Elephant Nature Park

Chiang Mai Travel Blog

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Stocking up on supplies

On Monday morning we left Chiang Mai for Elephant Nature Park, 1 ½ hours north of the city.


Elephant Nature Park is a non profit organisation, home to approx 30 rescued elephants. Most of these elephants have suffered violent abuse at the hands of their owners.


We have seen hundreds of tours around Chiang Mai offering various tours, almost always with some sort of elephant attraction included, riding on the back, or a show.

Part of the area for elephants to roam free
At the shows, the elephants paint pictures, play football and perform balancing acts. Almost a year ago we discovered the web page for the Elephant Nature Park and decided immediately that we wanted to go here.


On the way to the park we stopped off at a fruit market to pick up some of the fruit needed for the elephants. The average elephant eats 200-300kg a day, so a lot is necessary. They mainly eat fruit and veg, whole bunches of bananas at a time!!


For the rest of the journey we watched a documentary about how the park started, when a Thai woman called Lek who grew up in a hill tribe, saw how elephants were being trained for work and decided to try and help these animals. It is incredible how one person from such a humble background was able to set up such an influential project.

Meeting Lek
We were lucky enough to meet Lek during our stay, and we were slightly awestruck, it was like meeting a celebrity!!


Part of the video we watched, and also a subsequent video we watched that afternoon went into more detail about why these elephants need rescuing. When logging was made illegal in Thailand in 1989, hundreds of elephants became 'out of work'. In order to continue making money from them their owners realised that tourists would pay a great deal of money to see them perform and have a ride on them. Elephants are exceptionally intelligent (more on that later), and can learn commands. In order to train them, the owners and mahouts (keepers) would conduct a phaajann, a horrifically brutal ritual intended to break the elephant's will. At approx 3 years, the elephant is forced into a wooden cage so small that they barely fit.

They are not allowed food or water and are repeatedly hit with a metal hook, leaving infected wounds. This continues until the elephant 'submits' and stops wailing and trying to escape, at which point they are let out and the real 'training' begins. In order to teach them the tricks, the metal hooks are used repeatedly, along with slingshots and airguns. Many of the elephants are blinded if they refuse to obey a command, something which we actually witnessed on film. During the entire process the elephant gets weaker and weaker and many actually die. All this so that people can watch an elephant 'paint' a picture and 'play' football.


Many elephants also give rides to the tourists, they get a wooden bench strapped to their back, which the people ride on. These benches often have padding between them an the elephant.

However, the spine of an elephant is naturally arched and no matter how much padding is put on, the bench will always be placed on the top of the spine, slowly crushing it. The ropes to attach the bench are so tight, that they cut into the elephant side leaving long infected sores.


If they are a 'lucky' elephant, they bypass the shows (but not the training) and become 'street beggars' like the one we saw in Bangkok. The elephants are kept slightly outside the city during the day, and are walked along the busy roads and bustling markets at night with their keeper who has small bags of food which you can buy to feed to the elephant. Thank GOD we didn't do this when we saw it. Not only are they fed about 10% of their daily requirements, but the elephants are not used to the loud traffic noises, lights and jostling, and show visable signs of distress (rocking, ears tightly back, eyes to the floor).

Feed me!!
Some of the elephants at ENP had been hit by cars during their street beggar years.


All of these practices were shown to us on film, I should also note that this is not RARE cruelty. This is how EVERY elephant in Thailand is trained, is accepted practice and is not protected by the law. When our group watched it, we all stayed in, despite some aspects being incredible distressing. During the time we were there however we knew of many people who coudn't even finish watching it and walked out.


At ENP every elephant has been personally rescued by Lek, who generally has to pay the owner a huge amount of money to do so. Many of the elephants still have injuries years on, and almost all have visible scars from the metal hook on their forehead and down their sides.

