Animal tourism is big business in Thailand, particularly in the North. Every travel agency advertises various different tours involving animals from zoos and safari parks to elephant trekking. Two of the most popular animals are tigers and elephants. There is a place near Chiang Mai called Tiger Kingdom, and a similar enterprise called Tiger Temple north of Bangkok. At both they offer you the opportunity to get close to a range of tigers and pose with their heads on your lap etc. After some research and reading various reports of the tigers living in terrible conditions, we decided that the novelty of the photos wasn't worth the suffering endured by the animals and that we didn't want to support this business.
Similarly, elephant tourism has a terrible reputation in the region. A lot of reviews of different trekking companies and elephant camps state that mistreatment is common and the elephants are noted to be clearly in distress. Again, we obviously didn't want to take our business to any park which was like this. We also weren't interested in riding elephants after reading a few articles about how they are 'broken in' to become docile enough to allow humans to ride them. This is commonly known as the 'crush' and this article explains the process pretty well-
I might sound like a hypocrite as I rode an elephant in India back in February, and I feel so guilty about this after doing some research into the suffering that these elephants go through daily. Needless to say, now I know more about it, I wouldn't consider doing it again!!
We thought initially that we weren't going to be able to have any kind of ethical elephant experience, until we found out about Elephant Nature Park. Set up by a Thai woman called Lek in 1995, this sanctuary started out as a home for four formerly mistreated elephants. There is now a group of 36 there, mostly females but with four males. This gender discrepancy is because more female elephants are put to work as they are easier to train and more placid. Therefore, they generally require sanctuary more often. Lek predominantly rescues mistreated elephants from the illegal logging industry, circuses, street begging and those who have injured by landmines, meaning most of the elephants have noticeable injuries.
We had originally looked to do an overnight stay, however due to the popularity of the camp this wasn't possible and we were restricted to a one-day visit. The booking process was simple and although the cost was higher than any other day-trip apart from Borneo (about £60) we were both still keen and knew our money was going to a good cause! The bus picked us up bright and early and the hour-long journey to the park passed quickly as a documentary about Lek and the elephants was shown. This highlighted the issues which elephants face and the industries which they are forced to work in. Street begging has thankfully now been outlawed but there are many elephants who used to do this and they all now need new homes. The contradiction driving to the park was really apparent as we passed numerous elephants plodding along the main road with large wooden boxes strapped to their backs sometimes supporting the weight of 3 or 4 people.
When we arrived at the park, we were struck by the lovely setting it is in. Nestled in a valley between forested hills, there is greenery everywhere and it's a refuge from the bustling city of Chiang Mai. All the elephants at the park are free roaming with no confines or chains to keep them in one place. Therefore when we walked into the park we were instantly greeted by the sight of many different elephants all having the time of their lives munching on the leaves and playing with each other.
We were left to observe the elephants for a short while and then Andy, our guide, brought over a bucket of food for us to start feeding the elephants. The 36 elephants consume several tons of food a day (each needing 10% of their body weight each day) meaning feeding is a regular occurrence. This was lucky for us as it gave us plenty of opportunities to interact with the elephants having never fed them before! The first elephant we fed was a geriatric in her late 70s. Her teeth were in poor condition so she had a special diet of watermelon chunks, peeled bananas and other soft fruits. You can tell the difference between older and younger elephants because of the indentations in their skulls (bigger when older) and the number of wrinkles they have. This elephant was very placid and happy to wait for us to feed her. Holding out the pieces of fruit next to her trunk, she would then promptly stretch her trunk out and wrap it round the food transporting it to her mouth.
The next elephant we fed was much younger, about 30, and much more wilful. She kept going for the basket if we were taking to long to feed her, and when taking fruit from your hand she quite often nearly took you with it! Her grip was incredibly strong showing that while these animals are generally not dangerous, you wouldn't want to do anything to incur their wrath!
After they had polished off every morsel of food (their intelligence is very apparent as if you show them the empty basket they promptly wander away) we were then directed towards the medical area. The park also is a rescue centre for cats, dogs and water buffalo so walking through the grass you see copious amounts of these.
