Playing with elephants is one of the most quintessential things to do in Thailand so when my friends from back home gleefully asked, “So have you ridden an elephant yet?!” I sighed. “No, guys, didn’t you know that’s bad?” They shook their heads perplexedly and I was surprised that even my most well traveled friends didn’t know about the sad realities of elephant tourism. But I was only just beginning to understand, myself.
I’d recently read an eye opening article on the torture that goes on behind the scenes of elephant riding and I wanted to find a way to interact with elephants ethically. When I arrived in Chiang Mai I found a wealth of brochures boasting “eco tours” and “ethical elephant riding” and other tours that claimed to allow you to ride and bathe and play with elephants in a safe and moral way. Something about them just didn’t seem right, though. I was confused; hadn’t I just read that riding elephants was bad for them? How could these places really do it ethically?
Luckily I came across Elephant Nature Park and it seemed a good fit. While their volunteer program usually fills up months in advance, they’d had some last minute cancellations and I was able to sign up a few days before the week’s program started. We headed an hour outside of Chiang Mai through the jungle to their reserve and began an unforgettable week.
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a 250-acre sanctuary for elephant “refugees” who have been rescued from abuse. Over 50 elephants (the number is constantly growing) roam through the lush park, most of them blind, crippled, or in poor health from being overworked, abused, or abandoned in their former lives as loggers, trekkers, and tourist props.
Now they are cared for by the park’s mahouts and a dedicated team of staff who seek to rehabilitate the elephants and provide them with a peaceful, safe environment to live the kind of life that elephants should. No chains, no hooks, no riding, and no fear.
Our jobs as volunteers varied and we were divided into groups and assigned morning and afternoon chores. Tasks included the thrilling act of shoveling giant piles of elephant poo into a trailer; hacking down an entire cornfield and loading it into an enormous truck (and riding home on top of the corn); chopping down grass with machetes; unloading and washing watermelons; and making fruit and rice treat balls to later feed the elephants.
Each group was also given an afternoon to take an ‘elephant walk’ during which a volunteer coordinator guided us around the park to see all the elephants. We watched them bathing, hanging out in groups, chomping down on grass, and playing around with toys.
In the evenings were seminars and talks given by various ENP staff. The most remarkable, I found, was the presentation given by Lek Challert, ENP’s founder who works against powerful odds to keep the park open. She showed us footage she has taken of the horrific abuse elephants endure during the “break”, a process which is necessary to make them obey humans. We watched as elephants in the logging industry were worked to the brink of death, as men beat baby elephants over the head with a hook, as elephants collapsed with their legs bound in chains. The video and images left the audience in stunned silence and their gruesomeness still haunts me.
The truth is there is no completely ethical way for tourists to interact with elephants. The only reason I was able to touch, feed, and have my photo taken with them is because they have been tortured into submission. Elephants are wild and highly intelligent creatures that would never normally allow a human to come near them, let alone ride them. If you must interact with elephants, please do not ride them. Do your homework and find an organization that treats them humanely and does not use hooks or chains.
If you can, pay a visit or support the Elephant Nature Park and please share this information with others.