We arrived in a van with about 6 others at the Elephant Nature Park located in Chiang Mai, Thailand. As we drove up the dirt road and pulled into a gated area, we didn’t really know what to expect. We piled out of the van and were immediately brought to the main sheltered area of the park which was outlined by platforms to feed the elephants. We fed a group of elephants a big bucket of watermelon and bananas. At first, it was intimidating. These creatures are so big and powerful, you could feel the force they had by how they picked up the juicy fruit with their trunk out of your hand. As you watched them devour a whole cluster of bananas in a few quick bites, it becomes pretty surreal the force these majestic animals have, yet they are so friendly, and at peace with being around humans.
After feeding the elephants their snack, we were brought on a guided walk around the grounds to learn more about Asian elephants, and the stories behind the more than 40 that lived there. The Nature Park is set in a natural valley, bordered by a river, and surrounded by forested mountains, it truly is a paradise of its own.
As we walked through the park to meet our new giant friends, we learned of each of their struggles and the stories that were absolutely heart wrenching. These elephants were rescued by the parks founder, Lek Chailert from trekking camps, the illegal logging industry, street begging, and other un-natural conditions. We met elephants that were completely blind from being jabbed in the eyes with a bull hook, we met ones that had their foot blown up after stepping on a land mine, and even ones with permanently broken backs and hips from tourists and people riding them at trekking camps.
These poor elephants usually go through a process that involves “crushing” the elephant. This process breaks a wild elephant into being an elephant that obeys their trainer and humans. The process is devastating, as we witnessed through an educational documentary later on in the day at the park. It involves an elephant being placed in a large cage and tied with ropes or chains to keep them from moving. It is meant to “crush” the elephant’s spirit, and show the elephant who is the dominate one. The elephants, while caged, are often beaten, and hooked with a bull hook to try and get them to not resist the process. As we watched video footage of this within the documentary, it was hard to keep our eyes on the screen. How does a country that claims to worship these animals, treat them this way?
The founder of the Elephant Nature Park travels around Thailand to save as many of these poor elephants she can so she can bring them to live out the rest of their lives in an elephant heaven like Elephant Nature Park. Unfortunately due to these elephants being domesticated, and depleting of the Thai forests, these elephants can’t be released back into the wild, so a place like the Elephant Nature Park is the next best thing.
While spending time in the park, it was hard to miss the compassion that was put behind the grounds. Started by a lady with an incredible mission, who clearly has an impact on all of her hardworking staff who are just as passionate about elephants. Our guide, Apple, even named her baby with a Thai word meaning elephant. Lek strongly believes in supporting the community around her, she only buys the elephants food from organic farmsin the area, she also makes sure that each of her workers and their families are very well taken care of, and gives back to the local community as much as she can. Not to mention she doesn’t just save elephants, but there are over 400 dogs, 100 cats, and even oxe that live within the park grounds, all that had been rescued from different tragic lives and living conditions.
After we learned more about the elephants, and their incredibly painful histories, we had the chance to get even closer to them and bathe them. Each elephant has their own dedicated mahout. This person is seen as the “keeper” of the elephant. Wherever the elephant goes, the mahout goes with them. Traditionally mahouts are often seen as the ones who ride the elephants, and discipline them with a bull hook. This is NOT the way the mahouts work with the elephants in the Elephant Nature Park. This park works with positive reinforcement such as rewarding the elephants with fruit when they do something good. The mahout does not ride the elephant, and ensures their elephant is healthy and well taken care of. The mahouts were also the ones to make sure we were always safe when getting up close and personal with these beautiful creatures. As part of another initiative of Lek’s, she has been trying to get into the local tourist trekking camps to educate mahouts the proper and humane way to care for their elephants.
Sitting at the park, looking around and taking in the beautiful landscape and scenery, you felt entirely at one with nature. It was like you were being invited by the elephants into their turf, as oppose to the other way around. The park has done an incredible job with keeping it as natural and the least touristy as possible. The park limits the amount of day visitors, and only 12 people can spend the night on their overnight trips. They had told us that they want to keep it personal, and not take away from really getting to experience the park.
As our two days at the park started to come to a close, we started to feel a lot more comfortable with the elephants. Elephants are smart creatures. Just like humans, their past has an effect on their future, yet somehow these powerful creatures find a way in their hearts to still trust humans, despite everything people have put them through in their past.
After visiting the park I had a whole new appreciation for this animal, and people like Lek who set out with an incredible, and challenging mission to be the voice for animals that don’t have their own. If you are ever in Thailand, instead of rushing to a local trekking camp that claims they treat their elephants humanely (despite being ridden, beaten with bull hooks and chained) visit a place like the Elephant Nature Park. Use your money to help support an initiative that expands much further than your 1 day visit.