Arriving at the medical centre, we saw another old, female elephant who had multiple injuries. She had a large abcess on her right, front leg, injuries on her feet and an infection in one of her eyes. There was charts up detailing the treatments she was undergoing and most of the money raised by admissions goes towards veterinary care which is very expensive! She again was very gentle and happy to be stroked and fed.
In a nearby field was another elephant just hanging around with her mahout (lifelong carer). We stood for a while and just observed and stroked her. She was pretty happy to pose for photos and looked genuinely happy and content, just how she should!
Since the inception of the park, there have been four successful elephant births, the most recent of these occurring 3 months ago. There is also an 8-month old, a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old. We were able to see the youngest with his mother and 'auntie' (not really related but part of the same herd so fulfil different family roles). The young elephant was tiny and very boisterous! He kept coming towards us and every time he did we had to move as getting too close could encourage the mother to become aggressive to protect from the perceived threat. The relationship between the mother and son was amazing to watch with the son teasing the mother, nuzzling into her and always looking to her for approval when he moved too far away.
When we weren't watching these elephants, another one nearby was giving itself a bath in a nearby pile of mud to cool down from the hot day. Each trunkful contains about 2 gallons of liquid meaning she was able to give herself a proper soaking!!
Tearing ourselves away we followed our guide who showed us the safest way to feed elephants directly to their mouths. They obviously have a very special relationship with the elephants who are content to follow their instructions. There wasn't a bullhook in sight, no physical violence or even so much as a raise of a voice and the camp believes solely in positive reinforcement in dealing with the elephants i.e. rewarding for good behaviour rather than punishing for bad.
Heading for lunch, a strictly vegetarian affair due to the parks affinity with all animals, we took the opportunity to play with some of the dogs from the rescue center. One was hilarious and kept jumping on the table much to the chagrin of some of the volunteers. During our 'break' we also walked to the elevated platform through the park to observe some of the elephants. There were three elephants there who form one smaller herd. They all have horrific stories about their origins.
The first, eldest elephant is blind. She was working in the logging industry and was forced to work when pregnant. This induced premature labour and she lost her calf. She refused to work after this and became quite aggressive. In order to force her to continue, the loggers would fire slingshots at her eyes as this is their most delicate spot. This caused her to become completely blind. On arrival at the camp, she was 'adopted' by an elderly female elephant who now follows her around. This elephant has bad scarring on her legs from mistreatment at a different elephant camp who forced her to give rides. Again one of the many horror stories we were given. The third member of the herd was probably the most obviously disfigured of all the elephants at the park. She again worked in the logging industry and ultimately was forced to enter a very cruel breeding programme when she was no longer fit to work. Left alone at too young an age with a huge and aggressive male elephant, her hips and legs were broken and one of her legs is far shorter than the others as she was still growing at the time.
After observing for a while longer, we went to see the other baby who, along with her mother, is part of the largest herd at the camp with 9 members. They were being fed again and were playfully fighting over the food. We also got to meet Lek, the founder of the park who was sat next to one of the elephants. You can see quite how close her bond is with them as one of the elephants placed the end of her trunk over Leks mouth (maybe trying to give her kisses) and was clearly seeking her attention! Lek is tiny- maybe 4ft8- but she's still in control at the park!!
The last part of the days programme was the chance to give one of the elephants a bath. A daily ritual for the herd it basically involved throwing buckets of water over her to rinse off the mud which would then be put straight back on again!! On occasion we got more wet than the elephant but it was fun all the same.
After giving her a bath, her mahout gave us some fruit and opportunity to feed her directly to the mouth. This was quite scary but she was obviously pretty experienced and cared more about the food than who was giving it to her! Her tongue was huge and felt pretty rough and her jaws were very strong so you had to get your hand out quickly!!
After a quick final feeding and covered in mud, we headed back to the bus and back to Chiang Mai taking some amazing memories of our day with us! In the future we would love to go back for longer and are both jealous of everyone who has volunteered at this amazing place!!