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