Ages ago I remember learning about how elephants are domesticated in Asia and that the process was pretty brutal involving spikes and a crate to keep the elephant locked up. With that in mind I was very wary about doing anything elephant related on our trip because for me that isn’t an acceptable way to treat an animal. I didn’t want to go anywhere and spend money with an organisation that employs such tactics either directly or indirectly.
I had also heard about Elephant Nature Park which is just outside of Chiang Mai. This is a sanctuary for elephants that have been rescued from all sorts of horrors and there they are allowed to live in peace. No elephant rides for the tourists. No painting or any other such tricks for the tourists amusement. It was a no brainer really, going here was an acceptable way to get up close to the elephants without exploiting them whilst the money we spent went towards their upkeep and further work at the sanctuary.
Our day started with a pickup from our guesthouse where we were played a video en-route to the park giving a bit of background about the park and the plight of the elephant in Asia. Once we arrived it became clear there were lots of other groups doing the same thing, but the way it was set up meant each group got its own space so it wasn’t too crowded.
First up we got to feed the elephants. We all stood on the platform and lined up behind the red line (for our own safety to protect us from hungry swishing trunks!) and placed the pieces of watermelon and bananas in their trunks. What was amazing was how gentle and precise the elephants were with their trunks. What else was amazing was the speed that an elephant can devour a whole basket of fruit in!
Then, under supervision, we were taken for a walk around the park to meet the elephants up close. This one we were allowed to touch:
She had been deliberately blinded by her previous owner who had become infuriated at her for not doing what he wanted. He threw stones and slingshots at her eyes to try to make her comply.
Sadly the domesticated elephant in Thailand has very little legal protection. While their wild cousins are protected, the elephants in domestic service are treated as livestock. They have the same legal status as cattle and their owners can treat them as they please with no comeback.
She wasn’t the only casualty in the park. We saw others who had disfigured legs from stepping on a land mine, elephants still transfixed into making motions with their legs they had been trained to do in the circus, others with hip injuries. The good thing for these lucky 42 elephants is they have now found somewhere safe to retire to where they will be lovingly looked after.
After a delicious vegetarian buffet lunch we were all sent to the media room to watch another video. This showed us the process of breaking the elephants into domestic service involving the crates and spikes I had learnt about before. The elephant is put into this tiny crate where it cannot move until it is broken. This usually takes three days for the females and a week for the males. During this time they are hit with the sticks with spikes on the end, they are beaten, sat on, not allowed to sleep, made to repeat tasks such as putting their foot through a rope until they get it right. They cannot rest and they are not given any respite. All this is to break them into domestic service.
After this rather somber video we were then taken down to the river where we could give the elephants a shower by chucking buckets of water on them. They seemed content enough to be given a dousing whilst munching away on yet more fruit! We ended up a bit wetter than I thought we would…
The rest of the day was dedicated to more wandering in the park to see the baby elephants who were simply adorable. Although when one starts to trot towards you at a reasonable speed you definitely want to get out of their way as they are still pretty sizeable! The herd then all decided it was bath time again and went for a playful swim in the river while we all watched marvelling at the beauty of these gentle giants.
For me, this was the best way to see the elephants without getting a guilty conscience. There are a myriad of companies in Chiang Mai offering elephant treks, training days etc. I don’t know which ones of these would be ok. We did learn from the videos that there are places who do use more humane ways of training their elephants rather than breaking them. Without knowing for sure what techniques each place was using I decided our best policy was to avoid the unknown and go with the sanctuary which has clear and explicit aims.
It isn’t however so straight forward as this though. Thailand banned logging with elephants in the late 1980’s. All the elephants previously employed were now surplus to requirement and having been domesticated unable to go back into the wild. Tourism and elephant trekking gives these elephants a home. It stops them from wandering the streets starving and being a nuisance to local people who may not react kindly to an elephant tearing up their crops. As much as I don’t like it myself and wouldn’t personally ride an elephant, I can see it does serve a purpose. Additionally the law in Thailand is at fault in my opinion. Existing laws to stop street begging with Elephants aren’t always enforced and there is, as I mentioned above, very little legal protection for domesticated elephants. Better protection for the elephants to prevent abuse of those in domestic service needs to be brought in. Similarly the brutal breaking process needs to be replaced with more humane methods and this requires education on how to do it.
Elephant Nature Park does a great job with the 42 elephants in its care, but it cannot on its own save all the elephants in Thailand from the abuse they face. Many tourists probably have no idea when they go to Thailand and feed an elephant begging on the street or when they sign up for elephant excursions what goes on behind the scenes. If people were more aware when they went to Thailand of the facts behind the scenes I would hope in turn they would demand to go to places that employ good practices. This would in turn promote further improvements for the elephants in the tourism industry. So if you are in Thailand, please think and ask around before handing over your money. Make sure the Baht you spend is done so in an ethical manner.