If you ever go to Thailand, you’ll notice their love – possibly obsession – with elephants instantaneously. Every market you go to sells elephant shirts, elephant notebooks, elephant key chains, elephant pants (which about every single tourist owns a pair of, myself included), elephant phone cases, elephant paintings, etc. Elephant everything. Elephants are beautiful, elephants are good luck, elephants are amazing creatures. Which is why I find it completely bizarre (and more so, heartbreaking) why elephants are so abused and mistreated.
So many people dream about riding an elephant (myself included only a few years ago), but have no idea how tortured these poor animals are. And you can make excuses, saying hooks weren’t used, or the elephants are happy, or that they have a lot of land to run around in, but when it comes down to it, these wild creatures who are also incredibly intelligent and emotional, don’t belong in a place where they’re forced to give humans rides 8 hours a day, let alone doing tricks in a circus.
Where You Should Go To Visit Elephants in Thailand and Why:
I spent one week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, where they rescue and rehabilitate injured and abused elephants in Thailand and Burma. It was a completely eye-opening experience – about the way we treat animals in general and how we turn a blind eye to suit our own personal needs for entertainment. We met the owner, Lek, who is so passionate about rescuing animals, and explored her 250-acre-park where there are 44 elephants, over 400 dogs, [a lot of] cats, and dozens and dozens of water buffalo roaming around in the valley surrounded by the lush jungles of Thailand.
We watched videos and heard countless stories of the horrible pasts of each elephant. Some worked in the logging industry, others in the tourism industry, performing in circuses or working on the streets of Thailand taking pictures with tourists. We looked at horrific before and after pictures of elephants who stepped on land mines, and watched herds of unrelated elephants stick together as one family years after being separated from their own. Elephants of all ages live at the Elephant Nature Park (the oldest being about 70), and a few have even been born there.
It’s almost overwhelming everything we learned and saw during our week at the ENP. So many stories and so much love, friendship and strong bonds between these creatures, it was truly an amazing week that I couldn’t recommend enough! The ENP offers 1 day, 2 day, week long and 2 week long trips at reasonable prices (yes, more than you would spend otherwise, but so completely worth it!)
(Scroll down for the schedule of week-long volunteers)
I also realize that these kinds of parks are still in the morally grey area since they are still keeping elephants in an enclosed area. But these are all rescued animals that have already either been in the tourism or logging industry or have been injured another way, so survival in the wild would be doubtful.
I can’t express enough how much better of an experience it is as opposed to just riding an elephant for 20 minutes and taking a few pictures. You learn about individual elephants’ history, their mannerisms, personality, preferences, who their best friends are, etc. You realize that we, humans and elephants, have a lot in common and that there’s actually a lot to learn from these beautiful beings.
Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants:
I know that when it comes down to it, a lot of travelers and tourists will still choose the companies where they can basically take the best pictures – the ones where you can ride elephants bareback through the hills of Thailand and bathe with them in rivers. But it’s kind of a choice of whether you want to practice ethical tourism (remember – we vote with our dollars, so make sure you feel right about where you spend your money).
As much as you might try to convince yourself that the company you’re riding elephants with is “humane”, just think about this: you would not be able to ride a WILD animal unless it was trained (which no longer makes it wild). For elephants to be trained, they are often kidnapped and orphaned as a baby – because of the amazingly strong connections and bonds elephants have with each other, this usually means that several adult elephants are killed trying to protect each young elephant being kidnapped from their herd. Once they’re captured, they are then “broken”, which is a physical and psychological process that involves caging them up and torturing them with hooks and other weapons to force them into submission. Finally, these elephants are used in tourism so you can ultimately take a selfie to post on Facebook of you riding on them through a river in Thailand.
You can make a difference by supporting ethical and responsible companies. And then further spreading the word to your family and friends!
Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park for 1 Week:
(This schedule varies from trip to trip, and group to group each week but these are the general activities for week long volunteers)
• 7:00am – breakfast buffet (all food is vegetarian and absolutely delicious, by the way). Usually you can feed the elephants breakfast during this time too!
• 8:00am – morning job
• 11:30am – lunch buffet
• 1:00pm – afternoon job
• 4:00pm – (optional) elephant bathing
• 6:00pm – dinner buffet and then free time (sometimes an hour or two of an optional lecture/meeting)
• 10:00pm – quiet hour begins
(both morning and afternoon jobs usually lasted around an hour to two hours and usually consist of a lot of ele watching)
• Got picked up from Chiang Mai at our hostel at 8:30, went to the ENP in Chiang Mai to sort out paperwork/payment, drove to the ENP (about 1 hour), met some elephants and walked around the park a little, met with Jodie who told us all of the rules about how to work with the elephants, then had a welcome ceremony dinner where the local shaman blessed us and our food.
• Morning job: Elephant Food – we unloaded trucks of melons and pumpkins and then sorted and washed them. Then we packed steamed tamarinds into bags.
• Afternoon job: Elephant Shelters – scrubbed the cement elephant shelter floors with brooms and washed them with soap (about 6 total)
• Evening: Lek showed us a video and talked about why she founded the ENP
• Morning job: Corn Cutting – we rode on a truck about an hour away, then cut rows of corn stocks down (between our group of 15, we cut down 400 bundles, which has about 30 stocks in each) and then loaded them onto the trucks (most likely the most physical labor I’ve ever partaken in). After eating lunch at the fields, (some of us) jumped on top of the corn to ride back to the park, stopping at a 7/11 first to get some beers for the ride!
• Afternoon: Tubing down the river! (So fun even though there was only about 6 inches of water for half of it)
• Evening: Thai Culture and Language Lesson
• 9:00pm – AMAZING Thai massage (not included but I couldn’t pass it up for 150 Baht. There are a few Thai ladies there every night)
• Morning job: Clean up park – shoveled poop and old corn stocks around the park for about an hour, but mostly just hung out with the eles!
• Afternoon job: Elephant Walk – Visited different elephants around the park.
• Morning job: Poop Clean Up – Cleaned out 5 large shelters (where there are a few shelters within each) of poop and old corn stocks.
• Afternoon job: Barbed Wire Fence – Helped add another layer of barbed wire to a fenced in tree for about 30 minutes.
• Morning job: Elephant Food again
• Afternoon: free time
• Morning job: Elephant Poop again
• Afternoon: Leave ENP