The image of the elephant is ubiquitous throughout Thailand, emblazoned on the labels of the local beer and the popular elephant-print harem pants worn by nomadic travellers. However, far from being revered as a cultural icon, elephants are commonly seen and used as a financial means.
Once abundant in population numbers—there was thought to be over 100,000 domesticated elephants at the beginning of the twentieth century—it is estimated that there are now less than 4000 domesticated elephants and approximately 2000–3000 wild elephants left in Thailand (although exact numbers vary). This dramatic drop in numbers has come about as a result of land clearing and the increase in the human population. What’s more, over half of domestic elephants are still used in tourism.
I can understand the attraction of wanting to ride an elephant, to be up close with these majestic animals and to partake in an ‘exotic’ experience that promises another alluring travel tale to take back home. However, it is simply unethical to engage in such activities given the amount of information that we now have on hand regarding the cruel and depraved treatment of elephants within the tourism industry. Elephants are trained to perform for tourists by being beaten into submission, struck with bull hooks as a form of punishment, locked up in chains and held in isolation. Due to the spinal structure of these pachyderms, the houdahs—the seats placed on the back of the elephant—already cause of a lot of pain, even without humans in them.
Prior to my visit to the Elephant Nature Park, I wanted to ensure that the elephant park was ethical and responsible in its operations. I was particularly concerned as I had read terrible reviews about another elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka—the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage—that is often featured in wanderlust-worthy Instagram posts showing bloggers looking off into the distance, with the herd of elephants bathing in the water below them. I had instantly put the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage on my travel bucket list. However, several visitors have commented on the unethical behaviour towards the elephants at the orphanage (read this post from This Battered Suitcase), including chaining the elephants up in the river and forcing them to pose for photos. Once I read this, I immediately crossed the orphanage off my bucket list. There is no photo worth taking at the expense of an animal.
Visiting the Elephant Nature Park
The day that I spent at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, was both enlightening and memorable. The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary that rescues elephants that have been mistreated and/or injured—most have been used in the tourism industry. The elephants are not forced to work in the park and are free to roam the open spaces. Needless to say, riding elephants is not an activity offered at the elephant sanctuary.
The park offers a multitude of volunteer single-day and multi-day programs in which people can visit and interact with the elephants without exploiting them. I chose to do the Care for Elephants – Single Day program, and, as it was low season, there was only me and one other person doing the program, which allowed for an even more intimate experience with these beautiful animals. The Care for Elephants program involved two elephants that belonged to a local villager, who had previously used the elephants for riding. The park essentially pays the villager the amount that he would have made from tourism to take the elephant out of riding, allowing the elephants to spend their days roaming, eating and playing in the river.
When we arrived at the elephant park, we started off by chopping up watermelons and rockmelons to fill two large baskets. As soon as the elephants saw the food, they trundled over to us and enthusiastically picked the fruit out of our palms with their trunks and placed it in their mouths in an agile motion. The fruit was gone in a matter of minutes, and it was actually quite a challenging task to feed them quickly enough, as every time you picked up another piece of fruit, it was immediately plucked out of your palm again.
We then went on a jungle walk with the elephants, our guide and the mahouts, which are the elephants’ keepers. It wasn’t a long walk, but it took longer because the elephants lumbered through the jungle behind us, occasionally stopping to pick up leaves to eat and branches to scratch themselves with or to flick away bugs. We were taught to cry out ‘Ma!’ as a way of encouraging the elephants to keep going.
It was a thrill to traipse through the jungle with the elephants, if not a little intimidating, as there were times that I was caught in the middle of the two. However, the elephants were gentle giants, very affectionate by nature, and it was an incredible experience to stand so close to them and gaze into their soulful eyes, which were framed by the most magnificent lashes. They say an elephant never forgets and I wondered about their history and the suffering they had been forced to endure in the past.
After a short distance, we reached our lunch stop ahead of the elephants, where our guide set up a lovely lunch with views overlooking the river and the mountains.
Following lunch, we took the elephants down to the river for their ‘bath time’. We had buckets to splash water on them and gave their leathery, tough skin a good scrub. One of the elephants particularly enjoy her bath and kept spraying us with water!
We then bade farewell to the elephants and returned to the elephant sanctuary. As we walked around the park, our guide let us know which elephants we could get close to and which to stay clear of, as each and every one had a different temperament. He said that most of the elephants in the park were older and some preferred to be alone. Some elephants had arrived in the park with injuries sustained from stepping on landmines and had been nursed back to health by the medical team.
We also saw a baby elephant that had been the first elephant born in the park. The baby elephant was constantly surrounded by its herd, but when it finally broke free of its protective shield, we gleefully watched him as he stumbled around, wanting to play with the dogs and other elephants.
As well as the elephant rehabilitation program, the Elephant Nature Park also has a dog rehabilitation program that had rescued dogs that were abandoned in the severe floods which occurred in Thailand in 2011. We saw lots of volunteers walking the dogs outside of the park, and many people end up adopting the dogs at the end of their volunteer program.
Should you visit the Elephant Nature Park?
Some people argue that going to elephant sanctuaries is wholly unethical. I disagree with this sentiment and I think that if proper research is conducted beforehand, then visiting a legitimate elephant sanctuary can be helpful in rehabilitating the elephants as well as educating people about the treatment of these animals.
During my time at the park, I didn’t witness any abusive or harmful behaviour towards the elephants. There were a couple of elephants held in spacious pens, and, after we enquired about this, it was explained that the elephants were nursing injuries (we could also see that their ankles were dislocated) that would have been exacerbated through contact with other elephants. Any questions that we had were answered seriously and without hesitation, and, for me at least, this demonstrated the park’s firm commitment to rescuing these elephants from their painful pasts and rehabilitating them.
I would have no qualms about returning to the Elephant Nature Park. My brief time at the park was the highlight of my time in Chiang Mai and I couldn’t recommend the experience more.
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