Located in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai is home to a number of elephant sanctuaries. Elephants are a prolific symbol in Thai culture, playing an important role in Thai history.
Today, elephants continue to be an important symbol, yet, they are often treated inhumanely as tools for profit. Used for manual labour, such as logging, performers in the circus, and as exhausted mounts for tourists to trek through the jungle, many elephants in Thailand are horribly mistreated to the point of permanent injury and emotional trauma.
Thankfully, a number of sanctuaries have stepped in to care for these animals, including the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Considered one of the most reputable elephant sanctuaries worldwide, ENP is an example for other sanctuaries.
When we started planning our trip to Thailand, ENP was at the top of our list. Our visit began with a pick-up from our hostel in Chiang Mai, to be transferred to the park sixty kilometers north of the city. As we drew closer to out arrival, our first lesson in the horrors of the elephant tourism industry began.
Just down the road from the sanctuary, an elephant riding camp engages in the very practices that make sanctuaries like ENP an unfortunate necessity. The camp offers elephant rides through difficult terrain, often with an entire family of tourists on the back of one elephant.
It wasn’t long before we witnessed the effects of these practices with the deformed backs, ruined hips, and visible emotional trauma of rescued elephants at the sanctuary. Victims of circuses were blind from flashes, and former labour elephants had difficulty navigating the park.
Our visit at the park began with feeding. Our guide wasn’t kidding when she taught us the first rule of making friends with an elephant, “no food, no friend.” Given a crate of bananas and watermelon, we took turns giving handfuls to an old, blind “lady” as our guide called her. We were surprised to feel how strong and dexterous her trunk was as she gripped the food from our hands. Within seconds of the crate being finished, she walked off to enjoy her morning at the park, belly full.
After feeding, we had a chance to meet one of the friendlier elephants. Many of the elephants have experienced so much trauma at the hands of humans, they cannot find comfort near any save their dedicated handlers. In that case, we enjoyed the beauty of those elephants from afar.
Perhaps the most incredible sight was watching some of the babies play in the dust and the river with their mothers, and their “nannies.” The youngest, a rather sassy boy, spent most of his time cajoling his nanny to play with him. His mother, unfortunately, experienced too much physically trauma to attend to his energetic nature, so some of the younger ladies have stepped in to care for him.
Watching the dynamics of these patchwork families and friend cliques among the elephants, it’s easy to see that these beasts possess a high emotional intelligence. Highly social, their interactions seem human in so many ways. As the sassy boy nagged at his nannies for attention, one of the younger ones tried to sit on him to teach him a lesson in patience!
Playing in the dirt.
At the end of the day, we had a chance to “bathe” with an elephant. As you can see, she’s trunk deep in a crate of food. As soon as the food was finished, she decided bath time was too.
Our day at ENP was truly enlightening. Perhaps, it could be argued, that the sanctuary would be more effective without visitors. But, I think seeing first hand the effects of the industries that use and abuse elephants had a powerful effect on our group. And seeing the lengths that the sanctuary goes to to heal and take care of the victims of these industries was equally powerful.
In many ways, it is in the hands of tourists to change the narrative of elephants in Thailand. Choosing to put dollars in the hands of reputable sanctuaries rather than abusive riding and trekking camps is the first step to diminishing the need for sanctuaries in the first place.