Finding the best ethical elephant encounter in Thailand is a great way to experience responsible sustainable elephant tourism, which can help to preserve the alarming dwindling numbers of these immense and incredible creatures. At the beginning of the 20th century, Asian elephant numbers in Thailand alone were 100,000 and today they are estimated to be between 3,000-4,000 which is truly alarming. Conservation is the way forward with nature reserves such as Elephant Nature Park, providing protection and shelter for these massive gentle giants. Spending a day in the company of the endearing elephants is an unforgettable experience which I can thoroughly recommend.
Ethical Elephant Encounters And Why They Are Needed
Despite being revered in Thailand for centuries, elephants have been used to perform different tasks for years with little or no concern for their welfare. The tradition of using elephants for logging, hauling timber and clearing forests was halted in 1989 when a countrywide logging ban was imposed by the Thai government. The widespread destruction of the elephant’s rich diverse natural habitat however, together with illegal ivory poaching has resulted in lack of food, death and the real threat of extinction.
The domesticated elephant population has also suffered as they ceased to be of any use to their owners (mahouts) who had to find alternative ways to pay for their upkeep and care. With no money to support their families and the impossible task of feeding their elephants who consume 200-300 kg of food daily, many mahouts turned to illegal logging or fled to cities. Here, the elephants are made to walk the hot road surfaces where accidents are frequent, hours long, diet poor and treatment severe. An elephant’s life is debilitating as they are malnourished, dehydrated, confused, lonely and stressed while being used to beg for food. Mahouts are inexperienced in animal care, the elephants not used to being ridden and the result is cruel treatment and frequent beatings.
Herded around the streets for tourist’s delight, these animals will have a short life driven by incorrect diet, stress, boredom and loneliness.
Increased tourism driven by visitor’s wanting to ride elephants or see them perform is feeding this cruelty. Tourist inspired elephant camps thrive because foreign visitors are willing to pay for the so called privilege, so the cruelty continues, many visitors unaware of the ill treatment used to get the elephant to perform these tasks.
Mistreatment And Abuse Of Asian Elephants
Elephants are highly intelligent creatures, with immense strength, adaptability and aptitude making them easy targets to train and perform entertaining tasks – for people. This art of performing doesn’t happen overnight nor is it gentle. In fact, it can only be described as brutal torture as this is what it amounts to.
Young elephants are poached and torn away from their mothers who are often killed in the process which is witnessed by the young elephant. The calves are left traumatised, and their life expectancy dramatically shortened. A high percentage of baby elephants used in tourism may have been poached this way, taken from their natural habitat and their mothers, causing them lasting emotional and mental distress.
This is merely the start of the process to gain control over the elephant. Wild elephants need to be tamed and “Phajaan” or crushing, is a ritual practised in order to separate the spirit of an elephant from its body so that it becomes submissive to its mahout or handler.
After being dragged from its mother the calf is tied down in a crate so it cannot turn, sit, lie down or turn around. Kept like this for days or weeks without water or food, the baby elephant is burned, beaten with clubs, yelled at and pierced with bull hooks, which slash and tear the animals skin, forehead and ears.
With no respite from this torture, when the mahout eventually brings the elephant its first meal and drink, he has gained control over the elephant and the final stage of mental and emotional manipulation is complete. That is, the ones that survive the process.
Throughout their lives, the mahout will use sharp bull hooks and beatings regularly to force them to carry tourists, walk for hours in immense heat and perform circus activities.
An elephant NEVER forgets this brutality.
Why You Shouldn’t Ride An Elephant
The boom in the tourism market has provided an alternative way of making money for mahouts from their domesticated elephants. While there is continuing tourist demand for riding and entertainment of elephants, the decline and mistreatment is perpetuated.
Despite their huge size elephant’s spines are not designed to support heavy weight on their backs. Carrying two people in a saddle or “Howdah” plus the mahout riding on the neck for 5 or more hours a day can lead to permanent spinal injuries, nerve damage, inflammation and chronic back pain. This is without the hard surfaces they have to walk on, the heat of the midday sun, being prodded and hit to keep them moving and then being chained by the foot.
What Is The Answer?
The answer is conservation, prevention or cracking down on poaching and the support of projects set up to provide shelter for elephants.
Ethical Elephant Encounter At Elephant Nature Park
If there was a life that you could envisage for these incredible gentle giants then it has to be here at this wonderful oasis of love, calm and security . A visit here will leave a footprint on your conscience and your soul. The existence of this sanctuary is down to one lady, founder Lek Chailert who has devoted her life to rescuing and fighting for the rights and welfare of the Asian elephants in Thailand. From her upbringing in a small hill tribe village north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, she has grown up around elephants and from an early age recognised the need to change the country’s acceptance of their treatment to prevent extinction.
She has fought for positive change in the way that both domestic and wild Asian elephants are treated in what has been a hard battle. However, with sheer determination she has witnessed real change happening and in 1995 founded Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai province, Northern Thailand, to provide a safe haven for mistreated elephants thus giving them a new life.
A unique project which grows in strength year by year, this oasis in the depth of the jungle, tucked away from the harsh destruction most elephants have experienced is a true haven. Providing a safe sanctuary away from any pain and suffering and a place of rehabilitation, the rescued elephants can live out their years being cared for and surrounded by endless love. These distressed animals can live their lives free from abuse and are able to roam freely with other elephants, maybe for the first time in their lives.
