Elephant Nature Park is a unique rescue and rehabilitation project in Northern Thailand in Chiang Mai province, they provide a sanctuary for distressed Elephants from all over Thailand. Many tourists come to Thailand looking forward to riding Elephants, however many are unaware that these Elephants suffer terrible conditions and cruel treatment by their owners to provide entertainment for tourists and earn an income for their owners. Baby Elephants are taken from their mothers to be used for tourist treks, circuses or illegal logging.
When you come face to face with one of these beautiful creatures and know the truth about Elephant tourism you’ll never see Elephant riding the same way again.
Instead of taking an elephant ride tourists can choose to visit Elephant Nature Park and support their valuable work. We had been looking forward to this visit as a highlight of our time in Thailand. But then I left it a bit too late to commit to a date and there were no spaces left to visit the park! This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because instead we found out there were spaces on a small group tour to the Saddle Off Project, Elephant Freedom, south of Chiang Mai. At the main Elephant Nature Park there are a large number of Elephants but also a larger number of tourists each day. At the Karen settlement there is a smaller family of Elephants but a maximum of 10 people on the tour, you get much more hands on time and are able to bathe the Elephants and interact more closely but at all times respectfully.
We spent most of our time with two females, a mother and grandmother (46 years old) and the baby boy, 6 months old, already weighing 300kg! He weighed 100kg when born. There was also a male elephant there, and there is another at the project but he was ‘in season’ so it wasn’t safe for him to be around people in case he became aggressive.
Here are some things we learnt about the Elephants
- Adult Elephants sleep about 3-4 hours per day and eat constantly!
- They eat up to 300kg of food each day.
- The baby sleeps several times a day.
- When the sanctuary rescues an Elephant from a circus, tourist treks or illegal logging, they need to purchase it, the cost can be $30,000 USD for a single Elephant.
- Elephants like to eat sugar cane, bananas and bamboo.
- The fruit must be rinsed first to remove any harmful pesticides.
So our first task of the day was cleaning and preparing some food for the Elephants.
We then enjoyed time meeting the Elephants and feeding them. L especially enjoyed seeing how many pieces of sugarcane they could fit in their trunks, they really load them up before bringing it to their mouth. We also fed the baby, he only had bananas peeled or the occasional small piece of sugar cane.
After brief break it was time take them for a walk to eat grass and other vegetation. The little one definitely thought this was playtime.
We spent up to an hour just observing them, taking lots of photos and video and learning from our volunteer guide. His grandfather and father kept Elephants but he sees things differently and he volunteers at the park as much as he can. He adopted S as his little sister for the day. Because she stayed close to him she also got very close to the Elephants, especially the baby as he was very playful with the guide. He’s cute but he also weighs 300kg, so we had to rescue S a couple of times when he got a bit too close! A friendly nudge was enough to push her over.
At all times the Elephants caring Mahouts were aware of their needs and when they began to show signs of thirst it was back to the village for a drink and a rest.
We had a delicious lunch, so often tour lunches are awful but this was cooked by the local Karen tribe and was so yummy. We had potato curry, fried rice, noodles, stir fried vegetables, salad, fruits etc. Then it was time to take the Elephants for a bath in the river, a welcome respite from the heat. Yes we were really this close to these beautiful creatures.
During the day in the nearby village there was a funeral ceremony happening, they were letting off fireworks / rockets that made a very loud bang. These frightened the Elephants terribly and it was distressing to watch their stress responses. The older Elephants immediately surrounded the baby to protect him. This cut short one of their bathing times in a deep pool as the quickly left the water when the banging started. We had to quickly move back to avoid being trampled as they ran in fear, but they were quickly calmed by their gentle Mahouts.
We carried on to a shallow part of the river and once they were calmed we joined them with buckets to give them a good splash. This turned into a bit of a water fight between our two and the guide with the Elephants benefiting from the splash and the other tourists receiving a soaking too…
This was such a special experience that we will all remember, truly meaningful and joyful interaction with the Elephants. Then we had another experience that dampened our spirits.
A tour bus arrived at the river with Elephants that our guide told us are part of a circus. They had ropes around them and were made to perform for the busload of tourists, that ran backwards and forward to take selfies with them. The tour stayed probably for only around 15 minutes It was tragic to watch the awful way they were treated, our guide and Mahouts were powerless to do anything, but they were visibly upset.
At all times the Elephants at the Elephant Freedom Project were free to do their own thing, walk where they wanted to, get into or out of the water when they wanted to. Feed and drink as they needed to. We were asked politely to move away if they felt we were too close or there was any sign of stress for the Elephant, or danger to our safety.
The day was completely manageable for our children, they were able to participate in all the activities and the small group situation was ideal as it meant there was plenty of time and opportunities for them to be involved. The pace of the day wasn’t too intense or tiring, with plenty of opportunity for toilet stops, lots of cold water available and delicious food.
If you want a life changing experience next time you are in Thailand, look up Elephant Nature Park, their main park is in Chiang Mai but they have projects in several places. Our day ended in tears as S our animal lover didn’t want to leave. She wants to return one day (when she is a bit older!) to do one of their volunteer programmes.