Elephant Nature Park | Chiang Mai
Now you may remember my rather scathing post on elephant riding in Thailand on Saturday. If not, you can read it here. It'll come as no surprise then that whilst I was in Chiang Mai I spent the day at the Elephant Nature Park - a sanctuary for old and disabled elephants.
There are a couple of ethical elephant sanctuaries around Chiang Mai - and quite a few masquerading as 'ethical' - but I ended up choosing the Elephant Nature Park. There's a few different options for types of visit: from full day to half day or even multiple days. I went for the Single Day Visit costing 2500 THB although I have a sneaking suspicion that I'll be back for a spot of volunteering in the future. . .
ENP is situated about an hour north of Chiang Mai and the setting is incredible: rolling hills, jungle, and greenery. It's very Jurassic Park. En route to the park you'll watch a video about safety whilst in the company of elephants and also about their horrific treatment at the hands of humans. Guess who presents the video? None other than Lou from Neighbours! Very exciting.
As expected the video was awful, I mean really awful. I'd never actually watched an elephant's spirit being broken as I knew I'd find it too upsetting, but there was no escape this time. The video also details the mistreatment of elephants in various different "jobs". For example circus elephants: unsurprisingly performing tricks isn't the natural behaviour of these animals. After having their spirits broken, the mahouts use large metal hooks to control them. Whenever an elephant disobeys the mahout or doesn't perform correctly, they're hit in the head with these hooks, sometimes leaving gaping wounds.
Similarly, have you ever seen an elephant paint? Funnily enough this also isn't natural elephant behaviour. The mahouts will purposely sharpen their nails, grab the elephants by the ear and direct them to 'paint', all the while digging their nails into the elephant. Lovely.
Finally, were you still unconvinced about how bad riding an elephant is? I mean, they're huge animals so surely they can handle a human or two? Well, the chair alone weighs around 150kg + tourists + the mahout sitting on the elephant's neck = over 500kg. For over eight hours a day. Often in the blistering heat. Maybe not so harmless after all. Many elephants are left with great wounds on their backs from the seats whilst others are dying from exhaustion. If an elephant disobeys, they're chained up, which is extremely stressful for the animal. If an elephant is chained up and rocking it's head, it's a sign of emotional distress.
Aside from tourism, elephants are still being used in logging in remote and rural areas. Many of the elephants at ENP have been injured by slipping and having a log smash into their legs. This can cause broken ankles and dislocated hips; injuries that often go untreated, thus causing further pain for the elephant. Similar injuries can also be attained through car accidents if the elephant is forced to beg on city streets. Car lights and also circus spotlights can also cause serious damage - and even blindness - to elephant's eyes.
Thankfully, places like ENP provide elephants with the safety and care that they deserve. ENP isn't just home to elephants though, they've rescued water buffalo, horses, cats and dogs. It's a crazy zoo. One notable event that resulted in the adoption of so many other animals were the 2011 floods. People just abandoned their animals as they tried to escape, so the folk at ENP decided to rescue them instead. You can even adopt the dogs here, as many have already done!
As everyone knows, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The Single Day Visit to the park begins on the feeding platform with a big ol' bucket of fruit. Each group get their own elephant to feed and it's just a question of feeding until the bucket is empty. Our elephant was called Lucky. She's about 32 years old and blind in both eyes. Lucky was originally a circus performer until the spotlights irreparably ruined her sight. She was then used for riding and as a photo pro before being rescued and brought here. Despite her rather tough life, she's still a happy elephant who clearly adores her mahout . . . and watermelon.
After feeding Lucky we moved on to get up close and personal with some more elephants. One of these elephants was called Grandma Za Za - pronounced 'Sazza' - I kid you not. I actually have an elephant twin. For those of you who aren't lucky enough to know me in real life, I'm often called Granny Saz or Granny Mac due to my penchant for early nights. I found this rather amusing and I must say she was my favourite elephant - absolutely no bias. . .
Families and Mahouts
The majority of the day is spent meeting different elephant families in the park. When an elephant arrives, it's kind of let loose into the park to find its own family. I wondered if the keepers had a hand in deciding who goes where, but it's entirely the elephant's choice. Each elephant is also assigned its own mahout who stays closeby throughout the day.
Although the presence of a mahout may make it feel like the elephants are still captive animals, I think of them more as carers. The vast majority are physically disabled and many are blind, with people allowed so close it's kind of necessary to have someone looking out for the elephants nearby.
One of our group asked how the mahouts "control" the elephants without the use of hooks and the answer is quite simple: positive reinforcement using food. The elephant does something good or is well behaved, they'll be given a fruity little treat. Having said this, the elephants are mainly left to their own devices so there's not much need for control.
As I mentioned earlier, ENP is a home for old and disabled elephants. However, there are a few young 'uns who didn't get the memo. There are two ways that a baby elephant can get to live at ENP: either their mother is already pregnant when she arrives, or a two elephants get to know each other whilst at the park.
The youngest resident was this lil fuzz ball who is just five months old! So, so, so cute. He spent the entire time playing with a tyre and just being adorable. I wish human babies were this cute.
Unlike the rescued elephants, once this lil baby reaches eighteen or nineteen he'll be moved away from the general population who interact with visitors. Newborn elephants aren't trained here, and so eventually he'll become too aggressive and will be moved to the bachelor pad of the park. There are about four elephants housed here, one is kept alone because he is just that aggressive whilst the other three live together. Don't worry about space - he's got plenty upon plenty of hectares in which to roam.
One of my favourite activities to escape the Thai heat is showering. Or ant variation that includes ice cold water. I was not made for such climates. Anyway, despite being made for such climates, the elephants also love bath time. Whilst the younger ones can wash themselves, the older ones can't and so that's where we come in.
Armed with a trusty bucket, Za Za and I were reunited in this most intimate of settings. She got another basket of fruit whilst I got to work. There's not much skill or grace involved with washing an elephant- it's literally just a case of chucking the water over them until all the mud has gone. Bring swimwear and a change of clothes as you'll get soaked.
Save Elephant Foundation
All in all my day here was absolutely fantastic. Interacting with these incredible animals was an unbelievable experience and one which I'd urge you to do for yourself. I still can't quite believe I've actually touched an elephant!
Seeing the injuries sustained through their work with humans just drove home how cruel the whole process is. Their misshapen backs and dodgy hips were not the signs of a pain free life and it's only made me more determined to campaign for an end to elephant riding.
If you're also interested in helping out, you can donate to the Save Elephant Foundation - a foundation dedicated to protecting Asian elephants. You can even sponsor an elephant and choose the exact one - I think it's only fair that I sponsor my namesake, don't you?