There are no rides allowed, no tricks performed and no elephant paintings for sale. Just freedom for these magnificent elephants!
Over 35 elephants which have mostly been saved from illegal logging industry and tourism, can roam freely and happily amid 350+ rescued dogs, some cats and many other rescued animals.
The ethos of the Park is to provide a home for endangered animals, work towards restoration of the rain forest through a tree planting programme, maintain the cultural integrity of the local community, educate visitors and others on the plight of endangered local species and act independently of pressure groups and political movements.
Elephant Nature Park Experience
Arriving at the Park we were both excited and ready to learn about the plight of the Asian elephant. Neither of us felt the need to “ride an elephant” and when I researched places to visit, it was with the intention of finding a sanctuary that forbid such practices as this was an important factor and one we felt strongly about.
We were transported from our hotel in Chiang Mai and as we entered the Park, it was already apparent that this was going to be a special place that would leave a deep impression on us both.
Vast lush green open spaces and a sense of calm and serenity ensued as we started our tour and met some of the important residents. Elephants are magnificent creatures with a gentle manner, sociable spirit and appreciation of companionship. As we wandered around this incredible wildlife home with dogs lazing in the sun happily coexisting with the elephants, it felt like one big happy and deeply loved family.
I marvelled at the close relationship that is evident between an elephant and its mahout, a feeling of warmth, respect and trust between them. Feeding the elephants fresh fruit from the palm of my hand was incredible as was walking alongside them as we wandered around, stopping to meet new friends along the way. Dogs walk among the elephants freely, with neither batting an eye as though it has always been this way for them.
It was fascinating to learn about the individual elephants, their quirky natures and who had a special attachment with who. The majority settle in very quickly to their new home but sadly for some, the mental torture they have endured takes time to heal, if indeed it ever does. Evidence of their abuse and history are visible, such as irregular rims of ears resulting from having been torn by a bull hook during punishment and foot damage from landmines.
Despite knowing that it didn’t feel right to ride an elephant, watching a video depicting the torture they endure was deeply upsetting and disturbing, I think for us all. It was incredibly hard to stay and watch the film and I just wanted to get up out of my seat and leave the room, as others did. But some things are important to see visually, so the memories remain with you long after the event.
I felt a deep sadness for these beautiful creatures who deserved to be treated with kindness and be able to roam freely in their natural habitat, unharmed by humans. At the same time I thanked God for the incredibly brave, intuitive and remarkable woman “Lek” is, and all that she stands for. What she has achieved and strives for everyday, together with her team of workers is nothing short of miraculous. She is truly inspirational and I feel humbled by her commitment to these gentle, friendly creatures.
One of the highlights of our day was joining in with the ritual of bathing in the river which the elephants obviously love. Wading into the river armed with our buckets and hurling cold water over their bodies was great fun. Being able to interact with them and share their routine was magical.
Witnessing first hand the contentment the elephants show, sharing their home, their lives, even just for a day, was an unforgettable experience and one that we will always treasure. It was a great privilege to have such close contact with them, to stroke their bodies and press your forehead against their trunks.
As the day came to a close and we said our goodbyes, I felt that I left the Park inspired, full of love for these majestic elephants and feeling incredibly protective of them. They deserve nothing less than the staff give them, safety, happiness and unending love for the rest of their lives.
Whether or not you decide to ride an elephant is your personal choice, but I urge you to consider how they are treated to enable you to climb onto their backs before you make your final decision.
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) has become incredibly popular over the years and as a result, they have branched out and now under the name Save Elephant Foundation (SEF) there are several branches, namely, Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia, Journey To Freedom, Surin Project, Elephant Care Program and SEF Myanmar.
For details of the numerous projects that SEF are involved in, check the official website here.
How You Can Help The Elephants
- There are numerous ways that you can contribute towards the Park, which is a non-profit organization.
- Visit the Park or sign up as a volunteer.
- Donate to Save Elephant Foundation.
- Order something from the Save Elephant Foundation Online Shop.
- Spread the news of the plight of Asian elephants so more people are informed.
- Follow the Park on social media.
- Sponsor an elephant (or dog).
- Do not support poachers by buying ivory products.
- Help fulfill the Park’s Wish List.
How To Visit The Elephant Nature Park
- Location : Chiang Mai, Thailand
- How To Arrive : Comfortable passenger vans pick you up from Chiang Mai city center. The journey takes approximately 90 minutes to travel the 65 km.
- Short Park Visit
- Single Day Visit
- Overnight Visit (2 days, 1 night)
For full details, costs, bookings and questions regarding all visits and volunteer opportunities, check the official website here.
- They majority of rescued dogs live in newly constructed shelters, only some are free to roam the property.
- All visitors and volunteers are covered by our accident insurance up to 200,000 THB
- Lunch is included in the price of your visit. All meals are vegetarian and are served buffet style offering a large variety of Thai and Western dishes. A selection of fresh salads, fruit and vegetables are also available. All dietary restrictions can be accommodated.
Have you ridden an elephant before or is this an experience that is on your bucket list? How do you feel now that you have full information about the treatment of elephants? Drop me a message in the comments box below.
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