So, I think we can all agree: elephants are awesome. Although I profess to be an all-round animal lover, I have to confess I have favourites, and elephants are close to the top. They’re obviously very cute, not only in their potato-like roundness and emotive eyes, but in their demeanour, too: I don’t want to commit too much anthropomorphism, but there is something about elephants that just makes them so much nicer than lots of animals. Monkeys, for example, score similarly high on intelligence, but if you’ve ever been around them you will know that they are little reincarnations of the devil: if they’re not baring their teeth and hissing: ‘stay away’, they’re on your back, and you’re thrashing around screaming as they steal water bottles from your backpack pockets. With elephants, however, I have never been around a creature so clearly capable of inflicting damage, of mass-strength, and intimidating enormousness, but which only oozes compassion and calmness.
This could be, of course, due to their years of sublimation and cruel and brutal ‘conditioning’, but studies show traits like companionship, empathy, and gentility to be deeply ingrained in their nature. In my Philosophy A-level when we were discussing ‘personhood’, for example, we watched this National Geographic study on elephant bereavement (check it out: here), and the park taught us all about elephant ‘nannies’ – a concept where older female elephants will care for the development and protection of babies, whether they are or are not biologically related (have another article: here!). There are countless studies revealing that elephants are not only highly intelligent, but form extremely strong social bonds, too. For some adorable evidence, here’s the cutest video ever of an entire herd running to greet a new baby at this very same park!
It is this natural harmlessness, kindness, and softness of disposition that I think makes their exploitation so devastating. We couldn’t have picked a more innocent being to abuse.
I know that there are elephant parks and sanctuaries all over Thailand (and beyond!), on which I can’t comment, but of all the animal-related visits and projects I’ve completed, around the world, this is easily my number one. Elephant Nature Park, founded by Sangduen Chailert (known as ‘Lek’), was the first, and is arguably the most famous, elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Located roughly 60km outside of Chiang Mai, they rescue elephants who’ve had extremely traumatic lives in industries such as logging and giving rides to tourists, and provide them a safe home and rehabilitation programme.
The park itself is just heaven. It’s this gorgeous, serene, green expanse with rolling land that recedes beyond the horizon, with just one very simple, two-floor, central wooden structure for volunteers, where we’d eat our meals (all food is vegan!), socialise in the evenings, and chill on the top deck in our empty hours of the day. What makes it uniquely beautiful is its animation: even from high up on the observation platform, looking over it all from a distance, it is never still – there is always the slow and subtle movement of elephants making their way. I’ve never experienced such a real depiction of ‘calm’, as sitting on the floor of the upper wooden deck, pen-in-hand and poised to scribble a notebook entry, but deciding to just watch, instead.
We were all put into pairs or threes with roommates, fairly early on – mine became a further travel companion, and long-term Insta-friend, Casey, a gap-yearer from Wales about to start her degree in Vet Med. We’d then mingle as we ate our meals and managed to meet people from all over the world, quickly befriending Canadians, Singaporeans, Australians, and Finns, to name a few. We were then divided into two groups, and did some fun, lightweight, activities. Some of these were as simple as forming a procession line and offloading mountains of fruit from a truck (with music!), whilst others were, of course, cleaning (scooping) up. We’d also get to feed the elephants bunches of bananas daily, and had one chance to give them a river-wash (whilst they ate buckets of bananas, then, too).
Aside from our daily duties, we were given park tours, and everything was always made fun – every cleaning shift allowed a few people to hitch onto the back of a truck and go for a bumpy ride. The Mahouts (elephant ‘keepers’) were absolute experts on their individual elephants and such amazing, funny, people to work with. My favourite person was a young guy about my age who ALSO had braces!!! and who also ended up designing a tattoo for one of the other members of our group.
In the evenings, we had opportunities for cultural exchange, my two faves were Thai language lessons and a performance from a local dance group.
A lot of animal tourism around the world is horrific. I don’t want to advocate a ‘call-out’ culture of attacking unaware participants in this, but I am repeatedly p surprised by how frequently I see photos of people riding elephants on social media. Do people not really care? Or still not know?
Elephants are not submissive to humans; they are not naturally easy to tame or ride. In order to get an elephant to do this, a really brutal process needs to take place, and this process has happened for every single elephant in the riding industry.
