Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Elephant Nature Park, which is located right outside of Chiang Mai. Before I came to Thailand, I had envisioned myself riding on elephants and seeing them do tricks at the infamous elephant shows. However, after my visit to the nature park, I realized how this corrupt vision of elephants is causing many of them very serious harm. The Elephant Nature Park was founded 25 years ago in response to elephant abuse that was and still is rampant all around Thailand.
In the late 1980s logging was banned in Thailand due to environmental concerns, which was a huge step in the right direction for this country. However, one major side effect of this ban was that the thousands of elephants that were used in the logging industry were all of a sudden out of work, and their owners had to do something else with them. Although these elephants were never treated very well in the logging industry, the tourist industry is not a step up for them at all. Elephants are forced to walk down busy city streets everyday where tourists can pay to feed them. They are also outfitted with uncomfortable harnesses so that people can ride on them or are forced to perform tricks for crowds. Many of the elephant owners use violent tactics to train the elephants and also do not feed them nearly enough. All of this abuse causes physical as well as mental problems for the elephants, which are very smart and sensitive animals. This is where the elephant nature park steps in.
The nature park searches all around Thailand for elephants that are being abused so that they can buy them and bring them to this beautiful sanctuary in the mountains. Visiting this place, I could feel such a sense of happiness and hope coming from both the elephants and people who work there. It was amazing to walk around with our guide, Bee, who was able to tell us the individual stories of how the elephants got there. Some elephants arrived with broken hips, others were blinded by their owners, one had even stepped on a land mine and now limped everywhere. Something that really struck me about walking around next to all of the elephants was that they all had such distinct personalities, some were old and calm, happy to eat their sugarcane in happiness. Others were wild, loved running around and messing with us. One of the males even threw dirt up in the air at us because he got sick of us calling his name.
One thing that all of the elephants at the Nature Park have in common is that they are all visibly very happy to be there. One elephant we were petting broke into a run when it saw a truck coming nearby, our guide explained that it was because that elephant had arrived in a similar truck and was terrified of being taken away from this place. This moment was eye-opening for me because it made me realize how important the work is that the ENP is doing. For an elephant to dread leaving that much showed just how bad the abuse must have been in its previous life. No animal should have to suffer that much for any reason, least of all tourism.
I feel so lucky to have been able to spend the day with such magnificent creatures. It was inspiring to see how much hard work is going on to help reverse the fate of many elephants in Thailand and I hope to return again soon. A place like the Elephant Nature Park is a shining example of how tourism can be sustainable, educational and so much fun.