In January, as part of our trip Backpacking in Asia with our kids, we visited the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a day.
On past trips to Thailand we have had elephant rides, but this was totally different and opened our eyes to elephants in Thailand.
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre where you can visit and volunteer to help the plight of the animals - elephants, dogs, cats and even buffaloes and other animals.
Lel Chailert founded the park in 1996 as a sanctuary for rescued elephants. Visitors come to the park to see the elephants in their natural environment rather than in a show or for rides. You can feed the elephants,
help bathe them in the river
and observe and learn about them.
We learned about how elephants are a part of Thailand's culture, economy and history. Elephants were used heavily in the logging industry until 1989 when logging was banned in Thailand. Many families who owned elephants to help with their logging work, suddenly found themselves with a huge burden of an elephant to take care of and feed, but no income to do so with. Many people sold their elephants into tourism as a result or the elephants were neglected and suffered accordingly.
Lek has dedicated her life to helping elephants and this sanctuary is an amazing ongoing achievement and a shining example of what one person can achieve.
During our visit to the park, we also watched a video that showed what elephants in Thailand go through to become trained for rides and tourist shows. We saw a video of "the training crush" where elephants are forced into a cage a tied there so they cannot even sit down. They remain there for days, sometimes being beaten or stabbed to 'break' them and make them more obedient. It was horrific and heartbreaking to see the way these animals are treated, and made us re-think our views on elephant rides, no matter how well the animals appear to be treated.
We also heard and saw the stories of the elephants at the sanctuary and why they are there. Stories of elephants being forced to work when heavily pregnant and losing their babies as a result, also terrible cases of abuse and beatings.
But being at the sanctuary for the day and seeing the great work that is being done to care for these amazing animals, seeing all the volunteers who are helping to feed and care for them and the tourists who are happy to pay their money just to be close to the elephants, and feed and bathe them; gave us hope for the future of elephant 'tourism' in Thailand.
Lek is leading the way in a change in elephant tourism in Thailand. Other elephant parks are beginning to follow suit and change their practices after seeing the success of the Elephant Nature Park as a tourism venture.
When we went, it was booked out a week in advance and we were just lucky to get in thanks to a last minute cancellation.
Our girls loved being around all the animals - not just the elephants but also the many dogs and cats around the park.
It was a great experience for them to be so close to the animals, but to also learn about the reality of animal tourism.
We spent the day getting close to the elephants but at the same time learning to respect them and be safe around them. The steel hook that many mahout use to control the elephants when tourists ride them or have photos taken with them are not used at the Elephant Nature Park. Instead the elephants are treated with respect and love and there is no need to stab or prod them into submission.
I would highly recommend a visit to the Elephant Nature Park if you ever head to Chiang Mai in Thailand. A great place for the elephants and such a rich experience for the tourists. There is also an option to go and stay there for a week as a volunteer to help take care of the animals. Our girls have their eye on this possibility when they're older and it is certainly something we could encourage.
Have you ever had any experience of animal tourism?
We'd love to hear of any similar places in other parts of the world.