Baby elephants are separated from herds at a very young age, where they are still weak enough to be broken. Given the species’ gregariousness, this is not easy, and the mother elephant will usually be killed. The baby will then experience what is known as ‘the crush’: every form of physical torture will be inflicted upon the young elephant to force it into submissiveness and fear humans for life. This will usually involve tying the elephant up or restraining it in a cage, and then using every possible pain-causing tool; in the video we were shown, baby elephants were being set on fire, stabbed with knives, jumped on and hacked at with cropping equipment, and so on.
When they enter the industry at an older age, the pain does not stop; mahouts will usually hold a tool to remind them of the pain inflicted and punish them if they make mistakes, elephants will not be given rest or adequate food or water, and many only leave the industry when they suffer serious injuries from the ceaseless weight on their backs; some of the elephants we saw at ENP were missing limbs or ears. If you see elephants in circus conditions, they will have been subjected to similar circumstances, and if you see them ‘painting’ with their trunks, someone will be standing with a nail behind their ear, digging into them so that they do not stop. The most tragic story we read when at the park was of a female elephant rescued from the logging industry (which, thankfully, is now illegal, but unfortunately still happens illegally), who miscarried during work, and was not allowed to stop to see her baby before continuing.
Since visiting Thailand, I’ve been made aware of what’s become known as ‘voluntourism’ (which I’ve featured a clip about, just below). There is a lot to be said for how little this industry is helping anyone when money could be spent on donations, on materials and supplies, or on sustainable education/training programmes for communities. I also try to be aware of the gravity of ‘white person savour syndrome’: patronising people by offering unskilled and untrained work in the false belief that I, for some unbeknown reason, have anything superior to offer. I avoid projects involving things like ‘orphanages’ and house-building for these reasons, and try to research everything before commitment. My general hunches are to be sceptical of anything asking a suspicious amount of money for you to ‘work’, to go directly to companies/sanctuaries/not-for-profits/schools rather than large international organisations, and to interrogate how much benefit vs. damage we might contribute.
Is ‘volunteering’ at ENP a form of ‘Voluntourism’? The conclusion I’ve personally come to is: yes, but to a fairly minimal degree of harm. I do think it’s important to challenge the term ‘volunteering’ when the ‘work’ was not strenuous, but sporadic, when I spent a lot of my time observing elephants and making friends, and when I probs didn’t contribute an incredible amount to the survival of any elephant’: I probably got more out of throwing a bucket of water over that elephant than she did. That said, however, I all-in-all like to hope this is a fairly ethical project??? We were told that the funds volunteers raise go to park maintenance and the continuation of elephant rescue, and that part of the mission is to educate travellers – I do believe that every room of ‘voluntourists’ who sat through the presentation will never ride elephants again, and may hopefully encourage others not to do so. We were allowed minimal contact with the elephants and they were rotated so that only some had human interaction on different days. If you have any thoughts or further inspo on this, though, please send my way.
On a slightly lighter note – here’s a lil’ more cuteness: an elephant stealing bananas from some unsuspecting Vet Med students! This is where elephants should be: in elephant heaven, stealing bananas.
The park is also home to over 500 rescued dogs – who were largely saved during severe flooding, but may of whom are left on their doorstep, without explanation. They run a similar week-long project for this, but it’s also possible for elephant volunteers to get involved: we were allowed to visit and walk the dogs on a daily basis (this particularly licky one was my fave), or, if we could really help out, we were asked if anyone was flying home to a place near potential adopters, who’d been in touch from all over the world. There’s also the option to sponsor a dog (or an elephant), from afar. Check it out: here, on their website.
As well as the wonderful mahouts who we ate, worked, and laughed with every day, ‘Lek’, who we had the privilege of meeting at the start of our project, and everyone at the park who ensured our safety and comfort above and beyond what was needed, we got really lucky with other volunteers. There wasn’t anyone in the group I didn’t get on with, despite our different ages and backgrounds.
My memories from Elephant Nature Park are some of my best social memories from travelling. When we weren’t sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor and sharing stories (A Finnish friend had been in Australia for a year and a half and had her passport stolen, and another couple met backpacking and had been travelling in a renovated van, running a travel photography site for years), we hung out downstairs at the end of long days into the early hours of the morning. Sometimes, we’d just buy a Chang (‘elephant’) beer and chat, but my fondest memories are of us playing ‘Mafia’ every night. There is something weirdly innocent about a huge group of grown adults who’ve never spoken before sitting around and playing a role play game, and it always got surreally heated.
After Elephant Nature Park, I went to Pai with five friends I met there, and on to Chiang Mai with two of them. We also all met up, again, for a night in town, and one friend took us to the most amazing little live music menu, where the band finished on ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ by Stevie Wonder.