Ethical Travel – A Day at Elephant Nature Park

When a man has pity on all living creatures then only is he noble.  –Buddha

 These elephants who often worked in isolation in the past, now have the opportunity to develop deep bonds with each other

These elephants who often worked in isolation in the past, now have the opportunity to develop deep bonds with each other

On Jan 1, 2013, we spent the day at Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.  We were picked up at our hotel shortly after 8 am which was a bit rough after a late night of New Year’s celebrating.  The timing of this visit was not our first choice but it was the only reservation left when we called (Travel Tip – book ahead during holidays and high season!) and visiting the elephants was a high priority for us so, hungover or not, we were going to do this!  As the minivan made its way down the narrow streets of the old city of Chiang Mai, we picked up the other bleary-eyed participants and had about an hour and half drive out to the country to get to know each other and our guide named “Ten”. Our education on elephants began once all the participants were on board with watching a documentary on the history of the park and the important role it plays in the conservation of Asian domesticated elephants.  We soon knew we were in for something special!  We also learned that along with the elephants, Elephant Nature Park is home to over 200 rescued dogs, many of them injured or neglected while they were soi dogs  living on the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and a number of (very brave) cats, all rescued in keeping with Buddhist philosophy of compassion for all, including animals.

Elephant Eyes – Beautiful and wise and so serene, it’s magical

Al's first encounter with the elephants

Al’s first encounter with the elephants

Upon arrival at the park, we were introduced to brutal pasts of the elephants and given a safety briefing on how to interact with them.  The elephants in their care have injuries that never healed properly from logging accidents, land mines or abuse.  Some are completely or partially blind, others have broken bones that never set properly and still others had been overworked in the logging and trekking industry, addicted to amphetamines  (to have been worked harder and for longer hours). And once their logging or trekking careers were finished, many of these highly social animals were made to work in isolation as circus performers and beggars in the cities and on beaches, doing tricks for tourist dollars (please don’t support these).  The Elephant Nature Park’s rescued elephants now receive top-notch medical care and have the freedom to roam the park, to choose their elephant companions, and to be nothing but elephants.

Baby Navann at 3 months old – the epitome of cuteness. Just look at that spiky hair! Having been born at the park means he will grow up without brutality.

We learned while at Elephant Nature Park that all of the adult elephants came to the park with mental health problems from having been domesticated at a very young age (usually before they would naturally be weaned from their mother’s milk) through a brutal training process called Phajaan, which literally means “The Crush”, that teaches elephants to fear humans and crushes their spirits by inflicting painful jabs for not obeying.  Anyone who has spent time around animals can tell you that a fearful and angry animal is unpredictable and therefore chains and bullhooks had been a necessary part of their daily lives to keep these elephants in line.  The myth behind this is that the only way to train these powerful and highly intelligent creatures is to gain dominance through torture and physical pain.  This myth is being debunked daily at places like the Elephant Nature Park where only love and respect are used for training instead of abuse.

In the afternoon, we were offered an opportunity to watch a documentary on this brutal ritual which was difficult to stomach but certainly made us all that much more appreciative of how gentle and forgiving these majestic giants are after all they’ve been through (although some comic relief was provided by one of the rescue dogs, who jumps and barks at the screen at every showing – that he is allowed to do this, is again a demonstration of the Buddhist philosophy at work in park). Phajaan is still practised in many parts of Southeast Asia, especially among the Hilltribes, but Elephant Nature Park is working to change this too by engaging with Hilltribe villages to provide free veterinarian services and teach more humane approaches to elephant care.


Feeding the elephants was a great opportunity to experience their gentleness up close

One of the first things I noticed about Elephant Nature Park is that the elephants roam free and the visitors are herded around and kept behind barriers; the total opposite of a zoo.  This was important because any interactions we had with the elephants was by their choice.  Mind you the steady flow of pumpkins, watermelons, pineapples and bananas worked well to entice them to stay and each group of elephants had a Mahout they loved and trusted nearby to help them feel safe around all of us strangers and to monitor their behaviour.  As we were given ample opportunities to feed them and bathe them in the river, it struck me as to how patient and gentle these creatures are.  Never once did an elephant seem frustrated when we’d fumble the fruit as they reached out for it or bored as we posed for yet another picture with them.  They took all of our inexperienced, sometimes hesitant caresses and bucket splashes in stride without fear and, when they had had enough, they slowly and gingerly moved on through the crowd, ensuring not to intimidate or injure anyone with their movements.


Bathing the elephants in the river


Mudbath time

The whole experience at Elephant Nature Park was so emotionally and spiritually powerful that we’ve struggled to put it into words (which explains why this post is 4 months late…).  For days afterwards, we both commented on how serene and calming the experience was and how that peaceful feeling stayed with us throughout the rest of our trip.  Even now, 4 months later, we can still remember the feel of the soft but warm skin of their ears and the coarseness of their spiky hair as well as the powerful grasp of their trunks taking fruit from our hands.  We can’t help but smile when we recall how the elephants nuzzled and caressed Lek Chailert (the Founder, elephant champion and all around inspiration) when she sat beneath their legs and sang to them.  The trust and love was truly palpable and the familiarity with which they greeted her was incredible to witness.

Lek and her Elephants - a bonding moment

Lek and her Elephants – a bonding moment

In conclusion, there are likely a thousand elephant tours, elephant trekking opportunities and elephant farms in Thailand to choose from and the pull to get a piece of the lucrative tourist market can often mean that the tour operators and even supposed “objective” tour marketers will tell you their programs are ethical and treat their elephants well but you won’t know for sure until you’ve paid their non-refundable fees and are at their mercy.  It’s a gamble because with even the “good ones” listed in the guide books, one can never be sure how they treat their elephants in the off-season and how often they’re ridden and trekked without proper breaks or what brutal tactics were used to teach them to paint pictures and do tricks for tourists’ amusement.  Yet, at Elephant Nature Park, not a single bullhook will be used and these magnificent, gentle elephants have the freedom to live like elephants should.

No need for bullhooks when Elephants trust their Mahouts

Elephant and Mahout – a relationship built on mutual respect rather than dominance

As fellow travellers, please remember that our tourist dollars can and do greatly influence both local attitudes and governmental changes to laws that can better protect and encourage the ethical treatment of animals.  It is up to us to educate ourselves and choose wisely.  Therefore, when trying to decide which elephant program we should spend our hard-earned and even harder fought-after tourist dollars, the certainty of knowing that supporting Elephant Nature Park is the right thing to do is priceless.

A spellbinding moment

A spellbinding moment

As we plan our next adventure, we would love to learn about other ethical encounters with animals throughout the world.  Have you had an ethical animal experience that took your breath away?  Please share it in the comments along with your questions and feedback about our time at Elephant Nature Park.  And, as always, thanks for reading….

We are independent travellers with no affiliation to Elephant Nature Park or Save Elephant Foundation.  We paid our own way and we have written this post to endorse the work that Lek Chailert is doing at Elephant Nature Park because we strongly believe in it, not for financial gain.

Also check out the extensive Elephant Nature Park videos created by a member of our tour group, Dieter Engel, on YouTube to get a sense of the experience:

This blog post was featured on: 

Byteful Travel Blog Carnival #18