As you travel around Thailand on your scooter, one thing that is for certain is that you will see elephants along the roadside. On the edge of town, halfway up a mountain, just outside a temple, elephants, sometimes even baby elephants. But after your brain’s initial excitement (ELEPHANTS!!) the logical side of your mind will catch up to your childlike wonder and you’ll notice a sign advertising elephant rides, how thin and malnourished the animals look, chains or ropes around their ankles, scars indicating phajaan, or breaking the spirit. It’s hard to see and worse to notice the throngs of tourists eager to sit atop these majestic creatures without a care for their well-being. Equally as bad are the number of elephant parks that advertise themselves as “sanctuaries” to capitalise on another type of tourist’s desire for a more ethical experience, when their parks’ methods are no different than the abusive ones in the roadside attractions.
Still, I was hopeful that I could have a genuinely ethical trip to a real elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and so we went to the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai. As we went on the weekend of my birthday, Steve treated me to the overnight trip, two days and one night staying at the park, visiting the elephants, walking some of the hundreds of rescue dogs they also care for, and learning about Thailand’s animal tourism industry.
So here’s the big question: is it ethical? The real answer is this: if you, a non-professional, are allowed to have any interaction with a non-domesticated animal such as an elephant, it is not 100% ethical. ENP is considered the gold standard, and yet you still have the opportunity to feed and pat the elephants. However, there are some major differences between ENP and other animal parks that I think are important to consider:
- They are aware of their own role in the animal tourism industry, and they are self-critical and willing to learn and grow. During your time at the park, you have a guide who introduces you to the elephants and tells you their story and information about ENP’s mission. Our guide told us that until recently, visitors were allowed to go into the water with the elephants and “bathe” them, and then ENP reconsidered the stress it could put on the elephants to have tourists swimming around near them, and they ended the practice.
- Moreover, he said that yes, the absolute best thing for any non-domesticated animal is to have no contact with humans, but there are also very high costs involved in feeding and taking care of the elephants they have and rescuing more from bad situations. They have determined the trade off of attracting tourists to raise money to enable them to care for and save more elephants is one that they consider fair, and they don’t feel that touching and feeding the animals (only the ones who come near to allow people to touch them, you can’t go up to the elephants if they don’t come to you) causes them extra stress. I appreciated their transparency and accountability.
- They are trying to help other elephant parks in Thailand and Southeast Asia become more ethical. They have several satellite sites around Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as partnerships with other parks, and one of their requirements for receiving funding is that these projects adopt the rules of ENP: no riding, bathing, etc. and definitely no phajaan. They also understand that it is a learning process and don’t condemn the parks that are making progress but may still have further to go. Our guide pointed out another elephant park just across the river from ENP, and said that until recently they had allowed their visitors to ride elephants, but had recently stopped and he said he believed more parks around the country were following suit. This isn’t just a Thailand or Southeast Asia thing, either. When I was a kid, I rode an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo, a practice that they have also long since stopped.
- The elephants they rescue are given the opportunity to live out their lives as fully as possible based on their current conditions. Unfortunately, the truth is that there is no longer enough rainforest in Thailand to support many healthy elephant habitats, and elephants are endangered in Thailand with over half of the elephants there being domesticated. Also, elephants who have suffered years in the logging or circus industries cannot be returned to the wild. So they are cared for at ENP, and elephants who come to ENP as babies and are not domesticated, never will be and will not be part of the park that is accessible to tourists once they are old enough to be away from their mothers.
We were picked up from our guesthouse in Chiang Mai (we stayed at Krong House which was a great, central spot with a cute dog named Ching-Ching) and from there it was about an hour drive to ENP. When we arrived, we were immediately greeted by a group of elephants who were ready for lunch, so we got to spend some time feeding them bananas and melon. Elephants spend most of their day eating because they need so much food to support their huge size—our guide explained to us that the biggest problem with elephant riding isn’t that it hurts the animals because they are very strong and can carry much more than the average human weighs, but that if they are working they do not have time to eat as much as they need to be well-nourished.
After feeding the elephants, our guide took us around the park to meet all of the elephants. He knew each one’s name and backstory, whether they were rescued from logging or riding or circus acts, who their friends are in the park, their health histories, and more. Each elephant is paired with a mahout. Mahouts are kind of like trainers, but that’s not a strong enough word to describe the relationship they have with the elephant. A mahout is assigned to an elephant at a young age, and remains with that elephant for life.
Meeting the elephants at the park was bittersweet, as many of them had been injured by land mines or logging accidents. However, it was also joyful to see them enjoying their lives in the sanctuary. We watched several elephants, including a baby, bathing in the river, splashing around and even dunking each other under the water. And we watched two very old ladies, one of whom was blind, happily eating sugar cane branches. We were allowed to briefly touch any elephant that came over to check out our group, but it was clear that the elephants’ wishes, not ours, were first priority, which was great. If an elephant didn’t want to be touched, they wouldn’t be touched. If they didn’t stick around, we didn’t follow. However, some were more than happy to have a pat or two, especially if you had food in hand.
After our tour of the park, we had some relaxation time before dinner, so most of the group went to help out at the dog rescue. We were each given a dog to walk—because the rescue has so many dogs there aren’t enough volunteers for them all to get walked every day, so it’s really helpful for visitors to come and give them outside time. If you are flying straight back to North America or Europe, you can even volunteer to be a contact point so that they can fly one of the dogs to a rescue abroad for adoption; if you’re thinking about visiting the park, please do consider it!
Dinner was a delicious vegetarian hot pot meal. Afterwards, some people opted to get massages and the volunteers went off to learn a bit about the local culture, while the rest of us just bought a few beers, had the chats, and listened to the sounds of nature before going back to our cabins. The accommodations were actually really nice! Rustic but comfortable, with hot showers (never a given) and cozy beds. I was also adopted by one of the rescue cats, who came to hang out for a bit before bed, so that was definitely a bonus.
Day 2 was an early start, with breakfast (a delicious vegetarian buffet) around 7am. Then the overnighter group piled into a flatbed pickup and off we went to one of ENP’s local projects. Run by the daughter of one of ENPs veterinarians, she had received a grant from ENP to rescue and take care of three elephants. We prepared lunch for the elephants, which consisted of food balls made of rice, dates, bananas, and other treats, and it wasn’t long before the elephants made their way from the jungle up the hill to feast. They love eating!
After feeding time, we went for a walk with them through the jungle. Although the elephants had just had lunch, they are constantly snacking, so we each had a bag of bananas to hand out; the elephants knew exactly what was in those totes, so you’d frequently look down to see a trunk nosing around in the bag you were holding. This was also where we got in the most visiting time, if you put a banana in an elephant’s trunk, she was more than happy to pose for photos while she snacked.
When we got back to the starting point of our walk, another delicious buffet was waiting for us, and we also got the chance to learn how to make spicy papaya salad, a Thai favourite. Then it was back into the truck and returning to the main ENP sanctuary. When we arrived, we had another hour or so to walk around, buy souvenirs, etc. and then we were transported back to our accommodation in Chiang Mai. The visit to Elephant Nature Park was absolutely a highlight of my entire time in Southeast Asia and an experience I will never forget.
And because I know this is what everyone is here for, a few more photos: