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Elephant Nature Park – Chaing Mai, Thailand

December 8, 2015

Walk down the street in Chiang Mai and you are constantly overwhelmed by songthaew and tuk-tuk drivers hawking at you to look at their posters, plastered with images of people riding elephants, cuddling tigers and sitting with a monkey riding a tricycle. “You want to go to Tiger Kingdom, cuddle a tiger?” he shouts as you walk by.

To most people seeing these things is such great entertainment and not another thought crosses their minds. It really hit me recently, while we were walking back to our hotel one night and walked past a group of young people talking about how amazing their day was riding elephants while swimming with them etc. I turned to Drew and explained how it makes me so angry that people can do that, encouraging the horrible treatment these animals receive and then I realised that I have been that person. It wasn’t until I read and was told about the horrendous things that are done to the animals that I too was blissfully unaware of the behind the scenes of the show.

IMG_4673[Photo by Drew Hopper Photography – Elephant Nature Park]

In 2011 on my first overseas holiday to Thailand my family had been booked on tours (being our first overseas trip) that included all those magical things you can do in Thailand, including visiting the “Tiger Temples” and getting to ride an elephant. I remember being so excited, but having no idea what happens to these poor creatures to prepare them to be ‘on show’.

I will never forget the day we visited the elephant park, how amazing it was to be so close to the elephants, I even received an “elephant massage.” Then it was time for the painting, at first, I thought it was incredible that they could do such things and then I noticed something, his mahout [handler] was holding his ear very tightly and a little later when I saw the Elephant that had done the ‘art’ had a hole in his ear.

This stuck in my mind, wondering why does he have a hole, maybe it’s from tearing it on something and I let the thought fade as it was time to ride the elephants. Yay that moment we had been waiting for, I remember thinking how I couldn’t wait to tell people I had ridden an elephant, a thought I am now so ashamed of. I had brushed off my bad feelings about the things going on the whole day, telling myself this is normal and they are happy, although the look in their eyes told me differently.

IMG_1271[Elephant Painting = Animal Cruelty]IMG_1298 Jess gets an elephant massage (1)[The massage I received was great fun at the time, but that was before I knew the sad truths.]
IMG_1315[Photo from the horrible camp I visited in 2011]

It wasn’t until we were riding the elephant that I became increasingly uncomfortable with the place and half way through our jungle trek the mahout turned to me and tried to sell me Ivory and Elephant skin products. I was shocked, I instantly reacted by probably losing face a little and giving him a small piece of my mind. The whole day we were layered with the facade that this was a peaceful place that really loves and looks after their elephants.

On our return to the hotel, I couldn’t stop thinking about the day I had just experienced. I should have been over the moon happy like everyone else, but it just wasn’t sitting right with me. I vowed to never support a place like that again and to stand up and inform others of the reality of the treatment of elephants at some parks so they too can make an informed decision on which park to visit.

IMG_5013
[Photo by Drew Hopper Photography]

When I returned to Chiang Mai, in 2013 with Drew, I really wanted to have another go at visiting an Elephant park, but this time, I knew all the things I didn’t want to see.

After some research our decision was easy, Elephant Nature Park [ENP]. ENP was established in the 1990’s with their sole aim to be a rescue center and sanctuary for Elephants. ENP provides a haven for these incredible creatures broken by tourism and other industries. At ENP, there are no tricks, no rides, no paintings and the elephants are allowed to live their lives free from bullhooks and other abuse. ENP is home to hundreds of animals including over 60 elephants, most of which have been saved from tourist “attractions” and illegal logging industries,  and the park offers visitors the opportunity to engage with the animals without harming the elephants.

Our experience at ENP was the kind we will never forget and left us longing to go back. There isn’t all that much structure to the day, allowing you to have as much or as little interaction with these big beautiful creatures. Of course, we were more on the ‘as much’ side and although Drew started off a little scared of them, he warmed up to them quickly. It is heartening to be able to recognise their personalities and emotions as you do with another human being.

Many of these animals have led horrific lives until rescued by ENP. Some have a lot of deformities and I seemed to have a connection with one of the older girls, she had badly splayed hips and the kindest, warmest love radiating from her. When I met her I gently leant in and looked into her eye and said “I’m sorry beautiful girl”, and she leant her forehead/trunk into mine and we shared a really beautiful moment. This was something that will stay with me forever and I have no doubt a lot of people walk away with heart strong stories like mine. I truly believe elephants are so similar to us in the way of emotions and reactions.

IMG_2188[Photo by Drew Hopper Photography]

Our time at ENP was so much fun, feeding the elephants, walking through the beautiful big fields watching them go about their lives, being fed an amazing buffet style vegetarian feast for lunch and the highlight of the day getting to wash them down in the river.

IMG_1560
[Drew feeding one of the hungry Elephants]

IMG_4848
[Photo by Drew Hopper Photography]

The ride back to your hotel after your incredible day you will sit and reflect on your experience and for me it came back to, I can’t believe I ever went anywhere other than ENP. I would hope everyone could experience the true happiness of an elephant playing in the dirt, or running through an open field rather than being chained to a pole swaying in distress or forced to perform as entertainment for visiting tourists.

If you would like to learn the truth about ‘tourist’ elephants I highly recommend this Documentary, about the Elephant industry in Thailand Secrets of Thailand’s Elephant Tourism Documentary and Elephant Nature Park:

 So please, if you know someone coming to Asia, please share this blog or the links to the documentary, tell them of the horrific things done to the animals before they make it ‘on show’ and hopefully, it might just change their minds, and save the suffering of another one of these incredible beings.

 

*Please note: My intention is not to ‘hurt’ the people’s incomes that run other parks, but in two years between our visits we have already seen positive change with many places opting for more Elephant-friendly parks. Hopefully one day there will only be sanctuaries and as a conscious / responsible traveller you have the power to support those parks and attractions who are ethical and compassionate, so make your money talk and choose your destinations wisely!*

IMG_4730[Photo by Drew Hopper Photography]

We can’t wait to go back to ENP on the 23rd December 2015, but this time we will be visiting with Drew’s family and are so excited we get to share the incredible experience with them.

*As a recap our second time at ENP was better than we ever expected, our amazing guide Korn was so knowledgable and gave us the best tour of ENP! If you want to visit I would personally ask to be in Korn’s group as he went above and beyond his call of duty.

 

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