Help lift a broken spirit at the Elephant Sanctuary

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Christmas is coming up with lightning speed, so this Sunday we wanted to take the time to talk about our experience at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. We have written about it a bit in several posts, but we never dedicated a full article on this unforgettable experience which both filled us with joy and broke our hearts at the same time. Read on to find out why. If you are inspired by what you read, you could consider supporting Lek and her elephants this holiday season by sponsoring an elephant.  

elephants at elephant nature park chiang maiInstinctually we understood that we would never want to participate in elephant tourism, but for many tourists who visit Thailand or South East Asia this is one of the main activities on their itinerary. We believe that they do this because it seems magical, harking back to an imaginary time where more primitive people peacefully co-existed with the amazing animals who served as friends, laborers and transportation.

What people who ride elephants do not realize is that in order to get these strong-willed, independent creatures to be docile enough to be ridden requires a level of torture and mistreatment that would break their hearts if they knew more about it.

elephant nature park In order for tourists to ride elephants, or watch them paint or stand on their back legs, or even to turn them into loggers carrying tons of wood for miles and miles, elephants must first have their spirit broken.

Breaking an elephant’s spirit means stealing it from their mothers as babies, and squeezing them into a tiny cage where they barely fit. They are then starved, deprived of sleep and beaten with bull hooks and sticks with nails for days and weeks on end until they finally give in and become submissive to humans. After all, these gargantuan animals can crush us in one swift move, so it takes quite a bit of tortue to convince them to submit to the tiny humans around them. They then spend their lives being beaten with bamboo sticks with sharp nails on the end and burning it with electric prods to keep them mentally submissive enough to do those tricks or haul that lumber.

You can read more about why you shouldn’t ride an elephant in South East Asia or watch a video showing this horrible torture here, but be warned, this is seriously heavy and heartbreaking and definitely NOT for the faint of heart. It is so awful, Jess started to cry and turned it off in seconds.

elephant eyeEverywhere you see the opportunity to ride an elephant, or see them in the circus, this terribile act of spirit-breaking has gone on. Elephants are made to carry people on their back all day long and suffer spinal injuries, and the wooden chairs that are attached on some of them are even worse, causing blisters and skin infections that can never heal because they carry people day after day after day.

elephant trunkSadly, elephant tourism is a major source of income in Thailand, and there are still more than enough people who are willing to pay for these things without  thinking about it.

elephant footLuckily, there is a way to experience these incredible animals without causing them any harm by visiting them in an elephant sanctuary. Last year, we had heard about the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai, an elephant sanctuary that is home to over 30 rescued elephants that had been terribly mistreated by their former owners. The Elephant Nature Park is one of the very few parks in Thailand where elephants have actually been saved from exploitation instead of being exploited.

elephant showering himselfThe tiny Thai founder of the park, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, has put all of her heart and soul into creating a space where elephants that were previously mistreated or almost worked to death can live the rest of their lives in a peaceful environment. Here we saw elephants in all stages of recovery from the mental and physical stress they had undergone for decades. Remember, an elephant never forgets, and without the luxury of psychotherapy, it takes a very, very long time for the elephants to recover.

shannon & ana washing the elephantHowever, the elephants at the nature park seem incredibly happy in comparison to what they had gone through, and are comfortable around visitors who come to help feed them and bathe them. They even give you kisses with their giant trunks. You can spend time with the elephants on a day visit or, if you have the time, you can volunteer for a week or longer.

elephant baby bathingThe spacious grounds made up of meadows and fields allow the elephants to roam freely in their natural, but protected, habitat. There are various viewing platforms for visitors and a large terrace to get up close and personal to feed them or just observe them from afar.

dani & elephantThe elephants eat A LOT (up to 200 kilos per day) so you have plenty of opportunity to set entire bunches of bananas or watermelon halves onto their trunks, which they then shovel in to their mouths. After the kissing and the bathing and the feeding, there is also an opportunity to be educated on the dark side of the elephant tourism industry. There is a short film covering Lek’s journey to rescue elephants as well as one instance of an elephant’s spirit being broken caught on film. This part of the experience is optional and not advised for young children or overly sensitive animal lovers.

elephant natur park feeding time
elephant with babies
elephant nature parkVisit the Elephant Nature Park

