Written by Alexandra Mainka
Stepping off the plane in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it’s almost impossible to ignore the copious ads for elephant camps and shows around the area. Each one promises a better “elephant experience” than then next.
We however, had landed here with a different idea on how to get to know these wondrous pachyderms: a trip to the Elephant Nature Park where you can volunteer or simply visit for the day to help. Unlike the elephant trekking camps and shows that submit the elephants to unnatural and rigorous working hours, this rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand provides a natural environment for elephants and other animals (mostly displaced dogs from the catastrophic 2011 Bangkok floods) that are given a second chance at life under the park’s care.
Now, you might be asking yourself, what’s so wrong with choosing to go elephant trekking on my next vacation? Isn’t it a “must-do” on my next trip to South East Asia?
On our drive up to the Elephant Nature Park, we quickly learned the heartbreaking truths about how most (if not all) of these working elephants are “domesticated”. We were shown an hour long video, in which we learned about “elephant street begging”, where mahouts (elephant caretakers) take their elephants into the loud and busy city streets and approach tourists who unwittingly feed them the only few bananas they’ll eat all day. They have sores on their hoofs from being forced to walk the city pavement and not their natural habitat. Their nervousness is palpable and the empty look in their eyes is haunting. Tears flowed down our cheeks as we watched in disbelief.
In order to get elephants to take riders on their backs, their spirits are broken during a torturous, violent and lengthy process called the Phajaan that originated in the tribal hill communities where elephants are naturally present in areas like India and South East Asia. You can read about this process in detail here. In essence, a baby elephant is ripped away from its mother, (a highly traumatic experience in itself) chained to a tight-fitting crush pen, and subjected to systematic beatings over the course of a week or even longer. The result, (if not death) is an elephant whose soul and wild spirit has been shattered, leaving it as a shell, which can be controlled by its handler.
Is this cruel and outdated practice really what we want to help keep alive, through the power of our tourism dollars?
When we arrived at the Elephant Nature Park, our first task was to help feed the elephants for their morning feeding. The park has currently over 30 elephants in its care, most of them rescued from logging and trekking jobs. We listened to each of their stories; like that of Sri Nuan’s, a trekking elephant from Surin who was forced to work many hours a day without getting enough time to eat. After work she would get chained up near a rice paddy, and one night she managed to escape to go find food. Her owner got furious and shot her left eye with a slingshot, blinding her permanently.
In the afternoon, we helped bathe Mae Boon Ma, a 72-year, rare white elephant, characterized by its pink skin and its white nails, eyes, body, tail and hair. She used to work in both logging and trekking, and when she first came to the park in 2003, was severely exhausted and could barely stand. Today, she is one of the most popular elephants in the park, and has been nicknamed “the prude” for resisting several feisty advances from a bull elephant.
As we interacted with the elephants and gazed into their eyes, we noticed how much more at peace they looked than those we’d seen forced to work in the video earlier.
We concluded our day with one last video, where we learned more about the park’s mission and its founder, Sangduen Chailert, or Lek, as everyone calls her. Despite extreme financial difficulties, she founded the Elephant Nature Park along with Adam Flinn in 1996. Lek’s love for elephants began as youngster when her family cared for one and became a close companion. Her work takes her deep into the jungles of northern Thailand, where she treats tribal villagers with the help of medical staff and provides much needed care for the elephants in the Chiang Mai area and beyond. Volunteers from around the world, assist her in the park’s program, which involves physical help, learning and education.
Leaving the Elephant Nature Park, we felt grateful for getting an opportunity to get close to these gentle giants, in an environment that breeds love, compassion and common sense. The complex issue of elephants working for the tourism industry is one that won’t be solved overnight, but if we can begin to plant a seed of consciousness in the minds and hearts of travelers everywhere, we can start shifting our human collective power, into a more humbling and humane direction. Something we could all benefit from.
To learn more about ways you can help elephants or become a volunteer for the park, click here.