An elephant knows best. And these guys are asking you, begging you, never to see a show with elephant performers, never go elephant trekking, and never give money to people who can’t demonstrate on-site the ethical treatment of these majestical animals.
When I researched our trip to Thailand, elephant trekking seemed like a cool thing to do. But then I read reviews warning of tour operators, and that maybe the best option was not to participate at all. To get elephants to be submissive enough to perform these tasks means beating them brutally and slowly starving them to death.
With the girls wanting to learn more about the animals, I decided to visit the Elephant Nature Park. This non-profit was established in the 1990s to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants.
The park is located some 60km north of Chiang Mai, and has provided sanctuary for dozens of elephants from all over Thailand that have been abused in the logging industry, in elephant shows and during trekking trips.
Some of the stories just break your heart. They told us about Jokia, an elephant who was forced to log while pregnant. Her baby was still-born, and the grief caused her to refuse work. Angry at not having his elephant move, her caretaker or “mahout” shot one eye out with a sling-shot. He later destroyed the other one.
She now lives happily at the sanctuary, and has been taken in by another female who shows her where to find food and water, and helps her on walks.
While the many stories are sad – elephant feet blown off by land mines, displaced hips, broken backs, elephants who are weak and malnourished – the sanctuary also reminds you of the enormous power of humans to do good. Not only does the park care for more than 65 elephants, they also look after 500 stray dogs and 200 cats. I can’t remember how many water buffalo and horses!
Our time at the park was short but amazing. We fed the elephants several times, bathed them (or rather, splashed water on them), and simply observed them roaming around in their herds.
Unfortunately I was sick as a dog, or we would have walked to the village to participate in the Yee Peng Festival where locals “apologise” to the water for various uses of the resource throughout the year. Instead we lit “loy krathongs” or floating lanters made of fruit, and sent them down the river. We also saw hot-air floating lanterns sent up by villagers.
If you are intrigued by elephants but want to do no harm, visit the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai. Your visit helps pay for more than just the elephants – it allows the organization to participate in reforestation projects. Elephants in Thailand have declined from a high of 100,000 elephants in the early 1900s to less than 3,000 in 2015 largely due to deforestation of the country.
The organization also participates in cultural preservation projects and only buys food from locals to provide a livelihood for those surrounding the park.
And if you still aren’t convinced that trekking is bad, we were given a first-hand glimpse of how horrible this activity can been just before entering the park.
An elephant trekking operator located next door to the sanctuary had tourists riding elephants as we passed by in the van. One of the elephants was not behaving, so the mahout brought out a tool that looked much like a sledgehammer with a giant hook on the end. The mahout smashed the elephant with full force on top of the head.
Would you want to be terrified that the elephant could kill you, and horrified by how he is brought under control, all at the same time? Visit the Elephant Nature Park instead…