Before I even came to Thailand- scratch that- before I even came to Southeast Asia, I knew I wanted to see some elephants.
See them, but not ride them. Because as it turns out, riding elephants is bad. Very bad. Climbing onto them at any point, even while bathing them, is another example of the casual mistreatment of such beautiful creatures, all for the sake of human enjoyment.
I soon learned all and even more than I wanted to know about elephant exploitation while en route to the Elephant Nature Park, an actual elephant sanctuary home to 36 elephants, 100 dogs and a myriad of other rescue animals on 250 acres of land. Established in the 90s by Lek, a Thai humanitarian/animal lover/entrepreneur, the park serves as a true oasis for these broken spirits. Lek began rescuing elephants in 1996 when the business model of such altruism was practically unheard of. Really, she developed it, and now other people reach out to her for advice on how to save animals while still churning a profit.
The fact is, elephant handling is a very lucrative business. People pay to ride elephants. They pay to watch them perform carefully learned circus tricks. They pay to climb aboard their backs during daily washings. They pay to see a baby elephant walking the streets, tethered by a rope and pulled by a mahout (elephant trainer).
So how could I really blame someone for trying to support themselves and their families by accepting the outpouring of money from ignorant tourists?
After all, I was that ignorant tourist.
Until I began my research into the ethical practices of elephant “sanctuaries,” I had no real concept of how ugly these practices were. To create a submissive and obedient animal willing to do our biding, the process starts just after infancy. Baby elephants are snatched from their mothers and aunties and held in solitary confinement. As they continue to age, various other instruments are employed to “break” the elephant’s spirit. Mahouts poke and pierce the tender parts of the elephant’s skin and even go so far as to gauge out their eyes so they adhere to a human’s every command.
But that’s not all.
Though the use of elephants in the logging industry is now banned, many still wear the scars and physical deformities from decades pulling obscenely heavy log loads. When an elephant did become injured, the animal was forced to continue working (with the use of those hooks I mentioned earlier) until his or her eventual collapse. Upon which time, the elephant was left to die or harvested through the also profitable business of hide and tusk trading.
I was introduced to one older female at the park who had given birth while she was lugging a several ton load of lumber. Her child fell to his or her death. And she continued working. Luckily, she has found friendship in another female at the park. Her friend is one of those that was blinded for disobedience in her past life.
I’m not going to lie, hearing these background stories and actually seeing the damage worn on the faces of these innocent animals was depressing.
But this intense reaction just made me all the more pleased for doing my research and selecting an organization that actually helps and cares for its animals.
I felt privileged to experience a typical day with these beauties. I was slobbered on while feeding them assorted fruit. I was hosed down while I bathed them with buckets of river water. I was astonished when I saw the elder’s form a close-knit huddle around the frightened baby elephant after he got too close to one of the dogs. I was bestowed with a gentle stillness walking alongside them through the grounds.
Without the tether of a rope, the elephants roamed freely. In some moments, you could even see the flicker of an independent personality just beginning to develop amongst the older tenants and certainly within the eyes of its younger residents. Those working at the park actually take great pleasure in seeing the elephants misbehave. It means they still have a spirit that wasn’t entirely quashed despite decades of abuse.
Truly, it was a day unlike any other and I highly recommend visiting the Elephant Nature Park to anyone coming to Thailand. Even if you don’t make it all the way up to Chiang Mai, where I was, there are several other locations across the country (and even in Cambodia!) worth looking into. You won’t regret the money spent nor the memories created by supporting such an inspiring organization.