For visitors to Thailand, elephants are the epitome of exotic. We tourists can’t help wanting to feed them, ride them, touch them and photograph them. But for the elephants we meet on the tourist trail, these encounters aren’t quite so enchanting. A life of begging in urban centres like Bangkok and Pattaya often means abuse, malnourishment, and health problems from the noise and pollution. Outside the cities, elephants are used in tourist-oriented trekking companies, which can involve more abusive handling and eventual back problems. However, tourism isn’t the only industry that invites elephant mistreatment. These animals have traditionally been involved in rural logging for centuries, but just as the job is hazardous for people, so too are elephants prone to injury, illness, and disfigurement or crippling from landmines. Changes in the industry can leave elephants unemployed. When owners aren’t capable of covering the animals’ hefty food expenses, the elephant is left with few options.
This is where the Elephant Nature Park comes in. Their elephants, disabled, orphaned, blind, or simply too old to work, are purchased from private owners and brought to the park. Here, they are given medical treatment, healthy food, and spacious grounds where they can re-acclimatize to their natural habitat, and the company of other elephants.
The park’s founder, Sangduen Chailert (Lek), opened the park in 1996 near her home village in the Chiang Mai province. Along with a passionate love of animals, Lek’s park has a mandate of supporting local village economies, and does business exclusively with local farmers and tradespeople. She has a core team of local workers caring for the elephants, but also relies on volunteers to help keep the park running. In recent years, her park has received international media exposure, with celebrities like Meg Ryan paying highly-publicized visits to the camp. Among Lek’s awards are the 2005 Time magazine Asian hero of the year, the 2006 Earth Day award, and an honourary PhD in veterinary science, awarded by the prince of Thailand.
Since its conception, the park has spawned side projects, the latest being “Jumbo Express.” This initiative provides travelling medical care for elephants in remote areas. Guest veterinarians and volunteers travel into dense jungles, giving treatment to elephants and education to their handlers. The park has a firm policy that, regardless of politics between the people, all elephants have the right to medical aid.
The Park’s Chiang Mai office (209/2 Sridorn Chai Road, tel # +66(0)53-818754) organizes a variety of visitor packages for school groups and travellers alike. Individuals can book daytrips or multi-day tours to learn how to care for elephants while exploring the regional tribal folklore. Longer volunteering experiences (up to one month) allow visitors the opportunity to shadow the handlers, build an extensive knowledge about elephants, and live in a beautiful jungle setting in the Park.
Elephant-lovers visiting Thailand, take note – while these animals do have an exotic appeal, this park is one of the few places where tourists can see them in their habitat; happy, healthy, and well-loved.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.