Gentle Giants: Visiting Thailand’s Elephants

The instant I touched the wizened cheek of a rescued elephant in Thailand my heart grew tenfold and I knew my soul had been irrevocably changed.

I’ve always had a thing for elephants. They pull on my heartstrings like no others.

We are often awed by how much elephants are like us humans – their intelligence, self-awareness, fierce familial bonds, compassion, long-term memories. Yet, we humans can be our most cruel when it comes to elephants, often stripping them of the very things that make us feel a kinship…even when we think we have their best interests at heart (e.g., zoos).

Our visit to northern Thailand included spending two days at the amazing Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for injured and abused elephants near the city of Chiang Mai.

Some of the numerous four-legged residents enjoying their retirement at Elephant Nature Park.

I was actually hesitant to visit, as I knew it would be emotionally taxing for me. But the opportunity to see elephants freed from their lives of servitude was too much to pass up.

The deep and complex history between Asian elephants and the Thai people spans thousands of years. Elephants are a revered symbol of the nation and can be found adorning everything from flags, to temples and streetlight posts. The elephant also has spiritual significance in Thailand due to its association with Buddhist and Hindu religions.

I found the textures of the elephants fascinating. I can still feel their rough and wrinkled skin, with a thin crust of dirt from their mud baths, under my hands. I couldn’t get enough of the fuzzy hair on their heads, their lush eyelashes and their mouth whiskers.

Below is a video that captures some of our experiences during our visit to the sanctuary.

In the year 1900 there were an estimated 100,000 Asian elephants in Thailand. Today there are only a few thousand left. Nearly half of those are working elephants in captivity, and the remaining live in the wild in ever-shrinking forests and jungles. Owning and handling elephants is a livelihood that is handed down in families from generation to generation. Although Asian elephants are endangered, captive elephants in Thailand are regulated similar to livestock – the owner may generally do with them as they wish.

I found Elephant Nature Park to be a place of love, light and healing.

I’ve never experienced anything like it. Just check out the great video below of one of their rescued elephants, Faa Sai, playing in a sprinkler she broke (which she has a habit of doing). To me this video epitomizes the beauty of creating a safe place where once abused and indentured elephants can heal and just be elephants.

The elephants have come to the park from all walks of life – with new elephants arriving every year. Many of the 30+ elephants at Elephant Nature Park have been rescued from the logging industry where they have suffered broken legs and other horrific injuries. Others have maimed feet from stepping on landmines or getting caught in steel-jaw traps in the jungle.

It wasn’t uncommon to come across elephants with permanent foot and leg injuries from their former life.

Some have dislocated hips from logging accidents or from being hit by cars on the road as they beg from tourists in resort towns and beaches — earning their owners money in exchange for selfie photos or the chance to feed bananas to the elephant.

Many of the elephants in the park have dislocated hips and other crippling hind-end injuries.

A few of the elephants have come from performance shows, similar to circus acts, where they were forced to do tricks, play sports or paint pictures for tourists – all while going blind from the constant exposure to camera flashes.

Me hanging out with Lucky. She was super sweet and one of my most favorite elephants at the park. She was completely blind from camera flashes and spotlights from being in a circus for 30 years.

Others have come from the tourist trekking (riding) industry where they have suffered broken backs (although large, elephants are not designed to carry heavy weight on their backs) and malnutrition (giving tourists rides all day, every day, leaves little time for them to eat the enormous quantities of food required to stay healthy.)

We had to drive through and past several trekking camps to get to the sanctuary. I’m sure a love of animals is what drives many such tourists to seek out the chance to get close to them in this way. They likely have no idea what goes on behind the scenes to make elephants submit to the unnatural act of giving rides.

Many of the elephants had scars, injuries and broken backs from being forced to give tourists rides at elephant trekking camps – which is where these elephants had come from in recent months.

Not to mention the lifelong emotional trauma that captive elephants carry with them from the horrific process of having their spirits broken when they were babies (known as Phajaan, or “the crush”.)

I found myself wondering what these elephants were thinking of each other…rescued elephants enjoying their freedom on one side of the river, and working elephants being forced to give tourists rides on the other. One saving grace is that the neighboring trekking camp doesn’t use the large metal chair saddles.

Love brings healing…

The amount of care and compassion lavished on the elephants at Elephant Nature Park on a daily basis works to counteract the years of abuse and trauma the elephants experienced before arriving.

Each elephant has a handler, or a mahout, and I was struck by the caring connection between many of the elephants (especially the older, ailing or more solitary elephants) and their mahouts. The blind elephants would travel vast distances across the park by following the voices of their mahouts.

An elephant and her watchful mahout. I don’t recall her name, but she didn’t let her leg/foot injury slow her down. I was mesmerized by her beautiful soulful eyes.

Mae Boon Ma, with her mahout. I loved the grass she would toss on her head to help protect her skin.

