Elephant Nature Park is the most recommended of the elephant sanctuaries in Northern Thailand and I can see why.
Yesterday, I had the chance to hang out with 3 elephants that the park purchased from various trades – teak logging, being ridden by tourists, forced breeding and performing in circuses or night markets. The program I participated in was designed to help recently arrived elephants acclimate and learn to trust that humans didn’t have to be the source of pain and suffering. The 3 we hung out with were all around 40 and had been purchased for around 1 million THB (around $40,000 CAD) by the park in 2014 to lead a gentler life.
These 3 beauties – 2 females and a male – all had physical scars. In asking our guide how the park could tell what type of activities the elephants had been involved in, he pointed out some signs. They all had scars on their legs from teak logging, one had scars on her head made by hooks from being ridden, and two of the ones we saw later while walking through the park were blinds from the lights of performing for many years in night markets and shows. The male elephant had his tusks almost completely broken from teak logging. (I made a vow to myself that I will never buy anything teak)
I heard a lot of people say things about elephant sanctuaries before I went like “oh well, they’re just branding it as a sanctuary so that tourists go”, or “is it really any better”?
Intention matters a lot in these questions. It’s easy to be cynical – to assume that no one could possibly have good intentions or that there’s no point in pushing for better because bad will always be there. For me, that’s kind of like saying there’s no need to shower because at some point I’m going to get dirty again. It’s not going to get you any where except somewhere you probably don’t want to go.
The majority of the elephants in the park (around 70) were stolen as babies, tied in the forest and tortured until their ‘spirits were broken’ – until they learned to obey a human master. I don’t know about you but even thinking about this for me is such a difficult thought. (Google this for yourself, though be aware that it’s difficult to watch)
The elephants had mahouts – one man per elephant or per group of elephants in some cases. I wanted that to not be necessary, though I understand that these animals had spent most of their life in such an arrangement and were learning how to transition to another way of life. The mahouts were mostly gentle, though firm in their tone and ensured that we moved out of the way if one of the elephants were moving quickly (they could definitely easily run us over without even necessarily seeing us – definitely had to pay attention!). The mahouts for the two females hung back and relaxed, and the one for the male was a bit more involved and they asked us not touch him.
The founder of the park, Lek Chailert (bio from their site here), wanted to make change. Making change is hard and it’s never perfect. The park has to buy these elephants and help them transition to a different life. To do that, they invite tourists in to volunteer with them. I’m okay with paying for this experience because my money will go towards their facilities, food for the elephants, hiring guides and mahouts. I’m okay with paying a small amount to give these beautiful animals a different life.
The park is an example of what can happen when one person says, okay, I’ll take the risk – I’ll take the risk to start this and hope that others will want to help. And it’s working – we saw 2 baby elephants whose ‘spirits had not been broken’ – who were loved and cared for by a group of older female elephants purchased by the park.
The one you see to the left was partially blind and kept her trunk out regularly making sure the baby was close by. And that baby looked like he was having quite a lot of fun.
This is one of 2 males that were in an enclosure we couldn’t enter. They also never had their spirits broken, so the goal is to help them learn how to survive before they are released into the wild.
I’m hoping for a time when places like this are no longer needed. But for today, they are needed and I’m truly grateful to have spent a day here. I‘m hoping that we continue to move toward a time when markets are more ethical, when we truly take into consideration the full cost of what we are consuming. As one of my favourites would say, ‘the struggle to create experiences that are worth paying for, that’s just the beginning’.
Elephant Nature Park was sprinkled with a little bit of magic. If you ever have a chance, GO.
On the left is a blind female elephant, I think somewhere in her 30s (we’re around the same age) who had been blinded by performing at night markets, and her friend to the right who had her leg severely broken during teak logging and was quite ill (in her 50s). They got to hang out together every day and the elephant on the right helped the blind one in finding her way around. The man in the middle was the mahout who worked with them.
And if you’re looking for a dog, they have over 400 looking for a forever home.