I had seen a YouTube video about The Elephant Nature Park a few months ago and I loved the concept and idea of it so much so when I arrived in Chiang Mai I knew I had to visit! It’s the only true elephant rescue centre in Thailand and this area of the world and was set up by an amazing women named Lek in 1996, she started with 4 elephants and with her own money and it has since turned into a huge organisation with roughly 40 elephants and 70 staff.
I booked an organised trip with my hostel to the park and it was such an eye opening and interesting day.
Whilst there we learnt that Thai’s say that elephants helped make Thailand however so many have been and are still used for illegal logging (where it is common for the elephants to be given amphetamine to keep them working longer hours!) entertainment, begging in cities and riding and as if that isn’t enough in order for these elephants to become ‘domesticated’ to do this they have to go through a tortuous procedure which is translated as ‘breaking the spirit’. Many are blinded and many actually die during the process but this is a tradition they have used for hundreds of years so trying to get them to stop is going to be hard work. A few of the elephants she has at the park have also trodden on land mines which have destroyed this feet and now need constant care.
Lek saves as many elephants as she can, although she normally has to pay for them which I guess is why she can only save so many and then brings them to her park known as ‘elephant heaven’. She gives them the love they need to recover from their past and she gains their trust back.
During the day we were able to feed them from a feeding platform, watch them grazing in their normal environment and also bathe them in the river. It’s all very controlled and each elephant had it’s own ‘mahout’ which is a Thai term for the elephants owner. These guys have spent their lives with elephants and know how to handle them, most aren’t even Thai and instead come from the neighbouring country Burma.
We had a great vegetarian buffet lunch and watched a video which explained much of what I detailed above, it was a very moving video.
The thing that got me most is that initially I thought they should just ban trekking and entertainment ect but the video explained that when logging was made illegal in 1989 thousands of elephants were then not needed and were abandoned and couldn’t survive on their own, if trekking was made illegal too then I’m sure this would be the same situation and although I don’t like to say it the guys who work at the trekking companies would also be out of a job and I’m sure they have families but if they keep it the elephants will continue to be hurt so it’s a vicious cycle.
Wild elephants have laws to protect them but once ‘domesticated’ these elephants have no laws to protect them in Thailand and unfortunately begging, riding and breaking their spirit doesn’t seem like it will stop anytime soon.
Lek seems to be educating people slowly, she is providing the local trekking centres with knowledge on medicine so they can look after their elephants properly and mahouts are slowly being taught how to train the elephants in a better way but this is a big country with a big population and many I’m sure will be set in their original traditional ways. I also think that tourists need a lesson too as demand has to stop for the elephants who are handing out fruit in Bangkok and working in circuses in Phuket.
We learnt that all of the elephants that are now in the park will be looked after until they die (and elephants can reach an old age of about 80!) 5 babies have been born in the last few years as well as many babies saved and it’s so nice to look at them and know they will have the best life they could possibly have and will never have to work.
As if this isn’t enough they also have a dog rescue centre and although logging has been made illegal a lot of the jungle is still being cut down around the area of the nature park and the local temple wanted to help so the monks bless some cloth similar to their robes and people from the park and the monks tie them to as many trees as they can. To the majority of local Thais Buddhists this now means they are sacred and there’s no way they would ever cut them down now! So they are helping to protect their environment too!
I would recommend this place to anyone over going on a trek. It is pricey for Thailand but you can see where the money is going and you will come away feeling very moved i promise!