Behind Thailand’s well-established elephant tourism trade there are brutal animal practices which only recently have become to get the international recognition (and condemnation) needed to stop animal tourism. Volunteering at Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park in 2011, gave me an experience I would never forget and an insight into the hellish lives that every working elephant across Thailand endures.
The park was set up in the 1990s by Lek – the founder, whose name means ‘small’ in English, which is apt as she is only 4ft 10in! She has bonded with these rescued beautiful animals like nobody else as she kneels into them and hugs their legs – relaxed, content and at one with each elephant. Lek set up the sanctuary in a natural jungle valley, bordered by a river, and surrounded by forested mountains so that the area offers a timeless glimpse of rural life where elephants can do what elephants do best, be elephants!
The 34 elephants the park had at the time, have been rescued from appalling environments, which largely existed to meet tourism demands. Day one of being a volunteer here means being confronted with that reality – make no mistake, the Park is here to educate and in part that means shock tactics…the idea being that none of the volunteers then argues at their right to ‘ride’ one of the elephants.
After making our way there from their offices in Chang Mai and seeing the elephants for the first time, we grouped in the main lodge and watched a short video on the current treatment of working elephants. It is not an easy watch.
Summarising as best I can, a typical Thai elephant is taken from its mother to the nation’s bustling, chaotic, cities. Upon arrival, the juvenile’s owner (a mahout) is paid by eager tourists who want to feed it / pose for photos. Becuase elephants rely on the soles of their feet to communicate, they are exceptionally sensitive to vibrations as well as noise. The busy Bangkok traffic plays havoc with their senses, making them panicked and scared.
The playful youngsters are a big money-earner and are in high demand across Thailand, from kerb crawling the cities to being playthings at luxury hotels. With the demand for elephants of 1-2years old particularly high, forced breeding programmes take place at a number of camps across Thailand. At these camps, male bull elephants are forced to mate with restrained females, who often reject or try to kill their babies when they are born.
When baby elephants become lose their ‘cute’ factor and become too large for the streets, they are sent for training. Mahouts spend roughly one month ‘breaking’ an elephant physically and psychologically while the elephant is trapped in a box, a ‘panang’, so small it cannot turn around or sit down.
Footage of an elephant being held captive in a panang with each of its legs bound tightly by thick ropes so the mahouts could control him, is a particularly hard watch. If the elephant fails to move its limbs in accordance with the mahout’s pulls, it will be violently hit with a metal hook (the Bull Hook) and repeatedly poked with wooden spears, often until it bleeds. Mahouts target the elephant’s sensitive spots, particularly behind the ears, giving it no choice but to obey, slowly breaking their spirit and domesticating them into total compliance through this torturous process.
Once trained, the elephants will either be sent to trekking camps or work in elephant shows.
Luckily, Elephant Nature Park has gone from strength to strength and it’s popularity with tourists mean that more and more people are watching this footage, seeing these broken elephants live out their retirements and can take that message home.
The life of a volunteer is simple, it’s early up for a tasty breakfast and to crack on with jobs for the day. Depending on the schedule that could be; cutting elephant grass, cleaning up elephant poop, washing cucumbers and pumpkins for the elephants’ lunches or weeding the area of poisonous plants. There are other animals that live here – probably 50 dogs, a donkey, cows, pigs, cats – anything with four legs in need of shelter! So we also mucked out the pigs one day, fixed fences and planted trees.
In the hot and humid weather, it is tough work, but you are rewarded with some amazing elephant time. From hand-feeding them to washing them in the river, to walking them back to their sleeping quarters – you get up close and personal every single day.
The food is delicious, the dogs are friendly (no need for a rabies shot in case you were wondering) and the park is inspiring. Some of the elephants have truly gut-wrenching conditions (broken spines, unhealed wounds, foot blown off by a landmine) but more so the mental scars are deep and they can be temperamental! Jungle Boy sticks out in my mind as being a particularly one to watch!
If you love animals, care about animal welfare or are at least curious – I would say you won’t regret a week here, even for the price tag of £350 (includes all bed and board – seriously as much as you want food!) But make sure to book in advance, because the slots fill up. You can also come on a day trip – though that is also worth booking ahead.
ENP taught me to enjoy my travels mindfully and to see that animal tourism is not for real animal lovers 😀