I first read about Elephant Nature Park on a blog called dtravelsround two years ago while I was living in the United States. After doing some research into the plight of the Asian elephant, I vowed never to ride an elephant, but instead I would visit this sanctuary and see first-hand the incredible work the volunteers are doing to rescue and create awareness of abused elephants.
Many people don’t realize that elephants are now an endangered species. There are now only around 3000-4000 elephants alive in Thailand, and the growing elephant tourism industry means that they’re being smuggled across the border from Burma, where using elephants for logging is still legal.
Why shouldn’t we ride Elephants? I mean we ride horses right?
While it may look like elephants don’t mind having humans sitting on their backs, this is because they were broken as babies, torn from their mothers and subjected to something called “phajaan” which means “crush” and is quite literally the crushing of their spirits. The baby elephants are shoved into a tiny cage, beaten, starved, and sleep deprived while being forced to accept humans sitting on their backs, and made to learn circus tricks like painting.
There’s a famous photo of an elephant going through phajaan, and you can click here to see it. Warning: it’s graphic and shows the reality of life for most of these elephants.
Some trekking camps may claim to be “eco-friendly” but every single one of these elephants has gone through this process while they were young, and while they may look like they’re smiling, these beautiful creatures are in pain when people are sitting on their backs.
I’ve had a few people ask me what the difference is between riding a horse and riding an elephant. After all, they’d still both be wild animals if we hadn’t domesticated them wouldn’t they?
Horse’s aren’t subjected to the same excruciating process as baby elephants when they are broken. Elephants will often be hit in the most sensitive parts of their bodies, including their ears and eyes. Elephant’s backs are also not designed to carry humans. They may be huge, but their spines are not strong enough to support our weight, and trekking elephants often end up disabled for life.
Elephants never forget. So when you visit a park that has elephant riding and tricks, and you see men with bullhooks, know that the elephants are remembering being tortured as babies, and this is why they are doing as they’re told.
As both travelers and tourists, we have a duty to travel responsibly. We need to weigh up whether that photo with a drugged tiger, or that video or us grinning from the back of an elephant, is worth the suffering of the animals involved.
I’m not trying to be preachy here- people travel for their own reasons and some people simply want a vacation. But if we choose not to make a difference as we travel, the least we can do is choose to do no harm.
I hope that people will gradually become more and more educated and soon elephant riding will be a thing of the past. If there was no demand for elephant rides there would be no supply, so hopefully tourists will stop supporting an industry made up of pain, misery, and fear.
The problem is that most people don’t understand the reality of the elephant business in Southeast Asia. The more we spread the message and educate each other about these issues, the better chance these animals have of living a peaceful and painless life
Our day at Elephant Nature Park
At around 8.30am a minivan picked us up from my apartment, and on the way we watched a documentary about Asian Elephants and the Elephant Nature Park.
Once we arrived we fed some of the elephants before being taken for a walk to meet some of the residents of the park.
The park is run by a truly amazing woman named Lek. Lek grew up helping sick elephants and founded Elephant Nature Park in 1996. Since then she has succeeded in rescuing dozens of elephants, many of whom were sick and injured.
Among the elephants at the park you’ll find elephants who have been rescued from logging, the circus, trekking camps, and begging on the streets. One of my favorites is Lucky, a gentle elephant who is blind in both eyes from the spotlight and flash photography after working in a circus for 30 years.
Medo is one of the elephants that brought tears to my eyes. She worked for years as a logging elephant before breaking her leg and was then forced to breed. Her backbone was dislocated by the forced breeding, but she was still made to work pulling smaller logs before Lek found her. It took 5 months before her owner finally agreed to sell her, and she arrived at the park in 2006. You can see how she has suffered permanent damage:
While the park doesn’t allow elephant rides, we had many opportunities to feed the elephants, and even got to help them cool off in the river.
I couldn’t help but be slightly nervous by how big these creatures are, especially when I was up close to them. But they were incredibly gentle and I felt safe the whole time.
After bath time, the elephants like to throw dirt over themselves to keep their skin healthy.
We then spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the park. So many of the elephants have severe injuries, but it was awesome to see them living their lives in peace and hanging out with their friends.
Elephants are extremely social creatures and have a life span similar to humans. They mourn their dead, and mothers will sometimes carry a dead calf for days before laying it to rest. At the nature park, they’ve formed smaller herds and there are even a few babies running around. Considering most of these elephants are not related, it was heartwarming to see the herd surrounding and protecting the babies when we were near them.
The baby was curious and kept getting closer and closer to me, to my delight. The leader of the herd was not impressed, though, and he managed to sneak up behind me very quietly considering he weighs around 4 tonnes.
Baby elephants don’t realize how much they weigh, and they really just want to play. When this little girl charged at my mum she thought she could stop her with her hand and nearly fell on her butt. It was the funniest part of the day.
So for those who were hoping to ride an elephant in Thailand, visit the Elephant Nature Park instead. The park has day visits, and you can also volunteer for a week or two, which I’d love to do at some stage. I guarantee it will be an incredible experience, and after meeting these wonderful animals you’ll never want to ride one again.