If you’ve been to, want to go to, or have friends who have visited Thailand, you’ll probably end up seeing plenty of interactions with elephants. Elephants are beautiful, fascinating creatures and it’s no wonder that people want to be near them. They are giants of the jungle that are, by nature, friendly, intelligent, emotional and protective. Yet sadly, a lot of our interactions with these amazing elephants in Thailand and other parts of Asia are routed in abuse of elephants, and many people are ignorant to this. I used to be too, but elephants are naturally wild animals, and to be tamed and trained within the tourist industry for rides and tricks, they are tortured and subject to immense cruelty in order for them to obey their mahouts. Mahouts traditionally love and care for their elephants, but now that tradition is dead. Most mahouts who work in the tourist industry are barely trained and very young. Rather than offering affection their answer is violence and no acknowledgement of the elephants needs. They are simply greedy and only care about profit.
However, there are ways to get to see and interact with elephants without funding the cruelty of this industry. The Elephant Nature Park is situated about an hour out of Chiang Mai. It is home to 39 elephants who are domesticated through love and positive reinforcement, rather than torture and abuse. Many of the elephants are rescued either from being injured due to the illegal logging industry and land mines on the Thai/Burmese border, or rescued from being mistreated in the tourist industry. There are also five baby elephants there who were born at the park, and have thankfully never known abuse at the hands of humans.
In the Nature Park, there is no riding of the elephants or tourist tricks. Instead you get to witness the amazing elephants in their natural environment. You get to touch them but only if they let you and approach you. Many will as they enjoy human interaction, however others can be more hostile or simply more shy, and it is important that visitors respect that. We got to feed the elephants which I loved. Boy they eat a lot. Massive buckets filled with watermelon and bananas and that was just one of their many meals. We also got to bathe them. However my favourite part of the day was in the afternoon. In the cooling monsoon rains we took a walk and got to see the elephants interact with each other. They weren’t in the river for bathing, or by the huts for feeding or photo opportunities, but simply enjoying their own time. Two of the baby elephants played with each other and it was the cutest thing.
However, whilst some of the elephants were gorgeous, seeing other elephants with their scars and disabilities was a sorry sight. This elephant had her foot blown off by a landmine:
Whereas this elephant had been so abused she could no longer hold herself properly, with 80% of her bodyweight sloping down to her rear:
And then there was this younger elephant, who had just arrived at the park that day. This teenage boy was small and extremely skinny. You can see his bones sticking out. He had been rescued from Phuket, again, abused in the profitable elephant tourist industry:
We also watched a film just after lunch which highlighted how elephants have been abused at the hands of humans and the story of the Elephant Nature Park. Many of the stories were gut-wrenching, but I believe it was very important to know. Many people like to remain ignorant, but if we remain ignorant to the plight of other creatures on this planet, then nothing will ever change.
Going to the Nature Park was pricier compared to other experiences at 2,500 Thai Baht, or about £45. However, here you feel your money is going to some good. It is going back into the park and helping the maintenance it takes to look after these creatures. It also included a vegetarian buffet for lunch, which was so tasty and was probably a highlight of the day in itself. It felt so much more rewarding to give back than it did to ride elephants through the jungle. If you’re thinking of doing a trek, I recommend walking beside the elephants rather than riding them. It is not the same as riding a horse, as I once heard one girl say. These creatures have not been loved. They have been abused and you may see many that show injuries, are chained up, or show signs of stress such as rocking backwards and forwards. Yet go to the Elephant Nature Park and you see elephants which are happy.