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I had heard about the plight of the Southeast Asian elephants long before I ever set foot in the Elephant Nature Park. Friends and other bloggers have raved about the sanctuary and since I have been telling people for quite a while now not to partake in elephant riding, bathing and other shows, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the famous park myself when I headed to Chiang Mai a few weeks ago.
But for those of you who haven’t heard about the mistreatment of elephants and the one place trying to save them, here’s a quick rundown:
What is happening to the elephants in Thailand and across Southeast Asia?
Although elephants are highly admired in Thai culture and their replicas adorn almost every temple, they are also widely used for tourist entertainment, especially elephant riding and shows that use the animals for painting or make them play musical instruments. Apart from being overworked in the tourist trekking camps, the elephants are also used in illegal logging operations and forced to walk the noisy, crowded streets of huge and loud metropolises for street begging. The mistreatment they experience by their owners often leaves them with permanent injuries.
Certain people think that some of this doesn’t even sound too bad – after all, how could a painting session harm an elephant? And isn’t elephant riding just like horse riding? I don’t even want to get into the horse vs. elephant riding argument too much. The fact that we ride horses has no bearing on whether we should be riding elephants or not. We don’t use bullhooks on horses, don’t stab them with nails and don’t starve them to try and make them behave how we want to. Let it be said, that while I used to love horse riding at home, I’d never hop on a mistreated horse either.
Fact is that few people realize what it takes to break an elephants spirit to the point that it would behave in such unnatural ways.
The mahout tradition claims, that the only thing that can turn the wild animal into an efficient working elephant is doing exactly that: completely and utterly breaking its spirit. The animals go through a three day long ordeal called phajaan, also known as the “crush”. This means that they are taken away from their mothers as babies, caged in a tiny cell like structure and constantly beaten as well as deprived of food and sleep. Mahouts, the elephant trainers, will climb on the elephants back over and over again to assert their dominance and will relentlessly beat and stab the animal if it tries to struggle.
Here’s an extremely graphic video showing the process. I strongly urge you to watch it, although it is absolutely not for the faint hearted:
While it has been proven – by the Elephant Nature Park and elsewhere – that training them by gaining their trust and using positive reinforcement can work just as well, the mahouts across Southeast Asia still hold on to this incredibly cruel procedure, simply because “tradition” says it’s the way to do things and after all, there is money to be made.
All of the elephants in the tourist industry went through this grueling process. Every single one.
What is the Elephant Nature Park?
The Elephant Nature Park is the one place trying to stop this horrible treatment and provide a safe sanctuary for elephants rescued from abusive situations around the country. Apart from the babies born in the park, the elephants will bear the scars of their earlier life forever. Seeing long gashes in their skins is common, others have broken hips and backs and can only hobble along. Some are blind, due to mahouts stabbing at their eyes in a rage.
The sanctuary is located on a river in a natural valley about 60km outside of Chiang Mai and can only be described as elephant heaven. The park was founded in 1996 by Lek Chailert, who grew up close to nature in a small hill tribe village and saw the suffering of the elephants in her country. The emphasis of the park clearly lies on conservation instead of training, using only positive reinforcement when working with the animals and allowing the elephants to heal and live out the rest of their lives in peace. They live in small, self-chosen herds and are free to wander the park how they want to. When their mahouts need them to do something, they are coerced with fruit and not with hooks.
Elephant Nature Park doesn’t only house elephants though. Over 400 dogs, about 50 buffalos, cats and other animals have found their home here. Lek tries to work with the local culture, superstitions and traditions, teaching the villages about elephant care and bringing veterinarians to the remote areas. Her team, together with the local monks, even tries to save the trees around the park by tying sacred orange sashes around the tree trunks. Loggers are then reluctant to cut them down, fearing repercussions from the jungle spirits.
What happens during a day at the Elephant Nature Park?
Keeping such a large population of elephants fed – one elephants requires about 200-300 kg of food every day – buying abused animals from their owners and keeping up the property obviously takes a lot of money. Therefore, the whole operation is funded through donations, a big volunteer force and the daily visitors, who pay a hefty 75$ for the trip.
We were picked up at our hotel by a small minibus, which soon teamed up with more minibusses, converging into a long convoy that made its way through Northern Thailand’s countryside. Everywhere in Chiang Mai, advertisements for elephant riding trips can be seen and during the drive, we passed through many of those trekking camps that the Elephant Nature Park tries to stop. Every time we drove by tourists riding elephants, people in the car would exclaim their disgust at the practice. How can they be so stupid? Don’t they know what they are doing? Look at those disgusting smiles! Ignorant fucks.
An hour later, we arrived at the park with a horde of other people and were quickly ushered to a large, square and open area of the building, where the elephants are fed by the visitors. Although a lot of people decided to visit the Elephant Nature Park that day, it usually didn’t feel too crowded. We were divided up into small groups according to the vehicles we arrived in, an arrangement that was kept up all day.
As soon as the blue plastic buckets were brought out, filled to the brim with fruit and vegetables, the elephants wandered up, big trunks swinging, searching for those juicy pieces of fruit. Everyone got a chance to drop some produce into the eagerly moving appendages, from where the big animals transferred the food efficiently into large chewing mouths. This was follow up by a walk around the property in our designated group, where we got to meet several of the elephants and hear some of their sad stories.
Lunchtime was spent wolfing down a delicious meal – of course completely vegetarian – and by watching an movie about the plight of the elephants in Thailand. The movie was optional and I was happy to see that a lot of people decided to spend the break learning some more about what the park is doing for these animals. After that, we observed the elephants bathing in the river and got to throw buckets of water over their backs, followed by meeting two elephant babies.
Why do I call it mostly responsible tourism?
While I absolutely love the Elephant Nature Park and it’s nothing short of admirable what they are doing, I do have some small gripes. It mostly has to do with the visitors. The same tourists who were so vocal when seeing the “ignorant” tourists riding the elephants earlier that day, threw all their high ideals out the window as soon as they got their own chance at getting close to an elephant. They where the ones elbowing each other in the face to get that selfie with the animals that would let them brag on Facebook later, their faces glued to smartphones instead of the impressive elephants in front of them.
A couple individuals straight up ignored the rules set by the park. There are only a few and they are fairly simple: Don’t touch the baby elephants, don’t sit or stand behind an elephant, don’t spray water into the elephants eyes. You betcha I saw people breaking these rules several times. They were more interested about being able to tell friends “look what I did!” as soon as they got back to wifi than learning about and respecting the elephants. To me, they weren’t much better than the elephant trekkers outside the park.
Of course, with a place this busy, you’ll get a couple douchebag tourists thrown in with the mainly awesome travelers. But it really bothered me, that the park employees didn’t do much to stop these people and only mentioned certain rules in passing. I do hope they step up a bit more in the future.
The elephants seem really happy though and are treated with so much love. I’m glad I found the Elephant Nature Park and I urge you to drop in for a visit yourself when you are in the area.