Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai – A Lesson in Tradition, Survival and Hope
February 2, 2015|Posted in: Thailand
I love elephants. If you’ve read some of my previous posts, for my first solo adventure I travelled all the way to Africa to view these majestic animals in the wild, and they didn’t disappoint. They are amazingly gentle, docile, social and emotionally intelligent animals. And when I came to Thailand in 2013, I chose to head to Chiang Mai to take part in an elephant trek. It was a brilliant day, getting so close to these creatures and being able to feel the amazing strength is just something I can’t describe. When researching my trip for this time around I came across a few reviews about an ‘Elephant Nature Park’ run by a Thai lady, Lek, who after growing up in a hill tribe, began rescuing orphaned, injured and old working elephants from the illegal logging trade.
I’d already done the trekking thing, so decided to visit and check out some of the work they are doing.
It cost 2,500 Baht for the day, which is one of the expensive elephant experiences (around £50), but most of that money is a donation to helping the elephants with food, medicine and care when rescued. It also promotes the park as the most natural way to view elephants in captivity, with no fences and over 400 acres to roam.
We were picked up from our hostel around 8am, and where introduced to our guide, Johnny, for the day. We then watched a brief video that explained the rules of the park on the minibus, hosted by the guy that plays Lou Carpenter on Neighbours (random!) The journey took about 1.30 hours, with a brief rest stop. When we arrived we had some time to apply sunscreen and leave our bags at our own set table before heading to feed the elephants from the platform.
From this instance we could tell that these elephants had gone through some horrific experiences. One of the elephants we began feeding had been rescued only 3 days before, and her leg looked like it had been broken and had not healed properly. We were to find out this was the case for most of the elephants in the park.
We were then guided around the park by Johnny to meet some of the elephants in person. I always forget how awesomely intimidating these animals actually are. But then how gentle they can also be.
All of the elephants we came across had their own awful stories. From being blinded by sticks and slingshots to stepping on a land mine and having half its leg blown off. There was even an elephant who had worked in a circus, and had become blinded by the constant bright lights and camera flashes. But then, after having some lunch back at the platform, we were shown a documentary film in their conference room. It was a documentary about the animals at the park, including a young elephant named Hope, whose mother was killed and the tribe he belonged too could not afford the milk to keep him.
The movie also showed something incredibly distressing, and something I never knew about the use of elephants in Thailand, and that was the use of a technique called ‘crushing’ or the ‘training crush’. It’s a centuries old tradition used to ‘domesticate’ wild elephants by trapping them in a small cage (one only big enough to hold the animal) and then they are beaten, stabbed with sticks that have nails attached, sleep deprived, starved and much more in order to ‘break’ the animals spirit and make them submissive. All believe that this negative reinforcement is the only way to get the animals to comply and because the laws around ‘domesticated’ elephants are none existent, nothing can be done to stop the torture of these beautiful creatures.
Even though these animals are revered in Thailand and for centuries they helped build the country it’s shocking to see that only 5000 Asian elephants are alive in Thailand today, that’s 95% down from a century ago.
The day was an amazingly eye opening experience, and one that has made me view the elephant industry with great scepticism. For now, I will stick to observing these creatures in their natural habitat. One where I know no human has been able to ‘crush’ its spirit or soul. I would definitely recommend coming here, to see the work they are doing.
Have you ever been to the Elephant Nature Park? Or taken part in an elephant trek? What are your thoughts on the use of elephants for tourism? Let me know in the comments below.
Amy is the founder of thewanderlustadventures.com. Currently residing in Reading, UK with a love of adventure travel, writing and photography - she pretty much writes about whatever the hell she wants!