We send postcards around the world featuring their image, buy t-shirts emblazoned with their silhouettes, drink beer by their name, gasp when we see them through the fence at zoos, and often pay great sums for the opportunity to observe, touch, and ride them. We are fascinated, captivated by these animals.
Elephants are magnificent creatures — and they have suffered greatly for it at the hands of the human race.
For many travelers, the chance to get up close and personal with elephants is the highlight of their trip to the Kingdom. Elephant riding and shows are big business here, as tourists are anxious to commune with Thailand’s national animal. But for reasons I would come to learn through a visit the the innovative Elephant Nature Park outside Chiang Mai, these businesses exploit the very animals they claim to celebrate. But Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary that offers something truly special — interaction without exploitation.
Our day at Elephant Nature Park began with a briefing on how to keep our interactions safe and successful for ourselves, the elephants, and the myriad of other animals (mostly scruffy pups) that call the park home. Then, we watched as one of the giant pachyderms lumbered over to us, encouraged by his mahout (caretaker) and the promise of a heaping bucket of fruit. One by one, we took turns offering mangoes, pineapples, bananas — anything but watermelon, which our particular elephant friend was no fan of.
Finally, we swung around the balcony and entered the sanctuary — we were walking with giants. I giggled nervously as I watched the directions and movements of the elephants, careful not to stand in their projected path.
With no glass or gates between us, we could reach out and gingerly touch the elephants, would responded with warm nuzzles, curious trunk nudges, and occasional trumpeting proclamations.
Eventually, we took a stroll around the sanctuary to meet other elephants. Each one has a distinct personality, and once they are rescued from logging and the tourist trade and brought to live out their lives in the park they tend to adopt one another and turn into small family groups and herds. I was amazed at our guide’s encyclopedic knowledge of the more than 30 elephants at ENP — such as Mae Jam Peng, below left, a former logging and trekking elephant. The hole in her right ear, created by brutal punishments with a bull hook, has been made into an ear piercing by her mahout, who fills it with a fresh flower every day.
Next, we got to ooh and ahhh over Elephant Nature Park’s newest member — Navann, a lucky baby born on the park grounds. We watched as he ran around his pen like a newborn puppy — tons of energy, but not quite a sense of what to do with it. I could have watched Navann play all day!
I couldn’t believe how quickly the day was flying by when we gathered for lunch. I had been somewhat skeptical of the dining situation — vegetarian food often leaves me unsatisfied — but this was such a fantastic meal I barely registered the lack of meat. Oh, and can you really complain with views like these?
After lunch, we were taken to a theater where a documentary would teach us how truly lucky the animals at ENP really are. Some people left the room as the film went into the horrible practice where baby elephants, captured from the wild, endure a torturous training practice known as the phajaan. The goal is to break the spirit of the elephant, a outcome reached using days of claustrophobic confinement combined with cruel beatings. This fear of pain will allow elephants to be ridden by tourists and perform tricks.
I don’t think elephant riding would make the bucket list of anyone who knows about the phajaan. Years ago I rode an elephant in Siem Reap — if I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen differently. My experiences here and at an animal sanctuary in Phnom Penh involved no riding, and were infinitely more rewarding.
I left that room needing a breath of fresh air. I was newly appreciative of the freedom of the elephants gathered at the riverside for a snack — elephants that had suffered so greatly at the hands of humans, but were now being left to live out their lives in peace.
This sanctuary is largely the work of one inspirational woman, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. Born in a hill tribe in Thailand, Lek has dedicated her life to improving the well being of the Asian elephant. She is no unsung hero — she’s been named, among other things, a “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine in 2005 and in 2010 was named by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation.
While she frequently travels across Southeast Asia to coordinate elephant rescues and rally politically for these elephants, she makes every effort to be at the park with the animals she loves. We were lucky enough to catch her on one of those days, and it was amazing to watch her interact with the herd that she truly is an honorary member of.
As I mentioned before, elephants aren’t the only ones living at the park — the foundation also runs a very active dog rescue. As many of my readers know, nothing turns me to mush like pups in need, so before I knew it I was signing up for the Name a Puppy program. For a one-time donation, I was able to name and virtually adopt an abandoned puppy, complete with a PDF photo update. I named my puppy after Westley, my beloved, now deceased cocker spaniel — my first true love. It brought tears to my eyes to be able to make a donation in his name.
While riding is a no-no at ENP, there are other, more rewarding ways to interact with the elephants. In the afternoon, humans and pachyderms alike meet at the river for what amounts to an inter-species waterfight — also known as bath time.
This was my favorite part of the day, as we were able to interact more intimately with the elephants. To stand before them, look them in the eyes, and feel their skin under your hand — I can’t imagine how riding on their backs would be more appealing than this.
After getting clean, it’s time to get dirty again. A favorite activity of these elephants is to roll around in the massive mud pits created by volunteers.
All too quickly, it was time to say a final goodbye to Elephant Nature Park. I retreated to the verandah to soak in the day and enjoy one last happy moment of watching these magnificent creatures roam free, safe from harm and fear.
As an animal lover in a world filled with people cashing in on our society’s desire to get close to our various favorite species, I’ve come to appreciate opportunities like this — to be with an animal in a way that says to it, “I am awed by you; I want to share this time and space with you; I respect you.”
I can’t more highly encourage a visit to Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai — you won’t find happier elephants anywhere.
The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’
― Jeremy Bentham