Tortoise on the Move

July 6, 2015

Chiang Mai: Elephant Nature Park

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When Kate and I decided to officially add Thailand to the second half of our adventure, I already knew I wanted to visit Elephant Nature Park. I’d read about it on Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site, the same blog where I found AuPair.com. In researching various tours, I also came across this article, a heartbreaking piece on elephant abuse by trekking companies, which led us to decide against any tours that involved trekking, or elephant riding. Elephant Nature Park offered us the opportunity to get up close and personal with elephants but acts as a sanctuary for the animals.

11717183_10152826774396467_116092131_nOn our way to the park, our guide played a video, detailing some safety guidelines for interacting with the park’s elephants and a short documentary made by wildlife videographers highlighting the park’s growth and impact since it’s establishment in 1995. Today, the park is home to 49 elephants, a herd of water buffalo, over 400 dogs, and a number of cats. When we arrived at the park, our first experience was feeding the elephants, which we did from a feeding platform. We took pieces of watermelon and placed them in the trunk of an older female elephant, who’d sadly been blinded by circus spotlights in her life before ENP. From just this initial interaction, it was amazing to be in the presence of Earth’s largest land mammal (technically, second largest – behind their African cousins). Her trunk was rough but dexterous and powerful. She had a good sense of where we were so she could grab the watermelon, despite her blindness. After elephant snack time, our guide Narisa took us on a walk around the grounds to meet some of the elephant families and ease us into being a bit more up close with the elephants.

As we encountered the various families and other mini-groups of elephants, Narisa told us some of their stories. Some had been injured in logging operations, made illegal in the late 1980s. Others had been abused by mahouts with bullhooks who trained them for trekking companies. A few had been injured by traps, while others had been involved in circuses. Their newest elephant, a 70 year old female, had participated in both logging and trekking before finally being rescued by ENP. These were hard stories to hear. Being in the presence of these majestic animals, it’s hard to think how anyone could possibly hurt them. But it’s an unfortunate truth perpetuated by irresponsible tourism.

11721195_10152826774426467_1137670359_nBefore our busy afternoon with the elephants, we gathered for a scrumptious vegetarian buffet provided by the park. After lunch, it was bath time! First we watched three adult elephants and one baby play in the deeper section of the creek that flowed through the park. One of the adults was rolling around on her side in the water as playfully as a puppy. When they exited the water, the baby began to play with a tire, tossing it toward the crowd of visitors and chasing after it. He couldn’t seem to figure out why no one would stick around to play with him after he came charging after the tire! It was flat out adorable. Then we walked over to the shallow part of the creek, where we were able to get in on the action and help bathe the elephants. We were given buckets to splash water onto their backs while the elephants chowed down on a bucket of watermelon. Once bath time was over, we had the opportunity to take photos with two giant elephants. Their mahouts stayed with them the whole time. The ENP mahouts work on a system of positive reinforcement with their elephants, rather than the negative system with bull hooks used by trekking companies. We learned that elephants are highly emotionally intelligent and become attached to their mahouts; ENP has nearly a 1:1 ratio so that each elephant is able to receive diligent care.

#elfie

#elfie

We took a short break to sit back and admire the elephants and the beautiful park they live in. The open space and beautifully surrounding valley seems to be the ideal place for an elephant sanctuary. Narisa then guided us out of the main section of the park (after slipping two bags of tamarind fruits into the backpack I was carrying) and we went in search of three elephants out in the jungle. These three were “learning to be elephants again” as she phrased it – they were allowed to navigate through the jungle and learn how to forage for themselves. Most of us were in sandals, so we ended up trekking barefoot through the jungle in search of the elephants. We finally found a female, who was shortly joined by her companion after he realized we had snacks. She was blind in one eye but had her vision in the other. She checked us out while we fed her tamarinds and snapped a few photos with her. It’s nearly shocking how gentle they are. It’s still a bit frightening to stand next to such a powerful animal, but she was really a sweetheart. Narisa showed us her elephant tears, telling us that elephants do actually cry out of sadness but also out of joy. It was bittersweet to watch her happily flap her ears, swish her tail, and cry happy tears, knowing what must have happened to her before her rescue.

Our experiences with the Elephant Nature Park were unforgettable. It’s beautiful to see the care that these elephants are getting and the second chances they’ve been given, but it’s also a hard truth to learn about the abuse they faced in the past – and the fate of so many other elephants out there. If you’re considering a trip to Thailand, I’d ask you to reconsider any tours with elephant trekking as well as circuses that star elephants, and instead to visit an organization like Elephant Nature Park whose focus is to rescue and rehabilitate these beautiful animals. Every dollar is worth the experience and goes right back to the elephants and the other animals in the park – you can even adopt the ENP dogs; I nearly enquired about adopting one! They say an elephant never forgets, but I know I’ll never forget my day with the elephants at ENP.

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