Many years ago, I attended an extravagant wedding in India. The procession was lead by two enormous elephants embellished in vibrant colours, ornate headdresses and complete with mahouts on top. I remember walking in front of them, conscious of their huge presence behind me.
Each step the elephants took sent a vibration through the ground and through me. When one got spooked and trumpeted unexpectedly, several of us ran as fast as we could in a random direction – my heels and sari nearly sending me arse over elbow! This amused the mahout and I think the elephant, because it reached out as I stepped gingerly back in line and gently held its trunk near my face. The magnificence of them was something to behold. To acknowledge. To respect.
Since that day I’ve always had a healthy respect and love for elephants. There’s just something about these animals that is just so awe-inspiring. They can be terrifying yet gentle, beautiful and bizarre all at once. They’re capable of complex emotions and behaviours just like us and of course they have the most adorable babies!
So when Asad and I had a chance to spend the day at the Elephant Nature Park we were so excited! This was going to be our chance to get up-close with these gentle giants.
Elephant Nature Park
Situated in the Mae Taeng Valley, some 60km from Chiang Mai City, Elephant Nature Park was founded by Lek Chailert in the 1990’s. Lek has dedicated her life to the rescue and rehabilitation of mistreated elephants used in the tourism and logging industries.
The project focuses on rescue, conservation and sustainability. Disabled, blind and orphaned elephants of all ages are cared for and left to roam in the forested surroundings of the park that spans about 250 acres. Free from the chains and shackles of abuse.
The Sad Story Behind Tourism and the Treatment of Elephants
Over the centuries across Asia, the elephant has been revered, worshipped and respected as a symbol of royal power and religious devotion. So why do you see so many elephants abused and exploited? It’s a contradiction that has plagued the fate of the elephants not only in Thailand but also in other countries such as Myanmar, where elephants are used for logging. The global demand for teak wood means illegal logging is rife, particularly in Northern Myanmar. This has resulted in the gradual deforestation of one of the worlds most biologically diverse forests, not to mention the exploitation of these animals. Elephants used for logging are only protected for as long as this practice continues. Ban the logging and the future of hundreds of elephants is unknown. It’s an ironic cycle of exploitation.
In Thailand, the ban on logging in 1989 resulted in many elephants being abandoned or worse still killed. Many domesticated elephants ended up on the streets of Thailand, trained by keepers to beg for money or used in camps offering tourists a ride. Although wild elephants are protected by Thai law, domesticated elephants are not and therefore vulnerable to the whims of their owners and subjected to horrendous abuse.
Phajaan – Crushing the spirit
Thousands of tourists come to Thailand with the hope of seeing and interacting with elephants. Many dream of riding an elephant, unaware of the suffering these animals endure in order to be tamed and finally succumb to the fickle demands of its owner.
The saying that “an elephant never forgets” is the very reason why these animals suffer – through the barbaric ritual of Phajaan known as “the crush”, practiced all over Asia.
This involves elephant calves being forcibly taken from their mothers and restrained in a confined space for days on end. Here they are beaten with sticks, their skin pierced and hacked with bull-hooks. In a wretched condition they are starved and deprived of sleep until they lose the will to live. Until their spirit is crushed.
They live in constant fear of the memory of being stabbed, maimed and abused resulting in total submission.
I’ll be honest. I’ve ridden an elephant – in Chitwan, Nepal. A lot of people have. You don’t think it harms them as they are such huge animals, but it actually damages their spines. After learning so much at the Elephant Nature Park, I’ll never do it again. Looking back It wasn’t the experience I thought it was going to be. In fact, I felt guilty afterwards. I wasn’t aware of the practice of Phajaan, but now I know, I would never ride an elephant again. In fact I would consciously choose not to take part in any activity that perpetuates the exploitation of elephants. I guess it’s easy for me to say this from the comfort of my western viewpoint as this issue is not as black and white as it seems. Not paying to ride elephants would result in the owners losing their source of income and being unable to look after themselves or the elephants. Consequently the elephants may be abandoned or worse. Again, it’s a vicious cycle of exploitation.
Here is an interesting video that highlights the suffering of the elephants
A Magical Day with the Elephants
Elephant Nature Park offers so many opportunities to spend time with elephants. From day visits to volunteer programs. It was easy to arrange the visit directly with them and they will collect you from your accommodation in Chiang Mai.
We kicked off our day by feeding the elephants from the viewing platform. It was great to see so many elephants come over to us and gently pick the fruit from our hands.
We were taken to the food storage facilities where local workers and Burmese migrants worked to prepare and chop the fruit to distribute to the elephants everyday.
This was followed by a walk with the elephants to a platform by the river. Here we listened to the guide tell us personal stories of the elephants and how they were rescued from abuse and exploitation. Illegal capturing, brutal methods of taming elephants and exploitation in tourism were just a few of the many issues that we learned of.
We spent a lot of time observing the elephants and it was great to see how they interacted socially with one another. These two were inseparable. If one of them left the other even for a few minutes, you knew about it! Did they trumpet loudly? Yes. did I run? Oh yeah! (Well they were running in my direction)! Mmm, there seems to be recurring theme here!
After a buffet lunch, Asad and I got a chance to give the elephants a bath in the river.
I remember the story about this poor old girl. Her hip broken by a male elephant who forcibly tried to mate with her. She was then brought to the nature park for treatment but now apparently suffers with arthritis.
The park is also a sanctuary for dogs, cats and buffalo!
Feeding time again! In the afternoon, we watched the elephants feed then had a lesson on elephant anatomy and the diseases that affect them.
Our time at the Elephant Nature Park was so much fun. It gave us a chance to get close to these wonderful animals who after being treated so horrendously by humans still allowed us near them. It was great to learn so much about the plight of the Asian elephant and about the wonderful work carried out by staff and volunteers at the park.
For more information on how to visit or volunteer, visit the Elephant Nature Park website.