- Travel Topics
When Vicky and I arrived in Chang Mai, we were dying for some animal interaction. The two most common choices are Tiger Kingdom or one of many Elephant Sanctuaries. We opted not to do Tiger Kingdom for various reasons. Above all, many people suspect the organization of drugging the tigers (they themselves claim that the tigers are born in captivity and are therefore used to humans, which is why you can pet them). We didn’t want anything to do with this and frankly just had an uneasy feeling about the whole organization – they advertise so much in Chang Mai it just doesn’t feel right…
As a result, we turned towards finding an appropriate elephant sanctuary. We had a few criteria, but the main one was that there would be no riding elephants. I knew that if the sanctuary didn’t allow elephant riding, it respected its animals and wasn’t interested in exploiting them to tourists for profit. There are many articles on the web that highlight reputable elephant sanctuaries, and we ended up going to Elephant Nature Park, which is recognized as being one of the best in elephant care and is part the Save Elephant Foundation. Tickets don’t come cheap at $80 a day, but we felt it was worth it for this once in a lifetime experience.
The park is about 45 minutes outside of Chang Mai – they picked us up at our hotel along with 10 or so other park-goers. During the ride we watched a movie which explained the abysmal state of elephants in Thailand. Once in our past lives, Vicky and I saw a documentary about this very same topic and to this date it strikes me as one of the most hypocritical situations I’ve encountered.
Elephants are revered in Thai culture and it’s nearly impossible to walk around and not see some reference, a statue, a picture, a stuffed animal, depicting the glory of elephants. In spite of this, the elephant population is severely declining in all of Asia, largely due to the mistreatment of elephants and the forced labor imposed upon them through illegal logging and elephant trekking services. In fact, in the past 100 years, the Asian elephant population has declined by 90% and their available habitat has shrunk by 95% in the same time. It’s not exaggerating to say that in 20 years time there very well might not be any elephants in all of Asia. This once mighty mammal will be reduced to a mere historical reference.
Perhaps most disgusting of all, is the Phajaan, or the elephant crushing ritual, which is essentially a lengthy torture session (often lasting days, maybe even over a week), where an elephant’s spirit is crushed into submission so that it can later be dominated by its trainer, known as a mahout. Here is a video of what it is like.
Luckily the world is not completely awful, and there are places like the Elephant Nature Park that have the elephant’s interests in mind.
Vicky and I didn’t know exactly what to expect when we arrived, but all around the park bios are posted of the elephants which range from newborns to being over 70 years old.
Overall, the park is home to a few dozen elephants, almost all of which suffer from a variety of maladies such as blindness, broken hips, digestive difficulties, and more – often as a result of the brutal treatment from past owners. In fact, as I realized later, perhaps the only reason the park is able to buy the elephants is because they’re basically “no good” anymore, and can no longer be used to earn a profit. Otherwise, the elephants are just too expensive (upwards of $50k) to purchase from their owners. This is also why the park primarily has females.
While it is possible to volunteer at the park for a longer period of time, a typical one day outing involves “meeting” the elephants. You can pet them, feed them, and bathe them. Surprinsingly, elephant skin is a lot hairier and coarser than I expected. Feeding them was a blast, and they have an endless appetites for bananas and pineapples, which they devour whole.
We were also very fortunate to see the new baby elephant – Navaan.
As long as the elephant nature park is around, Navann with never experience the cruelty of the Phajaan.
As an added bonus, the park is also home to hundreds of stray dogs whom it cares for by providing food, space to run, and proper immunizations.
While I do wish the staff explained a bit more about the elephants while we were meeting them (you had to almost check back at the bios later and remember who you met), the park is definitely worth a visit if you are in the neighborhood.
If you are interested in donating to the park, there are a variety of ways.