Her vision is to train the elephants like you would train a dog, with love and treats. When new elephants come in she often works with them round the clock to try and rebuild their trust in humans, and show them the care that they have never experienced. The elephants get to 'be elephants', have all the space they want to roam around, form family groups and live a normal elephant existance. Lek is aware that training elephants isn't going to stop, so tries to educate owners and their mahouts with alternative methods. She doesn't go into camps and preach to them, as this would result in her alienating herself, but encourages change and tries to show them a different way.


We arrived at the park in time for morning feeding and went straight to work handing out huge baskets of watermelons, corn and bananas.

The elephants all know when feeding time is approaching and walk up to the feeding platform at the park just at the right time! Each elephant has their own trained mahout who is responsible for it's welfare, and they are never far away. The elephants take the food from your hand with their trunk to eat, the trunk is so incredibly powerful and precise, it has more muscles than our whole bodies!


After feeding we had lunch, a fantastic Thai buffet which we ate in a room near where we could see the elephants playing. Having arrived on a monday, we met all the new weekly volunteers and although we were only staying 3 days, we were allowed to join welcoming activities with them which was fantastic. It was really interesting meeting them, as many of them had done other projects around SE Asia and other places, plus we were all the same age and had loads in common.

Lisa was in her element, engaging in complicated debates about conservation with the others over lunch, and then dinner (and lunch the next day...etc) !!!


After lunch was the time we had most been looking forward too, bathtime!! The mahouts led their elephants down to the river and we each grabbed a bucket and brush and got in there too. They were so funny, lying down practically underwater with their trunk acting as a snorkel!! This was our first taste of being close to the elephant's whole body, and it was incredible. After the bathing, the mahouts gave their elephants some bread to eat. They loved this, and often tried to get into the packet by themsleves!! We were able to help with this, by standing right by the elephant's head and when it opened it's mouth, laying the bread on it's tongue.

Feeding with slices of bread
It was a very strange feeling when it shut it's mouth on your hand and you had to yank it to get it out, like being stuck in a huge trifle!!


That evening we got to join in the welcoming ceremony for the volunteers which was a real honour. A Buddhist priest performed the ceremony and blessed us, while some ladies tied string round our wrists to redress our spirit balance. Children from a local hill tribe also played instruments. It was really amazing to be part of it, and now I'm afraid to take my string off in case my spirits fly away (although it is getting quite grubby!). After the ceremony and a delicious dinner we went to our balcony with the volunteers and some beer for an evening of animal and travelling tales.


The next morning, the 3 of us on the three day trip went for a walk round the park with Michelle, fountain of all knowledge! We got to find out the histories of many of the elephants that they have rescued, and they are all distressing.

Local children playing for us
What was most interesting was her accounts of how they interract since they have been at the park. The elephants are free to wander wherever they please, and have actually formed 'family units' despite not being related in any way. For example, a baby elephant will often have several aunties who look after it alongside the mother, as the mother needs to eat constantly in order to keep her strength up. When the baby makes the slightest noise, all adults in the group will run to it's side, completely surrounding it to make an inpenetrable wall against potential danger. The elephants in the park love the new babies, and often vie for this esteemed auntie position!


We were lucky enough to go at a time when they had two very young babies, 3 and 4 months old. One was rescued alongside the mother very recently, so luckily had not experienced the abuse, the other was born after an elephant rescue where the elephant was pregnant.

They were absolutely gorgeous, with sticky up black hair and were very cheeky!! They loved to play chase, and you had to be careful not to end up between them and something solid as they were still rather big!


The intelligence of these beautiful animals is something I had not been aware of up until now, and it makes the violence worse somehow, as they will be aware of what is happening to them. We were told the story of an elephant who was being brutally beaten as she was quite fiesty and didn't like doing what she was told. Every day the keepers would walk her down to the river following the same route, part of which was turning round a sharp corner. The elephant obviously learnt that her keeper always walked a little behind, so that there was a time round the corner where she couldn't be seen.