The Elephant Nature Park has an office in Chiang Mai where you can book your tour. A day at the park is 2,500 THB (US$80) and includes transport from your hotel to the park and back, a generous vegetarian lunch buffet, plenty of time with the elephants and the film. All the money goes directly back into supporting the elephants and Lek’s work against elephant tourism in Thailand and South East Asia. If you don’t plan on visiting Thailand any time soon, you can sponsor an elephant or even buy an elephant lunch – see how you can help an elephant here.

chiang mai elephant nature park

Check out our Flickr Album for more elephant pictures:

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    1. Great to hear that, Kim! It is worth every penny and you will enjoy your time there just as much as the elephants. I wish we would have spent more time there – I think it must be magical to wake up there and enjoy the elephants before all the one-day volunteers arrive. A great place for your Yellow Envelope Project 😉

    1. Thanks Lyndsay – just spread the word and tell everyone about it 🙂 And yes, please visit the park when you go back to Chiang Mai – it’s well worth it.

  1. Thank you for addressing this issue. It was very informative. It’s all too easy to be a tourist with out a conscious.!

    Driftwood and Daydreams

    1. Thanks a lot, Aryn. You are right, it is easy to be an ignorant tourist, but we hope our article helps to keep some people from riding an elephant when they go to South East Asia 🙂

  2. Thank you for raising awareness about this issue. I feel like so many tourists have no idea that they’re supporting the mistreatment of elephants when they participate in elephant-related activities (I certainly didn’t know at first).

    1. Thanks, Jessica! We didn’t know about the mistreatment of the elephants at first either, and we might have even gone in one of the parks where you can ride an elephant, had we not learned about the elephant tourism. We just wanted to spread the word and felt like we never dedicated enough space to the elephants on our website.

  3. Thanks for the great post, guys. This is one place that is absolutely on my list to visit whenever I eventually make it to Thailand.

    I visited a similar sanctuary in Bulgaria – for former “dancing” bears. These poor bears were tortured and “trained” in much the same way that these elephants were (forced to walk on hot coals to learn how to “dance,” having rings through their noses to drag them, being hit in the face so many times that they are now blind…). It was so depressing, and yet a place that I’m glad I visited.

    1. Amanda, we can’t recommend the Elephant Nature Park highly enough!! You will LOVE the park. I remember reading about the bear sanctuary in Bulgaria – it is terrible what they do to these bears in Eastern Europe, so sad 🙁

  4. It is sad that so many people have riding an elephant on their bucket list, without really thinking about the consequences. I’ve heard about the elephant sanctuary that you went to and looked into volunteering there. They are very popular and are currently fully booked, which is good for them! Have you heard of the Elephant Valley Project, in Sen Monorom, Cambodia? It’s a similar project to the one in Thailand, you should check it out!

    1. Eloise – I knew that there was a similar project in Cambodia, but I didn’t know the name of it. Thanks for sharing – I definitely want to go there when we return to Cambodia! It looks like a fantastic organization.

  5. Great write up! I spent 7 days volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in June this year. It’s a fantastic place and you can see that they ongoingly put the money they make straight back into the place and the elephants. About 75% of their staff are refugees, and they also have many dogs there that were saved from the Bangkok floods. Lek, the founder, rescues darned near anything that needs rescuing. Lol. ‘Tis an incredible privilege to sit down having your coffee and have an elephant lumber by, or to go to sleep listening to their rustling and ele conversations. Please go there if you can, or point the way to others. The more Positive elephant tourism that goes on, the better.

  6. Hi Dani & Jess!

    Thanks so much for the wonderful post. Just so you know, I’ve updated Save Elephant’s website with this link in our “In the News”.

    Keep up the great work!
    Mindy 🙂

  7. We just got our application approved and we will be volunteering for a week in February. Maybe longer…….can’t wait to help. Thanks ladies for raising awareness.

    1. Oh, amazing!! That’s great news – you will LOVE it there. I still think about our time with the elephants often. Maybe you’ll be there at the same time as our friend Amanda who also just got accepted to volunteer there for a week in February!

  8. Woohoo!! Have fun girls. Maybe consider volunteering at the dog shelter there for another week – it’s cheaper although your day will be a bit longer. But they need all the help they can get, and you’ll still be actually at the elephant sanctuary. Worth a think about anyway. 🙂

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