Sabbatical Day 217: Elephant Nature Park

Elephants are depicted everywhere around Thailand from decorative ornaments in the night markets to textiles in clothing stores and sculptures and artwork in temples.

So not surprisingly, before we came to Thailand, I said I wanted to have an elephant experience (like so many tourists do). At first I thought that might mean going on an elephant ride, which seems very popular here.

However, after a little research, I learned all about the elephant tourism industry here in Thailand and how extremely cruel and harmful it is to the elephants. I encourage all tourists to travel responsibly and be informed of the good and the bad about the places you visit.

Without being graphic, I’ll just say that the elephants are violently mistreated by humans until their spirit is broken and they submit to the mahout’s (trainer’s) commands. It is an extremely unethical practice and one that is practiced without the knowledge of the tourists who go on to enjoy the shows and the rides, which are also often harmful to the elephants.

Thankfully there is a small movement afoot here to change the elephant tourism trade to one that not only provides an income to Thai people who work with the elephants, but also shows elephants the respect and love they deserve.

Elephant Nature Park, near Chiang Mai where they give sanctuary to elephants, dogs, cats, horses, and goats too!

Elephant sanctuaries are becoming more common although through my research it was still unclear if all sanctuaries are created equal. Just to be safe, we splurged to support the most well-respected and well-established sanctuary, The Elephant Nature Park (ENP). One day here was easily our most expensive outing in Chiang Mai, costing about $75 per person. All I can say is that is was well worth that cost and much more to see these beautiful behemoths in their natural environment, being loved and cared for by the people who worked there and the many volunteers and by each other because they had formed new herds and families.

Saza is a sweet old grandma. Imagine your grandma carrying kids around on her back all day long!

As our guide, Top, explained to us, elephants are much like humans in many ways. They live about the same number of years, and they carry one baby at a time whom the mothers form a close bond with. They express a wide array of emotions (just look into an elephant’s eye and I promise you’ll fall in love), and they have a good memory. I wish I did so I could tell you all their names! But too much to remember!

I just loved their wrinkly skin!

Mud is like sun screen and helps keep them cool. This is Mama and baby…I love this little girl leaning into Mom for attention. You can see Mom’s back was broken from riding.

We met many elephants at ENP who were brought to the sanctuary after being rescued from mistreatment retirement in trekking outfits, illegal logging, and all types of elephant shows. There were also elephants who had been injured by land mines. Some of the elephants who had been used in trekking or riding for many years had broken backs. Some had broken legs from being hit by cars while being used in street performances or street begging. ENP animal doctors care for them all, and ENP provides a safe and comfortable place for them to live. Many even reconnect with a new herd.

After covering in mud, time to eat!

They have best friends and little sisters and nannies that they like to spend their time with. It’s amazing to just watch them be elephants.

The river is another great way to stay cool! The little one is a year and a half and rolled around in the river!My favorite elephant! Looks so happy!

We learned that there are more female elephants than male in general, so most of the 74 Asian elephants at ENP were female. There was one baby boy elephant that had been born in the park. Adorable! And so good to know he will never know a life of cruelty at the hands of humans.

Baby boy

We also met old lady elephants who were so sweet and gentle. The oldest elephant at the park is 100 years old, but the average elephant lives 70 years.

Lookin’ good for 90!Two old ladies, 90 and 75 years old

We fed and bathed the elephants, but mostly we just observed them in awe.

Elephants eat 10 percent of their body weight each day! Several hundred pounds!This pretty girl had a hole in her ear from the tag a previous owner put on her, so they put a flower on her earring the hole.

If you are ever in Thailand I encourage you to have a responsible elephant encounter. Do some research and find a place that takes care of the elephants in an ethical manner. No riding. No tricks. No unnatural performances. Anyway, isn’t it much more profound to walk side by side an elephant and show her love and compassion while she does the same to you?

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