windy bus ride home after our weekend at Elephant Nature Park, covered in dust and drifting into sleep in the afternoon heat, I felt so thankful. Thankful for the experience and for the ethical work that is being done to help save the elephants.
I knew I was going to sleep soundly knowing that in this tiny town in Thailand, beautiful things are happening and I had helped support that.
We can’t change what has been done to elephants, but we can change how they live out the remainder of their lives and how the future generation fares.
For a comprehensive list of international ethical elephant sanctuaries, click here.
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This blog was written by Alicia Briggs while she was in lockdown in Hoi An, Vietnam during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just one country away from Thailand, and one year later, Alicia says, “I can look at these images and reminisce about a life-changing experience made possible by my time traveling with Remote Year. Although travel is not possible now, thankfully, it will be again.”
And when travel becomes normal again, let’s hope that you too can join a life-changing Remote Year program too. Learn how…