There was a cold snap while we were visiting and temperatures dropped from 90 °F to around 45 °F in one day. Elephants can be quite sensitive to the cold, so the mahouts spent day and night building fires for their elephants to help keep them warm. The mahout’s sole purpose was to ensure the safety, comfort and well-being of their elephants.

The mahouts of the elderly elephants kept fires burning day and night to help ward off the cold. 

One of the mahouts relaxing by the fire while this herd of elephants enjoyed a mid-morning snack of corn stalks.

People serving elephants, rather than elephants serving people…

Many staff and volunteers spend hours making specially prepared food for older elephants that no longer have teeth or have other dietary needs. From cutting the rinds off of hundreds of watermelons, to crafting rice/banana/steamed-pumpkin balls, many of the elephants are kept healthy by consuming handmade treats each day.

Our tour group helping to prepare food for one of the elderly elephants that doesn’t have any teeth.

Feeding Mae Bua Loy her tasty rice/banana/pumpkin balls. Since she is mostly blind we would use our voices and hands on her trunk to help her locate the treats. She is quite sensitive to the cold so she was spending the day in her sleeping shelter with her jacket on by the fire.

Exercising free will…

For their safety the elephants sleep in secured and covered shelters at night, but by day they are allowed to roam freely across the 250-acre park. No bullhooks, chains or other tools are used to coerce an elephant’s cooperation. Only positive reinforcement (e.g., encouraging voices, gentle hands or sweet treats) is used to encourage the desired behavior. For example, if an elephant doesn’t want to cooperate with a vet exam, they are free to walk away.

These very stylish mahouts use treats to encourage their elephant friends out into the larger open area in the park.

The elephants self-select their adoptive family units and naturally form small herds. An individual elephant might migrate from one herd to the next until they find where they are comfortable. Sometimes they spend a few hours wandering about visiting friends in other herds, other times they may choose to hang out by themselves enjoying figs that have fallen from a tree or playing in a sprinkler.

What cute butts! These elephants have selected and befriended each other to form a cohesive family unit. Just like me and you, elephants like to choose their friends and companions – a luxury they are not afforded in zoos and other forms of captivity.

If an elephant wants to walk across the river and spend their morning eating and exploring on the other side of the park, then their mahout rolls-up his pants and follows them across the river. No questions asked.

This elephant – with her mahout walking in front of her – decided to wade across the river to join her friends on the other side.

There are a lot of tourists (like me) with the elephants everyday, so it was heartening to know that at any point the elephants could simply walk away, or otherwise make it known that they weren’t in the mood for company and their wishes would be complied with, unequivocally.

Many of the elephants are happy to engage with visitors, while others want to be left alone or they don’t want you getting too close to the baby in the herd. I felt like the staff did a great job of ensuring the elephants were always comfortable with the proximity of the visitors. (On a side note…you know how they say people often resemble their dogs? I think this mahout and his elephant are cut from the same cloth!)

A life with purpose…

As they do in the wild, the elephants in the various park herds take on meaningful roles – friend, leader, adopted sibling, mentor, mischievous baby or protective nanny, to name but a few. Roles that they couldn’t really fulfill in their former lives as working, captive elephants.

There are baby elephants at the park and several of the older females have relished taking on the role of a proud nanny. Several of the young elephants are notorious for getting into mischief and it isn’t uncommon for their curiosity and adventurous spirits to get the best of them. For example, baby Yindee enjoys chasing the dogs at the park…until he gets a little too close for comfort.

Baby Yindee causing havoc with the dogs.

In the video below Yindee tries to enlist the help of his mahout in a fun game of chasing the dogs, and then goes it alone for a bit. In the end all it takes is a little baby elephant squeak for help and his nanny comes to his rescue to chase the dogs away. (By the way, baby elephant squeaks have got to be one of the cutest noises in the world!)

Several of the older female elephants have formed enduring bonds of friendship. Jokia’s best friend is Mae Perm, these two are attached at the hip and have been companions at the sanctuary for going on 17 years. Jokia is completely blind and Mae Perm helps her find her way across the park and quickly comes to comfort her whenever she’s stressed.

Jokia (left) and Mae Perm (right), true besties. These two lovely ladies were an absolute joy to hang out with. I could have spent all day watching them munch corn in contented companionship.

 

Jokia was blinded by her previous owners as punishment when she refused to continue working hauling logs. Not only is Mae Perm her best friend, she’s Jokia’s eyes and helps her find her way.

The freedom the elephants experience at Elephant Nature Park enables them to develop the social structures and familial relationships that give them purpose and improve not only their mental, but also their physical well-being.

 A brilliant business model…

Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, a truly inspiring woman that has made the welfare of Thailand’s captive elephants her life’s work, founded Elephant Nature Park in 1995.

Although I did’t get a chance to meet Lek in person, it is obvious that she is a true gift to humanity…and to the elephants. Check out the video below of her putting a baby elephant to sleep with a lullaby to get an idea of how much she truly loves these magnificent creatures.

