So there we were…walking through the green grass of the nature park, followed by a small pack of playful dogs, watching a family of elephants graze and swim together only a few feet away.
After crossing the border back into Thailand, we headed straight to the northern city of Chiang Mai. We spent the first few days just relaxing around town and then rented a motorbike to drive out into the surrounding hills to check out some local waterfalls at Doi Inthanon national park. But the highlight of our time in the area was taking a visit out to an elephant sanctuary located about 60 km outside the city. We found out about Elephant Nature Park through someone else’s travel blog. If you didn’t know this already, Jason reads them constantly in his spare time 🙂 We read about an American couple who came for a short stay and then came back again to volunteer for several weeks because they had such a wonderful experience. After doing some of our own research, we realized this organization was something we were very interested in supporting ourselves. We wanted to volunteer for a one week stay but the timing didn’t work out so we signed up for a 2 night/3 day visit instead.
Elephants have always been an intricate part of the Thai culture, they have been around for centuries but unfortunately their numbers are quickly dwindling here in Asia. Most elephants here have been owned by private families for generations and were raised as working animals used to pull trees or move lumber. Nowadays, many work the tourist circuit providing visitors rides through the jungle or even performing on city side streets where fascinated people pay to feed them a few bananas. What many people don’t see (or just don’t know) is the way many of the elephants are treated. We did an elephant safari in Nepal a few months ago but after learning a bit more about how many of the elephants are raised, we now feel quite differently about our experience. In most Asian cultures, elephants are given their own Mahout (or master) whose job it is to break them in to be submissive and obedient. As you might guess, this is not a pleasant process and for centuries the Thais have used abuse, dominance and torture to ‘train’ these animals for the purpose of their owner. Elephants are considered just another piece of livestock here, like a cow or water buffalo, therefore giving them no rights against owners who may mistreat them. The ritual of making an elephant submissive is heartbreaking to watch. They force the elephant into a small stable, not even big enough for it to move or turn, and men from the village take turns stabbing their legs and body with sticks armed with nails at the end. This process goes on for days while they try to teach it commands, and eventually when the animal is released they are very badly damaged and can hardly walk. Once the animal accepts a Mahout and begins to obey, many of them are forced to do backbreaking tasks and work for the rest of their life.
There is one woman here in Thailand who is not only trying to change the traditions and educate locals on how to properly treat these animals, but she has opened a sanctuary where many of these working elephants can go back to being just elephants. Her name is Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert and she is doing amazing things for these gentle giants. Starting in 1992, Lek began taking in elephants that were no longer wanted or were useless to their owners due to injury or illness. Today, the sanctuary cares for over 30 elephants, all of which have been purchased off of various private owners throughout Thailand and Burma. Along with the elephants, the park is home to over 60 dogs (which you know we loved!), a herd of water buffalo, a herd of cows and one sun bear. None of these animals are used for any purpose, they all live at the sanctuary and are free to roam wherever they want. They can leave their past behind and become just animals again!
To support the sanctuary and keep the elephants (and the dogs) fed, the park is open to tourists that can come help feed and bath the elephants. Because these animals were raised around people, they are all still matched with a Mahout (who is trained to treat them with respect) who cares for and looks after them on a daily basis. Tourists that come to visit get to help out at feeding time, since all the elephants are hand fed, and then get to head down to the river where the elephants take their daily swim. We chose to stay at the park for 3 days which involved a bit of elephant feeding each day, a guided walk through the grasslands to watch the elephants grazing, and on the last day, we got to help the weekly volunteers prepare the elephant food. We got our hands dirty unloading a large watermelon delivery, peeling bins full of bananas and then mashing the bananas up to make elephant balls to feed to the older elephants who can’t chew the raw fruit. Overall it was a fabulous experience to not only see many of these elephants being cared for so well, but to also learn about the trials many of the animals are facing here in Asia.
Being at the park in person, we realize that it takes a lot of work to keep the sanctuary running and without money coming in from tourists, none of it would be possible. The elephants are hand fed twice a day and they need a lot of food to fill their baskets each day. If you ever make a trip to Thailand, we would highly recommend a visit to the Elephant Nature Park to help support this wonderful sanctuary. Still want to help but don’t think you will make it to Thailand? Through their website you can foster one of the many loving elephants or make a donation to fill an elle belly! For more information or to make a donation, please visit www.elephantnaturefoundation.org.