No, I’m not kidding. It actually happened. I checked into…
I had heard about Elephant Nature Park a while ago and had intended to volunteer there for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know how popular the volunteer program was and unfortunately by the time I got to Chiang Mai I found out that it had been fully booked for months. So, since I still really wanted to see the elephants, I booked a day trip to the park instead.
About an hour outside Chiang Mai you’ll find Elephant Nature Park. It’s not widely publicised but, elephants in the tourism industry in Thailand are often abused and treated as nothing more than a commodity. They are also taken across the Border into Myanmar for the logging trade and face terrible treatment there as well. Elephant Nature Park was founded as a refuge for rescued elephants to live out the rest of their lives free from abuse and with the hope that someday they might return to the wild.
The park is now home to more than 40 elephants that have been rescued from all over the country. Some have come from the tourism industry, others from the illegal logging industry, and some were orphans found in the jungle unable to look after themselves without a mother.
The park does a lot of work to look after the elephants and to educate the Thai people. Elephants aren’t the only concern of the park though. It is now home to over 400 dogs and about 40 cats. Many of which were rescued from the floods in Bangkok a few years ago. Some of these animals lost their owners to the floods and others were just never claimed afterwards. Many of the dogs and cats are up for adoption and the park will facilitate international adoptions. You can contact them here.
The day began by meeting at the office in Chiang Mai for the drive to the park. It takes about an hour to drive there and you watch a short film about safety around elephants on the way. It is then followed by a TV spot about Asian Elephants in Thailand that was filmed in the park. It was a very good introduction to the park because it showed just how bad the lives of these animals had been before they were rescued. One story in particular will always stay with me. Jokia’s story.
Jokia came from the logging industry. She was forced to work while she was pregnant. The day she gave birth she was working, pulling logs up a hill. She was made to work while she was in labour and through the birth. Her baby rolled down the hill, stuck in its amniotic sac. Jokia was stuck and couldn’t reach her baby to save it. It died. Jokia went into depression. She refused to work. In an effort to make her work the Mahout shot her right eye with a slingshot, blinding her. She still refused. He stabbed her in the other eye with a knife. Blinding the other eye. This is just one example of the abuse that elephants in Thailand face. Not all of them get a second chance like Jokia. She is now a resident at the Nature Park and has a carer elephant that acts as her eyes. They are always together. It can never bring back her baby or her eyesight but she can live out the rest of her life in peace.
Understandably we were all feeling a little low after watching the films so we were pretty quiet when we arrived at the park. We were taken up to the restaurant which is also the feeding platform. A few elephants had already gathered. They always know when it’s feeding time. Each elephant has a basket of food that the tourists can feed to them. That basket is only a small portion of what they actually eat each day. The elephants are really strong so we were instructed to stay behind the red line any time the elephants were near the platform. They can really easily knock you over or hurt you with their trunks. But for the most part they are just interested in the food so as long as you don’t tease them with it you may as well not even exist to them. It’s pretty easy to feed them [video]. Just place the food in their trunk and let them do the rest. After feeding time we walked down to see the “elephant kitchen”. This is where the trucks of food is delivered and where it is cut up and prepared for the elephants. They get a variety of watermelon, pumpkin and bananas depending on the personal preference and dental condition of the elephant. Elephants eat a lot. Between 200 and 300kg per day. Between 40 elephants that’s a lot of food!
From the kitchen we headed down to the river where three more elephants were being fed by another tour group. We were instructed not to get too close to one of them because she suffers from mental trauma from the years of abuse she went through as a working elephant. She is known to be unpredictable and could easily have hurt one of us. The other two are very gentle and we were allowed to get a bit closer if we wanted photos with them. One of the three had been severely injured in her former life as a logging elephant. A logging accident had dislocated one of her back legs. Unfortunately because elephant bones are so big and heavy they is no way to fix her injury. It’s very hard to tell if she is in pain from it but she has to move slow because of her injury.
Once the food had been eaten the elephants lost interest and moved on. So we did too. We walked over to the elephant hospital and their beds. The elephants have to be locked into enclosures at night so that they don’t destroy the neighbouring farm crops. Each elephant also has their own Mahout. The Mahouts here are very different from those in other parts of the country. Here, their only concern is the welfare of their elephant and it is a relationship of love. The Mahouts do have families though and need to sleep so they can’t watch the elephants 24/7 which is why the enclosures are needed. After learning a little bit about elephant anatomy and the difference between Asian and African elephants it was time to go back for lunch.
Lunch at the park is a vegetarian buffet. Though to be honest I was a little bit dubious about some of the dishes served. They didn’t look vegetarian. But soy “meats” are common here so it could have been that. I didn’t try them just in case. There was another elephant having feeding time while we ate so once I finished my food I went and helped to feed her. I found out later that she is 79 years old! It was no wonder that I had to disregard the red line and actually get right up to feed her at the railing. Her trunk just isn’t as flexible as it once would have been. Elephant lifespan is similar to humans.
We were meant to watch another video after lunch but an american couple had asked our guide if they could see the dogs instead and I asked if they would mind if I came along too. So the four of us headed off to see the dogs while the rest of the group stayed back to watch the video. We went to an outdoor enclosure that had about 6 dogs inside. They were very excited to see us and lapped up the attention we gave them. With 400 dogs onsite it is very difficult to give them all adequate attention around attending to their basic needs. So, they loved that we were there to play with and pet them. One dog was very skittish though. She wouldn’t come close to us and would back away with her tail between her legs whenever we approached her. Clearly she had been abused pretty badly before she came to the park. Poor girl. We spent about half an hour playing with them before we had to get back to the group.
The afternoon consisted of more wandering around the valley to find more elephants before heading to the river to help the elephants bathe. We do this by throwing buckets of water over them to wash the mud off. Bathing is a regular part of elephant life because it helps to keep them cool. They also use mud as a sunscreen but it has to be washed off regularly to stop it getting baked on and from causing skin problems. My favourite part of the day was watching the family group with the baby elephant, Yindee. The only elephant to have been born of the herd at the park. He’s only 14 months old. We found them at the river bathing themselves and Yindee was very playful [video]. He would climb on top of his mother and nanny and pin their head under the water. You’d just see their trunk sticking out of the water so they could breathe ha-ha. There’s nothing more heartwarming than seeing these elephants happy and enjoying themselves when you know the stories behind how they got here.
If you want to see elephants in Thailand I would highly recommend coming here. You won’t get to ride them and they won’t perform shows for you. But, you’ll leave knowing that your money is actually going to help the animals. It costs around $300,000 a year to keep the park running and to keep the animals fed and well cared for. That money only comes from the tours that the park runs and from donations. It is not great that the animals have to be exposed to tourists every day but it is necessary. Try to book your trip a few months in advance to ensure your place.
The Save Elephant Foundation, which is the organisation behind the park, does some amazing work and you can find out more about visiting and volunteering, or make a donation, here.