There are so many elephant ‘camps’ outside Chiang Mai but reading a lot of the leaflets made us feel uncomfortable. We weren’t really interested in riding them, and we definitely didn’t want to see elephants painting or dancing, or a monkey, crocodile or snake ‘show’.
The Elephant Nature Park was more like it – a sanctuary for rescued elephants, many of whom had previously been abused in other trekking camps or as working elephants. The animals have 200 acres in a beautiful valley to wander around and not a paintbrush in sight.
First up was snack time at 10 am: the elephants are well used to their routine. They get through tonnes of fruit and veg a day. Being up close to these giants was a bit daunting to start with but they were incredibly gentle. If we weren’t feeding them fast enough they soon let us know with a nudge and a trunk-thump.
We went for a walk to meet the different herds and hear some of their stories. Amazingly, although they all came to the park individually, these animals have created 5 distinct herds. They all had such funny personalities and quirks…
Including 13 year old boys who only pay attention to young girls (human and elephants!) and this 90 year old grandmother who stands waiting for snack time all day, but has no teeth left so has her watermelon puréed for her.
The herds had a catalogue of sad stories, long lives in work and abuse with scars to show for it.
Some of the worst had deformed back legs due to stepping on land mines and a few females had had their backs broken by larger bull elephants during forced mating.
One had a hole in her ear from a mahout’s hook, but every day a keeper threads through a flower.
Many elephants were partially or fully blind due to having had arrows or slingshots in their eyes to force them to cooperate. This female had been doing logging work on a hill when she gave birth to her calf. The calf fell down the hill and she hadn’t been able to save her baby. In grief she refused to continue working so her owner blinded her in both eyes.
When she arrived 3 years ago another older female immediately took her under her wing and has never left her side. We saw her constantly touching her trunk to her to reassure her she was there, bless.
Amongst the sad stories a few babies had been born in the park and upped the cute factor. This hairy little guy was only 8 days old!
This little man is 10 months old and was having a blast balancing on a fallen tree.
After lunch it was bath time! The river runs right through the park and the elephants are free to get wet and muddy whenever they like, but each afternoon they get a full scrub down by the tourists which they clearly adore.
Following bath time the elephants head off to relax whilst we all made our way indoors to watch a short film about the sanctuaries owner and her tireless work in Thailand to improve the lives of working elephants. Whether that be rescuing those in desperate need, finding a home for orphans, or educating Mahouts about alternative ways to train working elephants which don’t require the barbaric practice of separating young elephants from their mothers and literally beating the young elephants until they submit to their Mahout, a process that can last days or even weeks and which many don’t survive. Quite a harrowing film that many walked out on.
We all piled out to find the elephants eagerly waiting for us (they know the timetable well) and had a few more quiet moments feeding them before heading back to Chiang Mai.
Next stop —> Bangkok to Mandalay