Saturday, April 3, 2010

Travels: Elephant Nature Park

Just over an hour out of Chiang Mai lies a little slice of heaven - Elephant Nature Park. We had heard about the park years ago and had been dying to go ever since. On Wednesday and Thursday of last week we were lucky enough to do so. The park is home to 30 rescued elephants, about 70 dogs, and countless cats, cows and water buffalo. It is a conservation centre, so the focus is on the elephants - no riding, painting or other such exploitative things. It was started by an amazing woman named Lek, who is so inspiring. Her compassion for animals in a society where it is not commonplace is remarkable, and it was really neat to see the way that all of the animals at the park reacted to her.

We were picked up early Wednesday morning and taken to the park, where we were given a briefing on safety and some coffee. After that we helped to feed watermelons and bananas to an older elephant. It was a really neat experience, and I was so excited each time she grabbed fruit out of my hand with her extremely dexterous trunk. FYI: Elephant trunks are covered with wiry hair, and tend to be pretty snotty/drool-y, but are really really cool!

After more elephant feeding we were fed an amazing buffet lunch, and then got into the river with the elephants for bath time. It basically involved us throwing buckets of water on them while watching out for any floating elephant poo.

After watching some of the younger (and more uncontrollable) elephants have their bath time we went inside to watch a documentary about elephants in Thailand. I was shocked to learn how terribly they are treated, and how awful the tourist attractions are. We learned that all trained elephants go through a technique called crushing, in which they are built into a traction-like apparatus, and tortured for days on end to break their spirits and establish the mahouts role as boss. This is not an ancient or out-of-date practice, all elephants who are ridden, who are painting, who are street begging, or who are working in the logging industry or farming have gone through this terrible experience. The video footage was so disturbing, and the fact that this is so common and accepted is horrible. We also learned that the use of hooks by mahouts is the most common technique for training and controlling elephants. The mahouts at Elephant Nature Park are not allowed to use hooks, and are all being trained to treat elephants with more respect than the average mahout. I was so glad we chose to support a place that rescued elephants from abuse, as opposed to one that abused elephants for our touristy enjoyment.

After the program ended on day 1 we had "free time" which we chose to spend at the baby elephant corral, encouraging a mischievous little boy to come over for a scratch behind the ears.

The first day ended with another amazing meal, and then we chose to have Thai massages before bed. The "70 dog chorus" managed to keep us up a lot of the night, but aside from that the accommodations were great!

Day 2 stated early with breakfast and a walk through the park to "meet" all of the elephants. We approached each pair or group, learned their (mostly devastatingly sad) stories, and if they were friendly, were able to feed or pet them. This was my favourite part of the experience, getting up close and personal with so many elephants, but it was also so sad to hear about the terrible things these animals had suffered through. There were so many injuries, from broken ankles, to a broken pelvis, to blindness (caused by purposeful human attack), to a land mine injury. However, this reality check was enough to turn me off of elephants in the tourism industry forever and further cemented my belief that the work being done by the park is a great thing. At the end of the 2nd day I found myself wishing I was staying for a longer time, and vowed to return someday for a longer volunteer experience. As we left the park, a staff member pointed out some elephant trekking camps on the road back to town. After spending 2 days looking at healthy and happy elephants the contrast was shocking and disgusting - the trekking elephants were so thin and kept in horrible conditions. I wish that the truth about this terrible industry was known by more people.

Elephant Nature Park is truly a wonderful place, and I was so happy to have been able to experience it.
Please check out the website: to learn more about the park, and the elephants who live there ... and think about visiting the park if you are ever in Thailand!

(pictures to come if I can ever find some high speed internet!!)

1 comment:

  1. What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.
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