The Truth About Elephant Parks

During our recent visit to Thailand, we stopped in Chiang Mai and learned how to cook Thai food as well as visiting the Elephant Nature Park – a sanctuary and rescue centre in Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai Province, approximately 60 km from Chiang Mai City.

Before we left the UK, we booked a standard Elephant show and trekking trip in the northern mountains of Chaing Mai and I’m ashamed to say we booked it simoly because it was one of the first I found (and I hate myself for it).  However, soon after booking, I checked Trip Advisor to see how other people rated the experience and it seemed there was a huge mix of opinions.  Some people commented how great it was and said that the elephants are so clever to put on a painting display and play football to delight the public.  Some people said that riding the elephants was a great experience too.  However, other people highlighted that the mahouts (people who control the elephants) did so with long sticks that have hooks on the end and that the elephants are chained around their legs and necks.  On reading this, I just couldn’t take the chance that by going on this trip we would be supporting a group who don’t actually care for the welfare of the animals.  It would break my heart to arrive and see the sadness in the eyes of these wonderful and majestic creatures.

What would I do if we arrived and we saw things we knew weren’t right?

I knew immediately that we had to cancel the trip.

Changing Plans in Chiang Mai

Cue extensive research into an appropriate place to see elephants and also support a good cause…

That’s when I was told about the Elephant Nature Park.  Unfortunately, the availability was limited so we could only book a ‘short day’ trip although this trip meant we would be picked us up from our hotel at 8:30am and return back at around 3:30pm, so it was still a fairly full day giving us adequate time to enjoy the experience.

Not only does the Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park rescue and rehabilitate elephants giving them a huge natural environment to roam freely, the team also take in dogs, cats, buffalo, goats and pigs.  My kind of place!

Many of the dogs there have been rescued from previous floods and when the team tried to take them back to their owners, they were found to be unwelcome and so they began new lives at the Elephant Nature Park.  There are also dogs there who have been rescued from the streets and illegal meat trade.  Around the park there are images, information and stories about the rescue program and as much as I know I was ignoring the awful truth, I just couldn’t bring myself to read it all.  The dogs seem to be living the dream now and are cared for by the staff who make sure their medical needs are attended to when needed.  They get so much attention from visitors and staff and spend their days sunbathing and wandering the park.  It’s lovely how they happily roam among the elephants.

Anyway, enough about the dogs, this is an Elephant sanctuary after all!

The journey to the Elephant Nature Park took us around 1hr 30mins and on the way we drove past the trekking camp which we had previously booked.  There were dozens of coaches all lined up full of tourists ready to enjoy their experience.  I couldn’t believe that all these people hadn’t done their research and were willing to turn a blind eye to what really happens there and at so many other similar places.

Learning The Dark Truth

During our journey, we were shown a video so we could understand more about the history, why the elephants are at the park and what the team actually do to ensure the rehabilitation, safety, and future of the elephants in their care.  Some of the video was very graphic in places and I couldn’t bring myself to watch some of it as it was so awful.  Instead, I looked out the window and listened with tears rolling down my cheeks.  In fact, writing this is hard even now as I recall the awful truth.

We learned that the majority of the elephants at the park are rescued from the illegal logging trade and street begging as well as from trekking camps, the circus and other places where they are made to perform activities purely for the pleasure of the paying public or as part of celebrations and festivals.

These animals are incredibly clever and sensitive, but when you see them performing, the truth behind it is dark.  Very dark indeed.

Mother elephants are wounded or sometimes even killed so that poachers can steal their babies.  They take them, break their spirit, ‘break them in’, and rob them of their freedom so they can train them from young.

When the elephants are not in training or out working, mahouts chain the elephants up by their feet and heads so they can hardly move.  They have no choice but to defecate where they stand.  This leaves them open to infections and to top it off, they receive very little in the way of food and water.

The training regime is strict.  Very strict.  Mahouts control elephants with long sticks that have sharp hooks on the ends to gouge their sensitive skin.  These are also used during trekking or performing and you can see the fear in the big eyes of the elephants at the sight of these sticks.  Trekking elephants carry tourists on heavy seats on their backs with a mahout sitting on their neck as they’re forced to walk for around 8 hours or more a day in the blazing heat.  The weight of this can be around half a ton!

Logging elephants work in often treacherous conditions and are prone to falling and injuries such as broken legs as they lug around wood all day every day.  Although logging is illegal in Thailand, it still goes on.  However, when the laws changed, many elephant owners needed a new way to make money so they were (and still sometimes are) taken into the cities and used to draw in the crowds for begging.  Many tourists delight in being so close to the elephants so will pay to have their photos taken.  A completely unnatural and stressful environment for an elephant and they are often blinded by the constant camera flashes and harmed by the god awful tricks they are forced to perform.

New Start… New Life

Thankfully when these wonderful giants are rescued, they can find safety and comfort in places such as the Elephant Nature Park where they are treated, nursed back to health and cared for until the end of their natural lives.  They can finally roam free and form new friendships with their own kind and learn to trust humans again in time.  The team do a fantastic job and each elephant has just 1 mahout who stays by their side constantly.  They know the needs and personality of their elephant and they handle them with love and care and ‘train’ them with positive reinforcement… and no sticks, tricks or instruments.  Just love.

What amazes me is that in a country such as Thailand where the main religion is Buddhism and animals are looked upon as sacred, particularly the elephant, is that this abuse goes on.  Even though logging, begging and poaching elephants is illegal in Thailand, trekking camps, circus performing and shows are all still legal and can continue for the ‘joy’ of tourists.

I sincerely hope that in time the law will change and we will only be able to see elephants in the wild where they should be.

Our guide told us that without these tourist attractions, many Thai people are unable to support their families, even though he would like to see an end to these activities too.

We asked what we can do to help and they said that we need to spread the truth about these Elephant trekking camps and tourist attractions so fewer people go to them – so that’s what I hope to help with, although I felt like I could have stayed there for a long time and help with the rehabilitation process.

To volunteer here or at one of the sister parks in Cambodia and Myannmar and have the chance to play a small part in helping to heal the elephants while learning more about their lives would be nothing short of wonderful… perhaps one day!

During our visit, we were taken in small groups to elephants who are comfortable being around humans and we were able to gently approach, stroke and feed them one by one which was just magical!  When you’re so close to an animal who has had such a dark and heartbreaking past and you can see into their eyes, it’s just incredibly moving.

We were lucky enough to watch them take a bath and play in mud as we learned much more about the anatomy and lives of elephants while we walked.

Around half way into our visit, we all enjoyed a delicious buffet together and with some free time to roam around the edge of the park, visit the gift shop and purchase drinks.

I’m so pleased I changed our previous elephant experience and booked to visit the Elephant Nature Park.  Knowing that our contribution helps to fund food, medicine, park maintenance and improvements makes me feel like I’ve helped in a small way.

Please Spread The Word

It’s a well-known fact that I think humans can be complete b@stards at times and that I usually prefer the company of animals than people, and I don’t think it’s hard to understand why.  It’s also more recently been noted that I’m now obsessed with elephants and want to change the world for the good of animals!

In the short term, I wish to share my experience so others don’t make the same mistake that we so nearly did.  My advice for anyone visiting Thailand, and even those not actually making the trip, is to warn others of the dark reality behind these activities designed to cause pain and suffering for the pleasure of whooping tourists.

My advice for anyone visiting Asia and Africa, and even those not actually making a trip, is to warn others of the dark reality behind these activities designed to cause pain and suffering for the pleasure of whooping tourists.

Please choose wisely and remember that these animals have feelings and emotions and are not put on this earth for our selfish pleasure.






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