Elephant Nature Park is now home to ~35 rescued elephants, plus over 400 dogs, oodles of cats, countless water buffalo once destined for the slaughterhouse, several horses, and even a monkey – not to mention the ~200 staff it takes to keep things running, the local farmers that grow the incredible amounts of food consumed by the elephants daily, etc.

There was a constant stream of local produce coming in to keep the elephants fed.

Lek, and the park, seeks to make lives better for the community by providing jobs and housing for locals as well as refugee families, funding for schools, educational programs and much more.

Homeless, injured and abused animals from across Thailand have made their way into loving hands.

Logging in protected forests was banned in Thailand in 1989, effectively putting hundreds of captive elephants, and their owners, out of work. Many have turned to Thailand’s growing tourism industry, particularly elephant trekking/riding and performance shows, as an alternative way to make a living from their elephants.

Lek’s vision and determination has created a unique experience where tourists can interact with elephants without exploiting them. She is tirelessly working to expand this model to other elephant trekking camps across Thailand and other parts of Asia.

On any given day over 100 day-trip tourists, as well as 16 overnight guests (which is what Glenn and I did), visit Elephant Nature Park to see the elephants. In addition, there are ~50 volunteers onsite each day that stay for weeks at a time doing everything from preparing food, to shoveling elephant poop. Others participate in more intimate programs that give visitors the opportunity to spend the day walking, feeding and bathing elephants either at the park or in the surrounding jungles with the hilltribe people.

Many of the elephants will wander over to the main building to enjoy some treats handed to them by park visitors on this specially designed feeding platform.

Glenn feeding one of the elephants. Nothing can describe the amazing sensation of an elephant wrapping their trunk gently around your hand as they take the food.

Our lodging accommodations for our overnight stay. Through our back window we could see the elephants bedding down for the night in the nearby shelters. It was amazing to fall asleep to the sound of elephants gently rumbling in conversation with their friends and family…and then trumpeting with excitement as they greeted each other the following morning.

All of these visitors and volunteers pay good money for the opportunity to interact with the elephants…no rides, no tricks and no gimmicks. Just love.

And, based on their experience, many of those visitors are likely to continue donating money toward the elephants long after they leave Thailand and return home. At least, I know I am! A brilliant business model to help sustain the care and feeding of these amazing animals.

Sue, one of our fellow travelers from our biking and hiking tour of northern Thailand the week prior, gave us money to donate to the park on her behalf. 

But wait, there’s more…

Although elephants are the main attraction, there are countless other critters that call Elephant Nature Park home, including over 400 dogs that were rescued from the 2011 floods in Bangkok and from city streets.

One of several furry friends we made during our visit.

Volunteers come to the park to spend time caring for the dogs as they await adoption into the homes of loving families.

Who could pass up the chance to walk one of these sweet pups?

Many of the dogs are allowed to roam freely across the park, watching over their elephant friends.

Others have taken up residence in the main lodge building.

My experience with the elephants left an indelible mark on my heart.

They are amazing souls and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to interact with them, if only for a couple of days. I look forward to returning to Thailand again someday to volunteer for a longer period of time!

In the meantime, I am committed to securing similar freedoms for the elephants at the Oregon Zoo where I live in Portland. Although they now have an improved enclosure at the Oregon Zoo, I believe our elephants deserve to be free from the use of bullhooks and from captive breeding programs, and to have the chance to wander freely on a large sanctuary similar to Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park.

I can’t wait to come back to Thailand and spend more time with these gentle giants.

Should you find yourself in northern Thailand, I encourage you to visit Elephant Nature Park, which is a project of the Save Elephant Foundation. You can find additional information on the foundation’s website about other local and regional opportunities for visitors to interact with Asian elephants in a caring and responsible manner that builds them up rather than breaking them down.

Some final pictures from our visit…

Baby Navann (3 years old) and some of his family.

Baby Yindee enjoying some lunch with his mom.

This lovely lady was recently rescued and had arrived at the sanctuary just days prior to our visit. She was incredibly tall!

Jungle Boy – one of a few bull elephants that spend their days in very large enclosures, complete with their own private swimming pools. Plans are underway to hopefully release these fellas and many other elephants into the wild on a 25,000 acre sanctuary in Cambodia.

Supervising the prep of elephant food is exhausting business.

Look at that baby hair on his head and back! So adorable.

Slumber party!

What a facial expression! So cute.

 

3 comments on “Gentle Giants: Visiting Thailand’s Elephants

  1. Pingback: The Buddy System | A Life More Extraordinary

  2. A “volunteer vacation” is something I might consider when I no longer have nanny duty. You two have certainly found wonderful corners of the world. Thanks for sharing them with us.
    Randy and I have been exploring OR. : Crack in the ground, Hole in the ground. Next comes Crater Lake , an old favorite, and we hope to find Tamolitch Pool east of Eugene.

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