Friday, December 08, 2006

Elephant Nature Park

Elephants have been an integral part of Thai culture for centuries. Unfortunately, there are few left in the wild and most of the remaining elephants were domesticated for use by humans, mostly laboring in logging camps. When logging was banned in Thailand in 1989, many elephants were out of jobs but with tourists soon filling the void, owners and mahouts (elephant handlers) found a lucrative market in selling elephant rides and shows or parading them on the streets of Bangkok selling bananas to tourists to feed to the cute elephants.

Most westerners and Thai's don't know that the training process to get the elephant to pull a log or dance or "play music" or some other ridiculously un-elephant activity involves a long period of incomprehensibly cruel torture and abuse. How else can they get the animal to "paint" a picture?

A refuge was set up in 1995 in northern Thailand, about an hour from Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park started out with one injured elephant , then grew one by one and today has 28 elephants. All of them have been rescued from logging camps, tourist shows and rides and many of them had been maimed by their owners or through their work.

One elephant was blinded in both eyes by her owner as punishment. Another had both rear legs broken by a falling log, then was made to continue working so that his legs healed crippled. Another had part of her foot blown off from stepping on a land mine. Another had his tusk sawed off by a chain saw. So many sad stories for these beautiful animals.

We wanted to experience elephants on this trip to Thailand and found the Elephant Nature Park online. We just came back from 3 incredible days learning about them through feeding, bathing, walking them and just watching their antics for hours of entertainment.

Feeding time!

Elephant Nature Park is located in a picturesque valley along a river where they are taken to bathe twice a day. We humans pay big bucks for spa treatments like this!

The setting is remote but we weren't roughing it too badly. Here's the view from our room, in a tree house-like complex:

And the ice cream man comes every afternoon!

One night, we went to an even more remote place, Elephant Haven, the original site for the park and a mountain retreat where they're let loose and allowed to forage freely in the jungle overnight. We had to cross a river by bamboo raft then hike another hour or so to get to the camp.

There was no electricity, only fire and candles to light our way at night.

The mahouts making toast for breakfast.

The elephants loved the opportunity to run free and we loved the chance to get more "natural".

Most of that is NOT tan!

The next morning, we had to go searching for the elephants then walk them back to the park.

Then it was time for us to go back to civilization. There's no doubt that we all feel changed for the experience and will feel only sadness when we see travel agents selling elephant treks or rides to thousands of tourists every year. I hope that the Elephant Nature Foundation can change the paradigm for human interactions with these gentle creatures and that more and more tourists will find more joy washing an elephant in a river than riding atop its back.


At 1:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Hiedi,

Spectacular!!! That is exactly why I said I envied you and your travels. I am in the Gulf of Mexico right now and will head to Alaska soon. The owners want me to Captain the new ship so I will be North of Barrow for 5 months this year. Be safe my little one.


At 3:16 AM, Blogger CamdenMuse said...

There's an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, that rescues elephants from abusive situations throughout the US--and these days, is taking in refugees from too small enclosures (the standard, unfortunately) at many zoos:

There is also a humanitarian program that teaches previously domesticated elephants to paint: Many of these elephants were previously used for logging, and are "unemployed"--which means that they are often subject to even more abuse.

Great blog! Keep travelling and writing about it!!

At 5:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Heidi,
What timing! I just read the Oct. 2005 National Geographic article about the elephant sanctuary you write about. They had a picture of the poor elephant with her foot destroyed by a land mine. Now this is what I call "Eco Tourism". What a great place to take kids. Maybe someday...

Stay safe.
Love, Shan

At 1:09 AM, Anonymous Tara said...

Hey guys!

Looks like Brien is getting a tan at last :-D

Great posts BTW!

At 9:34 AM, Blogger --TBAS said...

from the Ice to the humidity. impressive.

Looks like you 2 are having a pretty good trip!

At 5:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if there's more than one of these camps in Thailand. I visited something very similar in 1992 that was described as a home for orphaned elephants, and I met one who had lost a foot to a landmine. The visit left a huge impression on me that has shaped all my interactions with this wonderful animal.
Thanks for sharing your experience and re-kindling my memory.


At 4:58 PM, Blogger Heidi said...

Thanks for all of your comments. I really hope that this organization can make a difference but what a huge challenge - everywhere you turn, an elephant ride is being sold to fat, happy tourists who think they're on the cutting edge of adventure. I can't really blame them - before I found out about Elephant Nature Park, I probably would have shelled 500 baht for a ride and my blog would have had pictures of us perched up high on a pachyderm instead. I just hope that I can help spread the word. Maybe this will be the start of something like the Save the Whales campaign that had grassroots beginnings that I remember as a child in the 70s.


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