Header image courtesy of Elephant Nature Park (via Facebook)
The idea of riding on the back of a magnificent elephant through the deep rivers and pristine jungles of Thailand – or other top destinations around Southeast Asia – might sound like the thing of dreams, but the dark truth behind elephant tourism is enough to make any adventurous traveller think twice. We delve into the disturbing topic which led to the creation of Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.
A report published in 2017 by World Animal Protection revealed that more than 3,000 elephants, including babies, are currently being held captive in elephant tourist-attraction “orphanages” and “parks” across Asia, including Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, which is home to three-quarters of all entertainment elephants documented.
Of the elephants surveyed, more than 2,000 are being forced to give rides, perform, and interact with tourists, all the while enduring poor welfare conditions and abuse at the hands of their keepers, be it injury, forced breeding, and even death.
For those who don't know about the behind-the-scenes reality of elephant tourism, the story goes something like this. A baby elephant is torn away from its mother at an early age, when it is most easily forced into submission, then tied down and beaten with bull hooks and other instruments designed to inflict pain until its spirit is broken and it is willing to obey its “trainers” to avoid further abuse, as shown in the disturbing scene above.
But the mental and physical suffering doesn't end here, because once the baby is broken, it is either then forced to let travellers take rides on its back, or perform painful tricks, such as balancing on two legs on a small drum, walking on tightropes, painting pictures, and dancing. According to researchers, this elephant, which is subjected to this “breaking” or “crushing” process, is highly likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which it could carry with it for the rest of its life. Not so cute after all, right?
Although the global issue of elephant exploitation is receiving more awareness, thanks to growing media coverage and the move from popular tour operators like TUI Nederland, TripAdvisor, and Intrepid Travel announcing an end to all sales and promotion of venues offering elephant rides, many travellers remain totally oblivious to the cruelty that lurks behind their seemingly cute vacation photos. They continue to feed the industry by hopping onto the backs of its victims who have no means of escaping the cycle of abuse. But there are glimmers of hope in the darkness.
One woman who is championing change up in the peaceful mountains of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand is Lek Chailert (pictured above), the granddaughter of a shaman healer and the founder of Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre which invites visitors to learn about the creatures and contribute towards their healing through volunteer work. Like most conservationists, Lek believes that positive change begins with education, and thus she has made it her life's mission to educate visitors about the cruel implications of using elephants for entertainment.
The park, which Lek established in the 1990s, is home to 75 rescued elephants from all over Thailand, which have suffered unimaginable pain at the hands of humans within the tourism and logging industries. It comes as no surprise that the park tops the list of the most ethical places to visit in the world and is praised so highly across the globe.
Here, in this peaceful sanctuary, which covers an impressive 250 acres of open land, these gentle giants are given the chance to rehabilitate and live harmoniously among the herds, free of exploitation. Working hard to improve the lives and conditions of elephants, and educate visitors along the way, the park has a strict ‘saddle off’ policy, and guests are instead invited to feed, bathe, and walk alongside them in order to observe their natural behaviour. They will even gain insight into the unique personalities and quirky habits of each elephant which keep the mahout (or elephant carers) highly entertained each day.
During a visit to the park, guests will also learn the heartbreaking stories of the elephants and how they came to be rescued. While many of these accounts are harrowing to hear – ranging from broken bones and blindness, due to years of abuse in the circus and carrying tourists, to feet half blown away by landmines – the level of love, care, and treatment the animals receive from the team is truly heart-warming. Visitors might even get to witness an elephant undergoing hydrotherapy at the special Elephant Hospital (pictured below).
One of the most impressive aspects of Elephant Nature Park, however, is the fact that guests are given the opportunity to enjoy an overnight stay in the facility, taking up residence in one of the spacious rustic huts that lie next to the elephant ‘bedrooms’. Those who choose to sleep side by side these magnificent creatures will also get to enjoy extended time with them the next morning, before the park's day-trippers arrive and the education process begins all over again.
And if that isn’t enough to lure eco-conscious travellers into the mountains of Northern Thailand, then maybe the fact that the park is also home to 400 affectionate rescue dogs and cats is, many of which are allowed to roam free among the visitors. These doting animals can often be found napping on the porches of the guest huts, awaiting some much-needed attention at the end of a long day running around the park.
The greatest gift that Elephant Nature Park offers to the world, however, is hope – that someday, these gentle giants will be allowed to roam the land free, the way nature intended, with no chains, no hooks, no ropes, and no saddles in sight. And while there is a long way to go in educating tourists about the dark truth behind elephant tourism, and fighting to bring an end to their suffering, visitors to this peaceful sanctuary can sleep easy, safe in the knowledge that all residents have been given a second chance at life. Now that is the thing of dreams.
Elephant Nature Park, 209/2 Sridom, Ruam Chai Alley, 50100, Thailand
Visitors can choose from three packages: a short visit, day visit, or an overnight stay, ranging from around $600 to $1,400.
Click here to find out more about the packages and costs for visitors