Arriving in Chiang Mai, it’s pretty tough to miss all the advertisements for elephant parks. Tourist agencies sell all sorts of tours to different parks where you can partake in elephant shows, rides, and mahout training. Heck, you can even buy elephant art. Like most people, we didn’t have an understanding about the plight of Asian elephants in Thailand.

For centuries the Asian elephant was Thailand’s workhorse. The elephants were tamed and put to work logging the forests. In 1989 the Government of Thailand banned most logging in the country, and the elephants along with their mahouts (trainers) soon found themselves out of work. Embracing the entrepreneurial spirit, the elephants were put to work performing shows and giving rides to hordes of tourists. Some even learned how to perform in an orchestra and paint. By gosh, this is great news for the elephants—-right? Wrong.

At first, these parks seemed like a good way to help out-of-work elephants and their mahouts during desperate times. But what happens when those elephants age and can no longer perform? They are replaced by wild elephants. These parks that provide elephant performances and rides, elephant painting, and mahout training are making big bucks. It is not illegal in Thailand to capture a wild elephant for “working” purposes. And thus, the wild elephant population is dwindling. It is estimated that by 2025, there will no longer be any wild elephants in Thailand. The breaking of a wild elephant is a tortuous process. They are confined and chained while beaten and stabbed with nails.

I have to admit, I never thought about the process it might take to train an elephant to perform a show or paint a picture. I didn’t think about it until we visited the Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai. We visited it because I thought it seemed more natural than the other elephant parks. More natural was my reasoning, and I’m so glad my intuition told me that. We learned so much by visiting the park. We learned about elephants in general along with their plight in Thailand. We learned about conservation efforts. And most importantly, we learned about one woman’s mission to save them.

Elephants are a revered symbol throughout Thailand. They adorn everything from basic pillowcases to intricate temple carvings. Yet, nothing is done to protect them. Lek, the founder of the Elephant Nature Park, is working to change that. In 1990 with the help of an American businessman she set up an elephant sanctuary. Over the years, she’s rescued 30+ abused or injured elephants. Unlike other parks, these elephants are not put to work. They get to roam somewhat freely within the park (they can’t cross the border into neighboring villages) and enjoy a relaxing lifestyle compared to their working days.

During our visit to the park, we fed and bathed the elephants but it is hoped that one day the elephants will fend for themselves while visitors watch from a distance. We must say though, it was pretty exciting feeding them. The mahouts gave us lots of rules about feeding them though. For your benefit, do not tease the elephant with food. Do not pick up dropped food (or else he might think you’re stealing it). And most importantly, do not put your hands in its mouth (duh!). We enjoyed placing all sorts of goodies in their trunks. We fed them heaping baskets of bananas, cucumbers, pineapple, and squash. Pineapple was much loved; whereas, squash was undeniably hated. Funny how we’re not so different!

If you’re visiting Chiang Mai, the Elephant Nature Park is well worth a visit. They host guests on a daily or nightly basis. They also offer volunteer positions. While we visited, there were several people volunteering their time to the elephant park. To see more pictures from our visit, please check out Chris’ and Jodi’s respective flickr pages. If you’d like to learn more about supporting the elephant park, please check out their website.

2 Responses to “Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai”

  1. Amy says:

    What a great post and great pictures!! It’s terrific that you’ve learned so much about elephants and their status in Thailand, and that you chose to go to ENP. Lek is an incredible person. Happy travels!

  2. Emily Ruth says:

    This looks amazing! We’re big amazing race fans and on a recent episode they went to a zoo in Thailand where the elephants “sat” on the participants. It looked nutty!

    Also, liked the breakdown of the different massages.

    Hope you guys are doing great!!