One of the things that excited me the most about visiting Thailand was the prospect of interacting with elephants. I wanted to get up and close with those beautiful, regal creatures. I wanted to see them walking through jungles and blowing water out of their trunks like in the movies and NatGeo documentaries.
What I didn’t know is, like most animal tourism, one has to be very careful to do it ethically. Rosy photos are always floated by tourism campaigns of tourists having fun with animals, but it’s also our responsibility to make sure we’re putting our money into the hands of programs that make their lives better, not worse.
That’s why when in Thailand I won’t go to Tiger Kingdom where the tigers are drugged (even though most people in tourism will swear up and down that they aren’t, do you really think an adult tiger would not claw your face off? Come on now) and don’t participate in most elephant activities that involve things other than bathing and feeding them (read between the lines there – there are only two activities one should do with elephants and neither involve a chair or its back).
In Indonesia, I made sure to choose a guide who doesn’t feed the orangutans, and I only partner with diving companies that practice green policies and don’t touch nor feed the fish. In places without regulations in place, all we can do is show with our dollars how important ethical tourism is.
People will often say, “they didn’t look sad!” or “they seemed fine!” of elephants that work in tourism, but honestly, how do you know if an elephant, orangutan, fish, or tiger is sad or happy?
Unfortunately, any domesticated elephant has been put through a painful process to get to that phase. They are taken around the age of four and put in a small pen, tied up, and poked, prodded, and pierced for days in order to make them submit. For the remainder of their lives, they are typically controlled with the same sort of stick, with a hook in the end. That’s not something I ever want to support.
This is why I was happy to see wild elephants in Sri Lanka on safari, but it still left me wishing there was some way I could get closer to them.
What I didn’t know is there is an ethical way to play with rehabilitated elephants – those that have been injured in the logging industry in neighboring Myanmar, badly treated in tourism, have been used for begging for money from tourists, or were left to fend for themselves after the logging industry ended in Thailand.
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is a wonderland for rehabilitated elephants. They have plenty of room to roam, wash, and enjoy. Each one has a dedicated, stick-free mahout who makes sure the elephant is happy and healthy.
They get a chance to really be elephants again – socializing, forming groups, and sometimes giving birth to babies. Since ENP does not put their elephants through the domestication process, those babies eventually have the chance to return to the wild, where very few elephants are left in Thailand and worldwide.
These elephants are no longer threatened with sticks or hooks, they no longer have to work, and they get all the delicious fruit they need on a daily basis (which is a lot!). Many of them were sick, had broken bones, were no longer useful in a work environment, and would have died if ENP wasn’t there to rescue them.
The grounds are also equipped with an elephant kitchen, an elephant hospital, and accommodation for overnight or week-long volunteers – there are several volunteer options available.
Moreover, ENP proves that elephants don’t have to be mistreated if they misbehave. They use positive reinforcement — food — to get the elephants to where they need to be, rather than hooks and sticks. The elephants get to have a personality and likes and dislikes, just like humans do.
I actually found it kind of funny that certain elephants would only eat watermelon after finishing the pumpkin first, or that in order to get them to follow us, we just kind of had to get to walking and they’d eventually realize they were missing out on fun and more food by not following.
Additionally, the nature park provides a home for dogs and cats. It truly is a sanctuary for all kinds of animals who need a new home.
This video should help to show exactly how much fun I had:
It was one of the best things I’ve done in Thailand. I’ve now spent over 4 collective months there and have been dying to play with elephants, but didn’t know of an ethical way to do it. Now that I’ve checked out the nature park myself, I know that they’re doing great work and have no reservations about attaching my blog and name to theirs.
Definitely check out Elephant Nature Park if you’re going to Thailand. It’s sure to become one of your favorite memories.
* In the spirit of full disclosure, I was a guest of the Elephant Nature Park, there to help them spread the word about this amazing cause. They did not ask that I write a favorable review, but even if they had, it would have been entirely unnecessary because everyone who visits loves ENP (don’t believe me? Check out their trip advisor reviews!)
You may also notice that in the linked Sri Lanka post, I mention a travel blogging calendar, the proceeds of which went to this very organization. I’m pleased to report that we raised and donated $7,500 to help them buy new land.
Have you ever been to ENP? Did you love it?