elephants in Thai sanctuary

After a couple days of exploring Chiang Mai, Thailand, Danielle and I were whisked away on our volunteer experience to the Elephant Nature Park (http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/) for six nights and seven days. The park is approximately one hour outside of Chiang Mai and is home to elephants who have been victims of the brutal tourism industry and circuses. The park is a sanctuary for dozens of distressed and rescued elephants from all over Thailand. We were aware of the brutality and torture that elephants face working in the tourism industry, hence the reason we were volunteering at a sanctuary instead of riding them through the jungle, but we had no idea of the extent of the abuse. We also knew that we were heading to a very reputable sanctuary but did not know about the sanctuary’s other missions in addition to providing elephants a safe haven nor did we know quite the impact this park would have on us. 

Lek Chailert, the park’s founder, has quickly become one of my heroes. After college she began working in the elephant tourism industry and promptly learned about the horrific abuse and neglect that the Asian elephants suffered. She began advocating for the rights of elephants in Thailand and has been doing so ever since. Unfortunately, elephants have been such a major contributor to the Thai economy for centuries that working with the government to change the ways in which elephants are used and treated has been a difficult endeavor. Luckily for the elephants she has been relentless. Elephants historically were instrumental in erecting buildings, hauling materials, logging timber, and transporting people. The government finally banned the logging of rainforests in the 80’s which, although positive, meant that many elephants were no longer bringing in an income for the families that owned them.  This is when elephants became a tourist attraction. Owners found that tourists would pay to feed them, watch them perform, bathe them, and especially ride them.  Consequently, the elephants reclaimed their major role in the economy and continued to provide thousands of jobs resulting in millions of dollars to the Thai economy.  So, in order to satisfy the demands of the tourism industry and the government, elephant sanctuaries were born. The idea behind the Elephant Nature Park and similar parks is to provide a unique and up close experience with elephants, but in a humane and informational manor. The Elephant Nature Park allows people to visit the park, be near the elephants with supervision, feed them, and even bathe them, but the major purpose of this program is to educate the public about the travesties committed against elephants and to hopefully deter the public from riding them.  

During our time at the park we learned about each of the elephant’s stories, observed them, and helped with the daily tasks of caring for them. Each day we had two different jobs, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They ranged from cleaning up elephant poop and leftover food to washing watermelons and even chopping down fields of corn with machetes in 100 degree heat. The week we were there the on site vet was in the middle of assessing and recording the elephant’s individual eating habits for a dietary nutrition study. She asked 8 (of the 50) volunteers to spend an entire day following a single elephant and record every morsel of food it consumed. I think Danielle and I were literally the first people with our hands up. This was such an awesome opportunity. We were each assigned our own elephant and stayed with it from 7am until 5pm. I was assigned to Faa Sai. Faa Sai was a circus elephant before coming to the Elephant Nature Park. She had tried to kill five mahouts in her working days but has made zero murder attempts at ENP. She is independent, a wanderer with a bit of ‘tude, and described to me as “cheeky and unpredictable.” I walked with her and sat with her for ten hours. She was a doll. Faa Sai wandered the grounds with a herd of about six other elephants. Their mahouts, who are not allowed to use any tool of any kind to control the elephants, only their voices, casually followed from afar.  So why do they need mahouts in a sanctuary? It is important that they are there because the sanctuary is not fenced and because there are different groups of elephants at the sanctuary that don’t get along with one another and its best they are kept from mingling. Each mahout is responsible for one elephant and they are their best friend, it truly is a special relationship to see. We were privileged to be able to watch the herd interact and go about their day naturally. Elephants are incredibly quiet. I know, how is it possible that a 10,000 pound animal can be quiet? But they are!  A few times I was sitting on the ground reading and didn’t even notice there was an elephant within inches of my leg until a massive foot suddenly landed on my book! 

But back to Lek Challert. She has seen and endured both physical and emotional pain fighting for the rights of the Asian elephant. She has dedicated her life to them and her deep love for the elephants is evident. She has risked her safety and worked undercover to gather raw footage of elephants being abused and broken. Witnessing the abuse has taken a toll on her and at one point she was in the hospital for three months unable to speak about what she had seen. But she recovered and uses this footage to educate the masses about what happens behind closed doors in the world of working elephants. She shared some of her footage with our group while we were at the park and what I have seen cannot be unseen. 

So what does happen to these elephants that is so brutal? Beyond the fact that I can’t imagine that a two ton animal actually WANTS to balance all four feet on a ball for fun, they are all subjected to a traditional practice called “Phahaan,” which translated literally means “to separate” the elephant from it’s own spirit. Young elephants are taken from their mothers in the jungle at around 3 or 4 years of age and taken to a remote area where their spirits are broken so they will be submissive to humans the rest of their lives. Breaking an elephant’s spirit generally lasts weeks but can last many months. The elephant is forced into a very small cage with no room for any movement.  It’s limbs are tied tightly with rope and it is then beaten into submission. It is poked and stabbed with sharp metal objects mercilessly and screamed at continuously. Many elephants choose death at this point and stop eating. Many suffer from infections from their wounds or die from tetanus. For those that survive, once their spirit is broken they are put to work for life and always chained up at the end of each day. This practice is kept hidden from the public but scars are evident on the elephants and if you look closely while riding an elephant you can see small nails in the hands of the mahouts used as continued intimidation. You also may see bullhooks being used to “control” the elephants during your trek in SouthEast Asia.  People don’t know that these violations are being committed and I would like to believe that once enlightened, most people would not want to support such an abusive industry. 

Elephants are intelligent, beautiful creatures in danger of extinction that can be attributed to the tourism industry and the ivory trade. How can you help? Boycott tourist attractions that feature captured elephants and don’t buy ivory. The majority of Thailand’s elephants that are in captivity have most definitely endured spirit breaking. Please take a moment to look into the violations committed against elephants in Asia and share this information with anyone you know heading this way. I have been in Thailand for over a month now bouncing around from hostel to hostel and am SHOCKED to find that almost everyone I’ve met has planned to do an elephant trek, it’s “the thing to do” here. Please discourage anyone from supporting this industry and if you are heading to Thailand and want an up close encounter with these majestic creatures check out sanctuaries like The Elephant Nature Park. Here is a great website to help you decide which elephant attractions are trustworthy: http://www.elemotion.org/ 

We chose the ENP because it also contributes in other ways. In addition to providing homes for these elephants the park works to restore and preserve the surrounding rainforest by re-planting the mountainsides every year. Cultural preservation is at the forefront of their work in addition to saving and rehabilitating the elephants. The park also creates employment opportunities for locals and purchases agricultural products locally to assist the villagers in sustaining their cultural way of life. 

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About The Author

Jade Budden's picture

Jade Budden is a University of Oregon graduate with a degree in international studies and political science. After graduation, she moved to San Francisco to explore new opportunities (including time working with evox!) and reveling in the post-grad life, which by the way, makes me wish I were still in college. In the past, Jade worked with an organization in London that helped smaller political parties in developing nations find a voice, organize, and act. Her passion is in working toward social justice and environmental preservation. 


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