*This post was originally published on June 13th on amywarcup.com
There are certain activities one must never miss out on when visiting Thailand. These include shopping at the night markets, getting inexpensive and skilled Thai massages and spa treatments, visiting the ornate and exotic Buddhist temples, and of course, seeing elephants.
Several options are offered in Chiang Mai to spend time with these magnificent creatures, which have long been considered a symbol for good fortune in Thailand, dating back many years to ancient Siam. Dramatic shows of elephants drawing art with their trunks, performing circus tricks, and throwing and catching balls exist. Hundreds of organizations offer elephant rides through the jungle or even in the cities. There are secrets, however, to the traditions that are performed by villagers and mahouts (meaning elephant owners/trainers) that are not made public to most tourists, or even to many Thai people.
It has been a long tradition in many villages for mahouts and elephant trainers to partake in an elephant torture tradition called “The Breaking of the Spirit.” True to its name, this “ritual” is usually inflicted on baby and young elephants, where they are tortured for days and sometimes even weeks as a means to domesticate these naturally wild animals. Young elephants are commonly forced in confined pens made of wood that are too small for the animal to fit. Once locked in the pen, the elephant is chained and beaten for several consecutive days with large objects and sharp instruments that often stab and severely wound them. Sometimes their feet, eyes and ears are violently punctured, while several of the villagers gang up at once to scream at and beat the helpless baby elephants. Young boys in the villages are often initiated to participate as well, being raised in an environment where this is a regular occurrence. Historically, most of these elephants were later either used as logging workers or for entertainment for tourists. Since logging has been banned in Thailand in 1989, however, most are used in tourism. This brutal ritual of beatings is very common amongst many rural villages in all geographic locations Thailand. Many domesticated elephants that were once used for logging have also been abandoned, leaving them starving, homeless, and unable to adjust to surviving in nature.
There is an option to visiting elephant circus shows and taking rides, however that does not support elephant abuse; the Elephant Nature Park. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a rescue and rehabilitation center for abused, abandoned, and rescued elephants. The park is located about forty-two miles north of Chiang Mai, providing a scenic, natural, and safe environment for the elephants. Each elephant at the park has its own personal mahout that is trained to love and care for it humanely.
ENP was established in 1990 by a woman named Sangduen Chailert, nicknamed “Lek.” Lek was born in a remote hill tribe community in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Her grandfather, who was a tribal man, taught her much about the wonders of nature, including elephants. While growing up, her family cared for an elephant and she developed a close bond with the animal. Living in the tribal north of Thailand, she was also exposed to some of the harsh realities of how some other people mistreated their elephants. Lek Chailert made it her life’s mission to care for abused and abandoned elephants.
Most of the elephants at ENP were rescued from areas deep in the jungle. At the park, each elephant’s story is offered so visitors can learn about the elephants who reside there…stories of forced drug addiction by owners to make elephants work around the clock, or some who has survived weeks of starvation alone in the jungle, or of baby elephants that were forcibly separated from their mothers too early. Seeing these elephants roam freely in this northern river valley, however, and appearing so vibrant and healthy, is profoundly uplifting.
Visitors can come to the park for a full day, a week, or several weeks to volunteer at the park and contribute to the elephant’s caretaking. Longer-term volunteers can also learn about elephant conservation projects, herbal medicine, and become a full-time caretaker for an elephant.
Our group came to the park for a day. Our guide, Andy, introduced us to several elephants, and we had the opportunity to feed them, hug them, and later in the afternoon, cool off in the river to bathe them. Currently, the park has 35 elephants that dwell in it as their residence. We also viewed a documentary about the park’s history and some of the realities that many of the elephants survived prior to living at ENP.
Additionally, the ENP also serves as a rescue site for stray dogs and other animals, such as goats. Dozens of friendly rescued dogs meander around the park in search of a starch on the head or table scraps after lunch. For animal lovers, visiting the ENP is a must while visiting Chiang Mai. Clearly, as you can see, we are a group of fervent animal lovers.