Oh little elephants, aren’t you the most magnificent creatures of all!
All tourism that has to do with animals should always be questioned – and luckily more of us have come to understand that it’s pure abuse to ride an elephant or to snap a selfie with a drugged tiger on a vacation in Thailand. But even if it may be so, there are still thousands of elephants all over Asia born under the unluckiest stars and bound for a life as objects of entertainment.
Sanctuary for abused elephants: Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary located in northern Thailand, in the Chiang Mai province. Home to over 60 elephants, the sanctuary lives on elephants terms while still caring for tourists who keep the sanctuary running and make it financially possible. Over here, elephants get to spend their days almost as they would in the wild. Visitors get to explore the park and get to know these amazing animals, but they will need to remember one rule: “If someone says run, RUN.”
Elephant Nature Park was founded by one woman, Lek Chailert, back in 1990’s. Lek grew up in Thailand seeing the abuse of elephants both in tourism and the logging industries. That’s how she got a dream; to save these poor animals. As years went by, Lek started to learn more and more about elephants and eventually thanks to one western backpacker and a lot of hard work and determination, managed to buy enough land to start Elephant Nature Park which now mainly runs on the money volunteers bring.
Each elephant at the park also has their own mahout who takes care of the elephants daily life. All of the mahuots at Elephant Nature Park are Burmese immigrants who will move to the park with their families, where they are also provided housing and food. A mahout will dedicate their life to one elephant and they often grow a very strong bond between each other. Everytime a new elephant arrives at the park, several potential mahouts are invited and eventually, the elephant will choose its own mahout.
A week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park is to many one of the most unforgettable experiences in a lifetime. A week caring for these beautiful animals will make a massive impact for the rest of your life. A week volunteering with the elephants costs 350+ euros, most of which will go towards keeping the place running, but also pays for your accommodation and food (the best vegan food there is btw) for the week.
As a volunteer, you’ll get a better chance at getting to know the life of the elephants from even closer. The most important job for the volunteers in the end is actually the payment, so while you will be working at the park hands-on, you’ll also get to have enough free time to just enjoy the animals and the amazing nature surrounding the nature park.
During the week you will get to feed the elephants, clean elephant poo, walk dogs, do some manual work like maintaining mud pits and helping in local villages.
In case a week at the Elephant Nature Park won’t fit into your budget or you did not book it early enough, check here for more similar projects around Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. While it’s great that sanctuaries like this one are becoming more popular, there will also be some questionable ones where elephants may still be abused even if they are not ridden, so you will need to be very careful about where you put your money to.**
One day visit & overnight stay
As always, I was a bit too late to book my one-week volunteer experience at the Elephant nature Park while living in Chiang Mai, so I ended up doing the overnight stay, which in the end was actually perfect enough. The experience is so emotional and overwhelming, that it will surely leave a mark on you even if you only spent a day here.
I was picked up with 5 other tourists from the Old City of Chiang Mai (hotel pick-up also available) and we drew an hour north to the park. We began our day by feeding animals and walking in the park learning about their heartbreaking stories. The experience at first reminded me of a Jurassic Park movie as we wandered through this massive national park while these magnificent animals were just walking around us freely. You could feel the earth move while the elephants were making their way past you to the river. Later we also got to join the elephants in the river, which was a perfect way to cool down on a hot summer day!
Later, we enjoyed a fabulous vegan buffet dinner while watching the full moon behind the mountains. I will never forget falling asleep in my bamboo cottage while I heard elephants snoring right outside. I will also never forget the fist-sized spider walking around my room, or the stray dog on my balcony in the morning.
The next day we had more time to spend with the elephants making them food and hearing more of their stories.
Elephants are not suitable for riding
What makes a visit to the Elephant Nature Park such a lifelong impact is the stories you’ll hear. You will learn about what an amazing and emotional animal an elephant is. You’ll find yourself looking deep into an elephant’s eyes and you’ll feel their wisdom. You’ll feel their love and empathy. No other animal has ever left such a strong impact on me.
An elephant is a gregarious animal who always takes care of its herd in ways most of humans never would. I mean, did you know that a blind elephant is often adopted by another elephant who dedicates their entire life for helping the blind one to survive in the wild. Elephant Nature Park is home to a few blind elephants who all have another elephant who never leaves their side.
Most of the elephants at the park have been saved from the tourism industry. Riding an elephant is never ok, as the abuse behind taming a wild elephant is far more cruel than any of us can even imagine – it’s for a reason they call it ‘breaking the spirit’. An elephant is a wild animal with a very weak spine compared to its size. It’s more likely that a horse can carry much more weight on their back without getting injured than an elephant. But the biggest problem in the tourism industry is not only the riding but the overusing of the animal. Often you’ll see occasion of elephants literally collapsing from the workload.
Many elephants in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia are also victims of the logging industry where they are forced to work way beyond how much they could possibly handle. The problem at some of these country borders are also landmines, and you will see many elephants with serious leg injuries limping their way around the park.
The saddest story I’ve ever heard
While most of the stories were saddening to the core, one made me fall apart. The story of Jokia (in the photo below) made me fall on my knees on the ground crying out loud. Jokia was forced to work in the logging industry and was abused throughout her life. As she was carrying her calf for 1,5 years (yes humans, our 9-month pregnancies got nothing on elephants), she eventually gave birth while pulling logs uphill. Her owners didn’t let her stop and her calf was born dead, which to an elephant can be just as devastating experience as it would to us. With severe emotional trauma, Jokia was forced to continue working. But as she was unable to work, her owners got frustrated and violently blinded Jokia from both eyes and forced her to continue.
Luckily Jokia was eventually brought to Elephant Nature Park for another chance at life, where another elephant, Mae Perm, quickly adopted her and became Jokia’s best friend and eyes. They would never be seen separate at the park. Sadly too soon though Mae Perm suddenly passed away, which turned poor Jokia into a depressed little elephant who had literally lost everything. Jokia would wander around the park for days on end calling for her best friend, confused not finding her anywhere.
But luckily even Jokia’s story has a happy ending. Eventually another herd at the park took Jokia under their wing. An older elephant lady Navann became her nanny and she now gets to be a part of a bigger group which takes care of her and keeps her happy. After hearing the story it was the most beautiful thing to see Jokia wrapping her trunk around Navann’s as they started to walk towards the river together.
Water buffalos & 500 dogs
Elephant Nature Park is not only home for the abused elephants, but also for 500 stray dogs, several cats, and water buffalos. You can also volunteer at the dog shelter for a week! Some of the dogs are moving around the park freely, but some are kept at the shelter area where volunteers are taking them for long walks throughout the day.
The water buffalos were pretty chilled dudes who just hang out around everywhere too. Before I knew about them, one literally jumped through a bush next to my room and just stood there staring at me – it was one of those ‘I’m not in Kansas anymore’ moments, not that I’ve ever been to Kansas.