Elephant Nature Park: Visiting Chiang Mai’s Only Elephant Sanctuary

So many pictures of elephants! Plus our honest thoughts about the park.

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

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. Here's what you can expect...

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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.

elephant nature park

As the fruit goes, so goes my nation, at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

elephant nature park

Food with friends, at Elephant Nature Park.

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!

elephant nature park

Elephants love watermelon, at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

Elephant Nature Park

Such a beauty, at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

Soulful eyes of an elephant, at Elephant Nature Park.

Soulful eye of an elephant, at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

Elephant Nature Park

Play time with elephants, at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

Selfie with elephant, at Elephant Nature Park.

Selfie with elephant, at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

Blind lady gets around by using her nose as a giant feeler, at Elephant Nature Park.

Blind lady gets around by using her nose as a giant feeler, at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

Past injuries don't stop this elephant from hanging with her two besties, at Elephant Nature Park.

Past injuries don’t stop this elephant from hanging with her two besties, at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

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Baby elephant surrounded by love and protection.

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.

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Bathing the elephants was a highlight for us (and hopefully them).

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.

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Dirty fun at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

The amazing and humble Lek and a very large elephant bum, at Elephant Nature Park.

The amazing and humble Lek and a very large elephant bum, at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

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Kitty at Elephant Nature Park.

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.

Wild animals are not for entertainment, at Elephant Nature Park.

Wild animals are not for entertainment! Elephant Nature Park.

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!

If you want to help elephants and have cash to spare, donate it to Elephant Nature Park or Save Elephant Foundation instead.  

  Happy adventures, Stephen & Jane

2 comments

  1. Comment by Sally

    Sally Reply March 20, 2014 at 1:22 am

    Please avoid all kind of elephant activity in Thailand, here is why;

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cX7VWC3bJ1Q#t=343

    .. that includes any government supported protection centers, because it is a corrupt country.

    If you want to see elephant, the most human way would be to see them in wild, in many national parks across Thailand. Khao Yai, Kaeng Krachan and Kui Buri National Parks only few;

    http://www.thainationalparks.com/kui-buri-national-park

    http://www.thainationalparks.com/kaeng-krachan-national-park

    http://www.thainationalparks.com/khao-yai-national-park

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane March 20, 2014 at 1:35 am

      Hi Sally,
      Thanks for the info – very interesting video. I think it’s worth noting that Elephant Nature Park is not government-supported, and without visitors, they would not have enough money to rescue abused elephants.

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