Some of the volunteers
However she was on a heavy chain, so couldn't actually go anywhere. One day, she turned the corner and stopped, reached down and carried on dragging the chain so that it would look like she was still moving. When the keeper rounded the corner, she gave him a good whack with her trunk!!! That kind of logical thought is phenominal.


Two of my favourite elephants were Jokia and Mae Perm. Mae Perm was the first elephant rescued by Lek and is very much the matriach of the group. Jokie was rescued some years later, and was blinded in both eyes by her keeper using a slingshot to throw rocks at her. Everyone in the park was worried about how Jokia would adapt to the park, and integrate with the other elephants, being completely blind. Mae Perm immediately took to her, and has barely left her side since.

Jokia and Mae Perm
While we were around them, Mae Perm moved slightly away, but constantly made a low rumbling noise to let Jokia know where she was. If they get separated for any reason, and Jokia lets out a trumpet of fright, Mae Perm will run directly too her and spend time reassuring her by touching her face and back with her trunk. We actually witnessed this on our first day, and were completely astounded.


We spent the afternoon and next morning joining in with the volunteer tasks, knocking down and rebuilding the cat shelter fence, clearing away old wood and picking up (lots and lots) of elephant poo. It was tiring, but really fun, and good to be doing something of direct value to the elephants and other animals. We wish we could have spent longer there and helped out for the full volunteer week.

Picking up poo


The morning of our last day was spent clearing out some of the elephant stands with Jodi, a long term (7 years) volunteer. She was a tattoo artist from the US who goes back every year to check how the business is going. We started talking about tattoos, and she invited us back to her house to have a look at some of her designs. As we looked through them, I saw one which was perfect for me. A tiny simplistic elephant head, really cute design. I decided almost immediately that I wanted it done. Lisa too saw an tribal elephant design which she liked but wasn't sure where to have it done. I mentioned that it looked similar to the style of tattoo that she already had on her upper back, and Jodi said that she could design something working with it! We went back in the afternoon to have them done.

My tattoo - on my ankle
I was not too nervous, but elected to go first, as I didn't want to get myself all het up about it! It did hurt, alot, but was all over within a minute (and that included the time when the electricity cut out and the tattoo machine stopped working!!). Incredible, my first tattoo, done in a wooded hut, at the end of a field of elephants, during a terrible rain storm where the electricity kept cutting out, watching the elephants wander past. Now that's a story!!


Lisa's design worked perfectly with her old tattoo, and Jodi did a wonderful job of combining the two. It looked very painful as it was down her spine, but she was very brave *pats her head* and it was completely worth it, it is STUNNING.


So there we are. Elephant Nature Park. We plan to return, there is no way we can't. That place has a calm energy about it that cannot be described. I really hope that anyone reading this who is planning on going to Thailand or knows anyone that is, stays away from the elephants camps and visits Lek's park instead. No matter what the elephant camp says, that elephant WILL have been abused so that you can have you ride, or watch the circus tricks.


www.elephantnaturefoundation.org

tmalbracht says:
Thank you so much for sharing this information! I've always been an elephant lover...they are such kind and intelligent creatures. I'm travelling to Thailand for the first time at the end of the month, and I was hoping there would be something fun and adventurous that I could do without having to harm the animals. This is perfect! Beautiful pictures, and again, thanks for sharing. :)
Posted on: Jan 11, 2011
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Stocking up on supplies
Stocking up on supplies
Part of the area for elephants to …
Part of the area for elephants to…
Meeting Lek
Meeting Lek
Feed me!!
Feed me!!
Feeding with slices of bread
Feeding with slices of bread
Local children playing for us
Local children playing for us
Some of the volunteers
Some of the volunteers
Jokia and Mae Perm
Jokia and Mae Perm
Picking up poo
Picking up poo
My tattoo - on my ankle
My tattoo - on my ankle
Chiang Mai
photo by: Stevie_Wes