I knew Elephant Nature Park would be an amazing experience when I booked a full-day tour… back in August of 2007. The 50-acres of jungle, mountains and river about an hour North of Chiang Mai is a sanctuary for 31 elephants, ages 4 to 76, rescued from illegal logging companies, abusive tourist/trekking outfits and/or panhandling on the streets of Bangkok.
Wild Asian elephants are endangered in Thailand. This came as a shock to me. The elephant is highly revered animal here, their image displayed in countless sculptures and murals in honor along side with the King & Queen. I’ve seen plenty of elephants since I’ve been here, mostly transporting tourists around but also roaming the streets of Bangkok. How can they be endangered? A day at Elephant Nature Park would explain it all, in painstaking detail.
Sure, the Thai consider the elephant sacred but there is a lot of grey area here (pun intended). Elephants helped create modern Thailand. They were the army’s tanks against the Burmese. They logged the land (destroying their own habitat) to make way for agriculture, until it was outlawed in 1989. (Note: Logging was not outlawed because it was linked to the inhumane treatment of elephants but because it left the land too vulnerable during monsoon season.) After 1989, short of places to feed and call home, elephants were thought to be a nuisance to landowners as they munched profits from their farms. Thailand lost 95% of its elephant population around this time, mostly by the hand of man, literally and figuratively. A majority of the remaining 5,000 elephants in Thailand now work in a domestic capacity (i.e. the tourist trades). And these domestic elephants are classified as “livestock”. They are not protected at all as wildlife, not considered wild but tools of profit.
Every elephant on the sanctuary has its own story, most of them heartbreaking. But seeing the environment they are amidst now, seeing them wild and free, you can’t help but smile for their happy ending.
Jokia, rescued from a logging company, is completely blind. While pregnant, she was put to work to the very moment she gave birth. Toiling up a hill, her baby rolled downward helpless. Jokia was not released from her chains to go to the newborn. The baby died and from then on Jokia refused to work. Her “owners” shot her eyes with sling-shots in attempts to get her to work, blinding her.
Max (on the right), one of the country’s tallest elephants and once a street beggar, was hit by an 18-wheeler.
Mae Mai, an ex-logger, sustained an ankle injury at work one day and could no longer work. But her logging company found another use for her: breeding. They chained her up next to a very aggressive bull who didn’t like the looks of her. He brutally attacked her, breaking her pelvis and part of her spine.
Lilly was a drug addict. Put on amphetamines by her handlers to up her productivity. Boon Khum was poached for his beautiful tusk. Insufficiently drugged, chained to a tree and chainsawed for his tusk that is. Please check the park’s website if you’d like to read other bios. And now that I thoroughly depressed you, take a look at how happy these beautiful animals are here at the sanctuary. Although the outlook is bleak for elephants in Thailand and these troopers endured hell on the way, the sanctuary beams with love and happiness. It was a magnificent to experience this.
The day consisted of feeding and bathing mostly. We started off loading the trucks at the local market in Chiang Mai. 35 pd bags of watermelon, cucumber and corn hot-potatoed down the line of volunteers to 2 pick-up trucks. It was hard to believe that this load was just for one single day. The elephants needs 3.5 tons of fruit and vegetables a day! After some prep, the food was divied up into baskets and we proceeded to feed the 31 hungry mouths impatiently awaiting their produce…
Then it was time to help the elephants cool down in the water. Bathing time! After scrubbing and rinsing these massive animals they head straight to the dirt and coat themselves with nature’s sunscreen.