Yesterday was very special as it was spent with beautiful Asian Elephants. At the end of our day at Elephant Nature Park (ENP) our guide Tong asked if we had any questions.
Rob – “During our time spent in Ayutthaya we saw elephants being ridden by tourists along the roads, is the government doing anything to stop this and the other cruelties to the elephants?”
Tong – “The only way to stop this is you.”
For me that answer was strong. The only way we can stop the cruelty to elephants and other animals is through our tourist consumer power.
If nobody buys these unethical activities, then they will have to stop.
Instead if we choose to spend our money somewhere like ENP we’re providing support for elephants that have been subject to cruelties such as logging, begging, riding, trekking, circuses, land mines, zoos, animal traps, poaching etc.
Before coming to Thailand I watched an incredible film on iTunes called Love and Bananas which seriously moved me. Love and Bananas is a documentary following the rescue of Noi Noi, a 70 year old partially blind trekking elephant, by Lek Chailert, an elephant conservationist and the founder of ENP. Throughout the film you’re shown the cruel reality many Asian Elephants face and how their numbers in the wild are depleting rapidly, I won’t divulge too much because in all honesty it wouldn’t do the film justice. You really should watch it.
From watching the film I knew we had to visit ENP, the very place Noi Noi was rescued to while we were in Chiang Mai. And what an experience it was!
Elephant Nature Park is located 60km from Chiang Mai and provides sanctuary for elephants and other animals such as dogs and water buffalos. They also focus on rain forest restoration by planting 25 acres of trees each year, cultural preservation by employing local people and buying local products and educating visitors, volunteers, mahouts (elephant trainers) and the rest of the world on the importance of elephant care and conservation.
You can visit and volunteer at ENP and there are various packages to choose from. We selected the single day visit which costs 2500 baht each (approx £60) and goes towards the running of the park. With this package you are collected from your hostel by a mini bus at 8:15am and returned at 5:00pm. Whilst at the park the day doesn’t particularly follow a schedule as the elephants have minds of their own. At some point you get to feed them, watch them bathe, walk around the picturesque park and learn all about the elephants. A final perk, a delicious vegetarian buffet lunch is provided.
Our guide Tong told us some funny stories, especially about the naughty boy elephants (some threw rocks at us!), but he also told us some sad ones. My two favourites were Khun Dej and Dani. Khun Dej is 8 years old and was rescued by the park after standing on an animal trap and injuring his leg. Dani is 23 years old and used to work in both legal and illegal logging industries in Thailand and Burma, she is blind in both eyes. Together they have made a partnership, Dani uses Khun Dej as a guide and Khun Dej uses Dani as support.
If you want to see elephants in a supportive and ethical way while on your travels then here are some questions to ask when choosing how to do it, unfortunately use of the word ‘sanctuary’ does not always give that rubber sealed stamp that it is genuinely doing good work.
- Do they offer direct contact with their animals or get them to perform tricks? – Any elephant performing tricks, or allowing humans to ride their backs, endure an awful training process called “The Crush”. If you watch Love and Bananas you’ll see this horrific process in action and it will seriously make you think twice.
- Do they breed their animals? – The entire purpose of a sanctuary is to give animals short or long term refuge and rehabilitation in an environment that resembles their natural habitat as closely as possible. Genuine sanctuaries and rescues do not permit animals to breed unless the group is destined for release to the wild.
Are handlers using negative reinforcement or abusive tactics on the animals? -A legitimate sanctuary does not harm or withhold food from their animals.
- Are the animals allowed to engage in natural behaviours? – Good welfare for animals exists when an animal’s nutritional, environmental, health, behavioural and psychological needs are all being met and are similar to it’s wild environment. Elephants are social animals, they should be able to socialise with one another and should not be in isolation.
In Chiang Mai there are posters and leaflets advertising ‘sanctuaries’ and other animal exhibitions all over the place, even taxi drivers pull up at the side of the road and ask ‘wanna see tiger?’. Tourists are the only people that can stop these cruel practices, governments aren’t interested in getting involved. We are the ones with the buying power and ability to put our money towards ending negative animal tourism.
“Remove man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever.” – George Orwell, Animal Farm
Through places like Elephant Nature Park providing simply ‘love and bananas’ elephants are having a better quality of life, you can genuinely see they are happy.