One of the most iconic symbols in Thai art, and an animal inextricably tied to Thai history, is the Asian Elephant. They were tanks in times of war, construction muscle in times of peace, and now, a huge source of revenue for the tourism industry. Everyone who comes to Thailand wants the thrill of riding a real elephant. And tourists pay big bucks for it.
When we put Thailand on our itinerary, I envisioned elephants! But after doing some research on how and where I wanted to have an elephant encounter, I learned about a place called The Elephant Nature Park. Our visit to their elephant sanctuary was educational and heartwarming. At ENP, we learned a great deal about the history of elephants in Thailand and their treatment today, and we wanted to share it in this post. We aren't experts and we aren't animal rights activists. This is just the story of our day and what we saw. We were truly moved by this experience, and if even one person reading this blog comes to Thailand and this post affects their decision about how to participate in elephant tourism, then we'll consider that a win.
The Elephant in the Room
There's a weird contradiction when it comes to elephants in Thailand. Wild Asian elephants are endangered species, and receive full legal protection from the Thai government. However, when it comes to “working” elephants–elephants used in tourism, or in illegal logging (once legal, and still happens in remote forest areas)–these ellies are considered domestic animals and get zero protection. Due to extensive logging of Thailand's forest, there are only about 3000 elephants left in Thailand, only half of which are wild. The rest are domesticated.
What does that mean, really? Well, one big issue is the work and care of these elephants. The many beggar elephants in Bangkok suffer especially appalling conditions. But even worse is the process in “domesticating” an elephant in the first place. There is a long and prideful Thai history for those trained elephant husbandry, called mahouts. Mahouts often come from mahout families, where the skills are transferred from generation to generation. And many mahouts have deep bonds with their elephants, and consider them like family. But a combination of the necessary process of domesticating an elephant, plus the fact that many unskilled mahouts are cashing in on the lucrative elephant tourism industry, has had terrible consequences for elephants.
The process of domesticating an elephant is also called the “Phajaan” ceremony, though there's nothing ceremonial about it. This process turns elephants from wild to domesticated, and it can never, ever be undone. It also legally changes the classification of the animal itself. Elephants go through Phajaan as babies, when they are ripped from their mother's care and brought to tiny cages where they are crushed for days, both physically and emotionally. In fact, the word Phajaan means “crush”. The elephants are confined to cages that restrict their movements and crush their body. They are starved, sleep-deprived, stabbed, and physically abused over and over again for days, until finally, the elephant is so terrorized, so tired, so hungry, and so broken down, that it forms a permanent fear of their master human and will listen to the mahout's every command. This is how elephants become “ride-able”. This is how elephants drag logs until their hips break, carry tourists until their backs break, and don't toss them off in the first place. It's not natural at all. Elephants are remarkably sensitive animals. They are highly intelligent, highly emotional, and have family bonds that rival humans (and even surpass some human families, I'm sure!) If you've got a strong continence and want to learn more about the horrors of Phajaan, there's an educational video here. Fair warning: it's awful to see.
The Elephant's Angel
This is where Elephant Nature Park comes in. ENP was founded by a remarkable woman named Lek, who loves elephants. She grew up in a hill tribe in northern Thailand where her family had elephants, and where she developed a deep love and bond with them. She has dedicated her life to saving elephants from awful circumstances, from abuse and injury and certain death, and she does this all at ENP.
Lek created a sanctuary for elephants... she bought land and built facilities to house dozens of elephants. There are literally miles and miles of open land for them to roam free, a river for them to play and bathe in, they get fed every day, they get medical care when they need it, and most of all they get the love of humans who do not ask anything in return. The elephants don't have to paint picture or do tricks for tourists. They are simply allowed to enjoy their freedom and peace, and tourists pay for the beautiful experience of watching them do this.
Today, ENP is home to 44 elephants from grandmother ellies to babies. All but three are female, since bull elephants are more aggressive and rarely used for domestic purposes (therefore aren't in bad conditions needing refuge.) ENP has mahouts to care for the elephants, but the mahouts here only positively reinforce (with food and love) in order to facilitate the good ellie behavior that makes the park a happy home for so many animals. Did I mention that ENP is also a dog rescue operation? They have over 500 rescued dogs living there in harmony with the elephants. They roam free as well, creating a convival and never dull atmosphere! Many of the dogs were abandoned by their owners during the Bangkok floods of 2011. Elephant Nature Park gave them a new country home.
ENP is an expensive operation! They have to purchase about 11 tons of produce per day to feed the elephants, they have to pay their staff of 70, and they have to actually buy the elephants in order to rescue them. Mahouts won't part with an elephant for free, so Lek pays upwards of $20-30K per elephant in order to save them from abuse and neglect.
The park funds itself by being a top eco-tourist destination in northern Thailand. For $80 to $150 USD, you can spend a day with the elephants, with varying degrees of interaction. Or, if you've got more time to spare, there are weeklong volunteer vacations available, where volunteers pay about $600/week for lodging, all meals and some fun social programs. These volunteers care for elephants all week and rotate duties, learn about elephants extensively, form more significant bonds with the animals, and probably meet a group of awesome, likeminded friends in the process.
Chris and I did the smallest package, and spent our day observing elephants, “meeting” elephants, feeding them, even bathing them in the river. But the mahouts don't ever force an elephant to do something it doesn't want to do for the sake of the tourists. If an ellie isn't feeling like taking a bath that day, or isn't hungry for snacks, she isn't forced to go be social with the tourists. In fact, there are social elephants who love the interaction with the visitors, and shy elephants who do not. The shy girls are never even brought to the visitor zone, and are just left to be free and roam like they're naturally inclined to do. Even elephants can be extroverted or introverted, just like us!
Little Orphan Ellies
The family unit is incredibly important to elephants. This is how they survive and is very important for their sense of safety and social health. None of these elephants have had this, as they were either ripped from their family units, or a wild elephant orphaned too early to survive on his or her own.
So what happens when you put a group of rag-tag, beat-up, emotionally unstable, orphan elephants of various ages all into one living space? Fights? Aggression? Competition? Quite the contrary. Get this: The elephants formed new families. All on their own, they developed mother-daughter bonds, sister bonds, matriarchs emerged, new babies get “adopted”, there are even some elephants who act as elephant “nannies”! We witnessed this in full effect when a baby elephant got spooked (probably from a tractor or other normal reason), and started running away from his family. All of the elephants in his family, whether near or far, came running in an impressive elephant stampede, raising their trunks and trumpeting loudly—a formidable sight to witness first-hand! They all surrounded the baby, and made her feel safe again. So these elephants who were formerly alone and depressed now have their own adoptive family units, once again providing them with social interaction, safety, care, and even love. The 44 elephants at ENP have 5 distinct family units ranging from 6-10 members each. How awesome is that?! It's kind of like the prison families on Orange is the New Black... minus the shankings.
We met so many elephants at ENP, and some of them have just heartbreaking stories. We met Jokia, a now-blind elephant who was forced into logging, became pregnant, and then forced to work doggedly while pregnant. She actually gave birth while being forced to drag logs up a mountain, and the baby rolled down the mountain and died. Jokia was distraught. After the miscarriage, her owners tried to force her to work right away. She refused, laying down and crying every time they tried to put chains on her. Her owners beat her to try to get her to work. They shot slingshots at her, one landing in her eye, blinding her. This still did not get her to work. Infuriated, her owner poked her other eye with a metal stick, blinding her fully. Since she was no longer useful, the owners were willing to sell Jokia to ENP's founder Lek as one of her early elephant rescues. Jokia never had another baby, but is a good auntie in her family group and has a deep bond with another blind elephant, her best friend Mae Perm. The two gals are always together, and always have each other's (blind) backs... they're the the Laverne and Shirley of the elephant world! A terrible story with the happiest possible ending.
Her story is just one of 44 tragedies that end with peace and comfort at ENP. We met a wild baby elephant named Navann whose mother died of illness before he was old enough to care for himself, but was brought to ENP and adopted by Tubtim, a female elephant who'd been wanting a baby for years. We fed an elephant who stepped on an undetonated landmine and blew his foot apart, but after months of intensive veterinary care from ENP, he's now walking OK. We met a female elephant who was violently raped—some mahouts breed their elephants by chaining the females down in a small cage, and then letting a bull elephant in to rape her—but this time, the mahouts let the bulls rape her so many times, the repeated force broke both of her hips. She's now at ENP and has healed, though walks with a sad limp and cannot run. Many of these elephants have scars that will never heal, both inside and out, but they're getting the best possible life at this park. It's a very magical place.
Please Don't Ride the Elephants
We absolutely loved our time at ENP, and highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Thailand. And if you've ever ridden an elephant in Thailand, this post was not meant to make you feel bad! Like most Thai tourists, we had no idea about Phajaan, or the laws surrounding elephant tourism, or the fact that riding elephants actually permanently damages their backbones. From their ultra-sensitive feet designed to detect ground vibrations, to their tender gray skin which needs sun protection daily, to their delicate backbones not made for large loads, to their highly-developed emotional capabilities, Asian elephants are are much more delicate creatures than their massive size indicates.
So, if you do go to Thailand, it's an iconic and unique experience to interact with an elephant! But maybe you'll consider feeding one, bathing one, or trekking alongside one, rather than riding on top of one. The Ellies will thank you for it!
Enjoy the little video below of our day at ENP!