Elephant riding, tours, training, and feeding are big business in Chiang Mai, Thailand. If you are ever in Chiang Mai and consider “doing something with elephants”, please only consider Elephant Nature Park and do your research.
Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for retired and rescued preforming and working elephants. I learned a lot in my time there and thought I would share it with you guys so when you are in Chiang Mai you can make an educated decision on spending time with elephants in Thailand.
Elephant Nature Park doesn’t just care for their 36 elephants, they also have over 130 dogs that they care for that live on the santuary’s land.
There is also a herd of water buffalo that heard how nice it is there and took up residence.
Dan and I originally tried to volunteer for a week at the park but they were all booked up through mid-December. If you can, I highly recommend volunteering for an extended period of time. We were just day helpers and I personally felt that we were mostly visitors (and in the way of the people actually helping) and not so much helpers.
But to get to the important information: Asian elephants are smaller and tamer than their African cousins. In fact, if “broken”, Asian elephants can be trained to do all sorts of things for human entertainment. There are 3,000-4,000 “working” elephants in Thailand. What happens to those elephants when they can no longer work or carry tourists or paint pictures with their trunks?
That’s where Elephant Nature Park comes in. They provide a home, family, and food for “retired” elephants for the rest of their natural lives. There is no other elephant sanctuary in Thailand and there are an awful lot of working elephants. For the elephants at Elephant Nature Park, being rescued by Lek (the founder of the sanctuary) is the best possible thing that could ever happen to them. It should be noted that an elephant is worth a lot in Thailand. Obviously, elephants that cannot work are worth less, but this isn’t like a chicken that fell of the transport truck in the USA (worth nothing to the “farmer”). These horrible people who abuse the elephants still want compensation; and Lek does often pay for the elephants she rescues.
One of the things I did not know before spending time at Elephant Nature Park is that Asian elephants, after being trained, become like domestic animals. They cannot be sent back in to the wild as they no longer know how to care for themselves. This is really why Elephant Nature Park is so important! There is no where else for these beautiful creatures to go after they are no longer “useful”.
And since they are domesticated, but still huge (unlike your dog, for example) getting them to do the things you want involves bribery. Instead of punishing the elephants with bullhooks to get them to do what they want, Lek’s trainers uses bribes of the food variety. Each elephant has a trainer (mahout in Hindi) with him or her all day, and if an elephant needs to go from one end of the park to the other, for example, the mahout first tries voice commands and then if that doesn’t work: fruit.
Ultimately, the work that Elephant Nature Park does is vitally important as there is no where else for these elephants to go where they will be safe from harm and cared for for the rest of their 70-80 year lives.
My biggest problem with the sanctuary, as an ethical vegan, was that the elephants were “putting on a show” for us visitors. We fed the elephants fruits and veggies twice while we were there (in the wild their natural diet would generally consist of grasses and leaves) and got to crowed around them and take pictures with them at another point. They weren’t just left alone to be elephants. In some small way they are still working for their dinner. But things like riding the elephants is strictly forbidden at Elephant Nature Park.
And I obviously have a problem with paying for the elephants as well, as it encourages the people who use these elephants to continue, knowing that they get a reward even after their elephant can no longer work. But I don’t know how else Lek would be able to convince the “owners” to give up their old, blind, injured elephants.
Of course, it is obvious why they allow the volunteers to interact with the elephants at Elephant Nature Park. The tourists want to spend time with the elephants, not just watch them from afar, and it costs Lek $250,000 a year to run Elephant Nature Park. The money from visitors is desperately needed. So I was a bit conflicted. I know these elephants are used to spending time with humans, and they certainly were not showing any physical signs of stress, but it still felt off to me as an animal activist.
All of the behaviors I saw from the elephants, and their interactions with their trainers and visitors indicated to me that they are happy and well cared for. So, I am certainly not saying “don’t visit Elephant Nature Park”, I am just trying to examine all of the sides of the issue. In case you can’t tell from the pictures, we had a fantastic time with the elephants despite some hesitation. You should come to your own conclusions, but Elephant Nature Park is certainly the best option for these domesticated elephants that I know of.
Ultimately, I agree with this sign that I saw at Elephant Nature Park: