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Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

When a good friend of mine visited the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai in April of 2013, I knew that I had to go to Northern Thailand.  Seeing her photos brought tears to my eyes, and hearing the stories she told me about how most of Thailand’s elephants are mistreated filled my heart with sadness and anger.  I couldn’t believe that such beautiful, gentle creatures – animals which I have loved my whole life – could be abused in such terrible, graphic, inhumane ways.  The work of founder Lek Chailert and the staff of Elephant Nature Park shed some serious light on the industry of Elephant Trekking and Riding, Elephant Street Begging, Logging Camps, Circuses, and other industries using and abusing these magnificent animals.

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When I was a little girl, I spent most of my days with my Grandma on my mother’s side.  Her name was Doreen, and she was one of the most incredible, strong, beautiful, loving and resilient souls I have ever known; right up until the day that the cancer in her brain took her from us.  Like most, she was too young, too full of life – to be taken so soon, so unceremoniously.  Doreen had an incomprehensible love for Elephants.  I never understood why.  She had pictures of them all over her house, ceramic and wooden carvings of them in every corner of every room, and more elephant jewelry than I even knew existed on our planet.  After her passing, the Elephant became a symbol of not only her strength, love and dedication to her family, but also of her presence.  Anytime an elephant was near, whether it was a figure, a photo, a symbol or a real live animal…I knew that she was with me.

I can’t quite describe how it felt to arrive at Elephant Nature Park.  After an hour-long coach transfer from our hotel in Chiang Mai, we had passed several Elephant Riding Companies along the road as we drove in.  Because I had done my research and knew the fate of these poor animals, I was already disturbed.  Sad.  Angry.  But then our van pulled in to Elephant Nature Park, and it was an absolute Elephant Paradise.

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The Grounds at Elephant Nature Park
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Elephants Waiting for Food

For those of you who don’t know, Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for rescued elephants who have been abused by trekking companies, logging camps, circuses, or a variety of other various industries.  These animals have all become reliant on human care (even if they were treated poorly in the past), and can no longer survive on their own in the wild.  ENP serves as a safe haven for these animals to live as wild and free of a life as possible, while still receiving the necessary care and treatment that they depend on for survival.

We were greeted by our guide for the day, and taken to a glass picnic table overlooking the park, where Elephants roamed freely and happily.  Some of them began coming over to the compound, because they knew that it was almost feeding time.  After a brief overview of the park rules and safety, we were taken to the edge of the compound, where a big bucket of fruit and a very hungry Elephant were waiting.  Our guide taught us how to properly feed the Elephants, and we spent the remainder of the day feeding, bathing, visiting, and learning about these incredible animals.  It was an experience that I can’t quite put into words, simply because it needs to be experienced to be understood.

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Hey, got any Watermelon?
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Feeding an Elephant
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Part of the Elephant Food Storage
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Enjoying a River Bath

Each Elephant in the park has a horrific story behind how he or she got there.  They’ve endured more abuse and torture than anyone could imagine.  To see them so happy and free was an incredibly emotional experience.  I found myself fighting back tears for the better part of the day.  The Elephants at ENP are smiling – actually smiling – all the time.  They are so full of love and gratitude for the second chance at life that ENP has given them.  Some of them have been blinded, injured or mutilated, and have suffered horrific abuse.  The fact that they have learned to trust humans again is amazing.

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One of the Elephants who had her legs & hips broken. This is how they healed. ENP has been assured that she is not in pain, so they take care of her as best as they can.
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This is Lily – a recovering amphetamine addict taken in by ENP. She’s in her 60s and was rescued from a logging camp on the Burmese border, where she was continually drugged in order to keep her working longer and harder. She is now one of the sweetest, most gentle elephants in the park.

After a vegetarian buffet lunch (which was amazing) we were guided into a theatre-type room to watch a documentary about the treatment of Elephants in Thailand, and traditional methods used to “break” the Elephants for work.  A few of the participants had to leave during the film.  It was extremely difficult to watch.  I will not go into graphic detail, but it is important to know the reality of how these animals are treated so that you do not become another ignorant tourist in Thailand riding an Elephant.  If you’d like to learn more, please visit www.elephantnaturepark.org, or, if you’re really brave, you can click this link to watch some of the images that were featured in the video shown at ENP.  Be advised – these images are graphic and very disturbing.

I think that the main reason why people still ride Elephants and attend Elephant Shows and Circuses is not because they support the abuse and the torturous methods used to train these animals, but simply because they are not aware of them.  If I hadn’t known about Elephant Nature Park and the mistreatment of Elephants in Thailand, then I probably would have ended up on some Elephant Trekking tour like most other tourists.  One of the main goals of ENP is to educate people so that they’re made aware of the mistreatment – and will maybe think twice before they ride an Elephant.

Please help to spread this awareness to other travellers and do your research before participating in any tourist activity that generates profit by exploiting innocent animals.  This includes animal shows, the Tiger Temples, and any animals used for begging on the streets.

The day I spent at Elephant Nature Park was one of the highlights of my time spent in Thailand, and I would recommend a visit to anybody who will be in the area, no matter your age or ability.  It’s an experience that you will never forget.

Happy (and responsible) Travels!

Have you ever visited Elephant Nature Park?  What was your experience like?  Or, if you’ve ridden an Elephant before, were you aware of the cruel methods used to train them?  We’re always eager to hear from you!

Ashley Dempster is a twenty-something Canadian Travel and Adventure blogger based in Calgary, Canada. Her passions include good food, minimalist packing, running, music, and chasing down every opportunity for adventure.

9 Comments

  1. Love this story, i didn’t realise how badly they were treated, when i did my elephant day they seemed really well looked after and happy but maybe there were things i wasn’t aware of going on.
    I’ll definitely think twice and do more research next time x

  2. Wonderful article! I will be spending a week in the Elephant Nature Park and can’t wait! I was wondering if you knew of other responsible tour companies in the area? For example, I was planning on doing a zip-lining tour after ENP but then I found out the the zip-lining tour company also offers elephant rides, so I don’t want to support them. Thanks for any advice you can offer!

    1. Hi there! I am so glad you enjoyed the article! Honestly, we only spent 4 days in Chiang Mai, and we didn’t do much else other than explore the markets and spent time at ENP. Just be sure to do your research, read as many reviews and travel blogs as possible, and ask lots of questions! The only piece of advice I have is to not support the “Tiger Kingdom”. I never went, but I have heard from many other travellers that the conditions are not very good, and the tigers seem drowsy and dopey, as if they have been drugged (which they likely have been, because it doesn’t seem natural for them to be OK with complete strangers touching them). Good luck with your adventure!!

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