Elephant Nature Park is an elephant sanctuary and home for elephants just north of Chiang Mai. The elephants have been rescued from captivity after having been forced to work as performers for tourists, street beggars, and beasts of burden in the logging industry.
Don’t miss our post for World Elephant Day: 7 Ways to Help Elephants When You Travel →
Our visit to Elephant Nature Park today was one more travel day we will never forget. Thankfully, we took about 1,000 elephant photos and this video to remember it by!
Here’s what you can expect when…
Visiting Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand
She Sells Sanctuary at Elephant Nature Park
Sangduen “Lek” Chailert has spent her whole life around elephants, and in 1996, having rescued four elephants from abusive owners, she founded Elephant Nature Park. Since then, Lek has worked tirelessly to expand the elephant sanctuary, which currently covers 250 acres.
They hope to buy more land soon, which will allow them to rescue yet more elephants, and employ more local people to help run the park.
When they come to Elephant Nature Park, the elephants are wary of the humans they encounter. It takes a lot of love, and time, for them to learn that they are somewhere safe. Trainers use positive reinforcement techniques to help the elephants adjust to a new life that doesn’t involve abuse, torture, and pain.
At the Elephant Nature Park the elephants roam free, form small family herds, and support each other. It is as close to being wild elephants as is realistically possible for them, since more than 80% of Thailand’s forests, their natural habitat, have been destroyed since the 1950s.
We were both quite surprised by the level of contact we had with the elephants. When we started the day feeding them I thought this might be as close as we got. It was quite close, as we were handing the fruit right into their trunks, petting them, and talking to them.
However, we spent several hours up close and personal with the elephants, getting to know their stories and their personalities, talking to veterinarians, trainers, and mahouts (the elephant handlers), and continually feeding them.
It might be better if tourists weren’t so close to the elephants all day long but we understand that the park has to raise money to continue to care for and feed all these elephants!
These beauties eat a lot!
On The Back Of An Elephant
As we were driving up to Elephant Nature Park, we passed several “elephant adventure parks” where we could see many elephants dotting the landscape near the river. These parks bring tourists in by the busload so they can go on elephant rides or treks. As our van drove along, we passed dozens of elephants, with basket platforms tied to their backs, schlepping two tourists each down the road.
Our guide, Ten, explained to us that though they look strong, an elephant’s spine is not designed to carry that much weight, and over time, carrying tourists causes permanent, painful injury to the animal.
Please, never accept a ride on an elephant’s back.
If you “have” to ride one, ride bareback on the neck of the elephant, which is much stronger. But, before you do, ask yourself where the elephant came from, why it’s not living in the wild, and how the elephant was trained to carry people. Elephants are wild animals — they have to be broken, using painful and cruel techniques, before they are “tame” enough to carry people.
Aside from the injuries caused by tourists, tourism is also driving a profitable business in illegal poaching and trading of wild elephants.
The training/torture that the elephants are put through in order to make them ready to entertain us is horrific. At Elephant Nature Park we saw a documentary that vividly showed the process of breaking the elephant’s spirit through the use of The Crush.
The animal, usually a baby, is caged with no room to move, and then over several days, men prod, hit, and jab the elephant until it behaves the way they want it to.
It was painful to watch. I can’t imagine how these peaceful, majestic creatures feel when they go through this torture.
After going through the breaking process, elephants are used as beasts of burden in villages, for begging on the streets of Thai cities, and as entertainers for tourists. While tourist dollars are still pouring in from the last two endeavours, endangered Asian elephants will be hard to protect.
Freedom for Elephants at Elephant Nature Park
Our guide for the day, Ten, was fantastic. He has worked at Elephant Nature Park for two years, knows all the elephants by name, was able to answer our endless questions, and made sure we were all enjoying ourselves.
As we walked around the park, he introduced us to the elephants.
Sadly, this involved telling us the stories of the abuse they had suffered and how they had come to live at the park.
The latest rescue had come from a trekking camp. Her spine was flat, almost concave, and she was having trouble walking. She had been so underfed her ribs were sticking out. The team is now trying to fatten her up with bread and baked pumpkin. She was more than happy to finish a whole basket of these treats while we watched.
Several of the elephants are blind in one eye from having prods and slingshots used on their eyes as punishment. One older female is totally blind, from infections she caught working as a circus elephant – elephant’s eyes can be easily damaged by camera flashes and bright lights.
Another could barely walk, but she was allowed to roam the park freely, making her very slow way from place to place across the grounds.
One old lady had a pronounced angle to her hind legs. She had been a logging elephant, whose leg was crushed by a log sliding down a hill behind her. Since she was unable to work, her owner tried to breed her. The bull rejected her, and since she was tied up for the breeding, she couldn’t get out of his way.
He crushed her hips and her spine.
The staff at Elephant Nature Park has rehabilitated her, and now she walks around happily with her two best pals. The three of them are inseparable.
The only elephants at Elephant Nature Park who have never been abused are those that were born at the park. These guys arrived as part of a package deal, when their pregnant mothers were rescued.
This is the littlest elephant here, loved and protected by the grown-ups and her handler.
Once the heat of the day really struck, we headed down to the elephant spa (a.k.a. the river), where we treated the elephants to their daily bath.
Humans Helping Elephants at Elephant Nature Park
Late in the afternoon, Ten introduced me to Lek, the founder of Elephant Nature Park, as she sat under an elephant, calmly talking to it as it flicked dust onto its back with its trunk.
I was so glad to be able to express to her my gratitude for the work she is doing. She is a peaceful, humble woman, who obviously cares deeply for these, and all, elephants.
She also cares for other animals. The park is home to hundreds of dogs rescued after the floods in Thailand in 2011, a few cats, and also to rescued water buffalos.
Not surprisingly, the immense buffet served at the park to staff, volunteers, and visitors is all vegetarian.
Elephant Nature Park is doing incredible work, rescuing and rehabilitating these intelligent and sensitive animals, but of course, it isn’t enough. She only has enough space to keep the 37 elephants in the park. That’s just a tiny fraction of all the working, abused elephants in Thailand.
Lek has done so much for elephants here, but we can all pitch in and help a little.
Please don’t visit an elephant park that isn’t a rescue organisation even if they claim to be elephant friendly! Please don’t ride elephants or pay to see elephants enterain humans in any way!
♥ Happy adventures, Stephen & Jane