Elephant Nature Park
Chiang Mai Travel Blog› entry 21 of 42 › view all entries
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
We arrived at the park in time for morning feeding and went straight to work handing out huge baskets of watermelons, corn and bananas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.