When travelling overseas many people want to get up close and personal with elephants, usually by riding them. But sadly this seemingly fun activity has massive welfare problems for the animals. SAFE’s Nat Litras recently visited Thailand where she volunteered at a sanctuary for these majestic animals.
It was my first time travelling alone, and I knew I wanted to do more than sunbathe and shop. As a life-long animal lover, I naturally began researching animal volunteer programs and – after much consideration – decided that Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand was the place for me.
With over 40 elephants, 400 dogs, cats, water buffalo and many other rescue animals, ENP is a sanctuary promoting responsible tourism with deep roots in animal welfare. This was my opportunity to see and work with the endangered Asian elephant, whose numbers are estimated at only 30,000 worldwide (declined by at least 50% over the last three generations).
The sanctuary was started up by an incredible Thai lady, Lek Chailert (aka the elephant whisperer), whose dream is to end the plight of the Asian elephant and the brutal way in which they’re captured and trained for use in industry. All of elephants in her care have been rescued from terrible abuse and exploitation, with backgrounds in circus acrobatics, street busking, trekking, riding, logging, and mining to name a few.
The sad life of elephants
In order to tame these animals, the ‘mahout’ or elephant trainer must use the traditional training method known as ‘crushing’ or ‘breaking the spirit’. Elephants are confined in small ‘crush’ cages for several days with little or no food and water. Unable to move they are beaten, poked, slapped and sat on as the mahout tries to ‘break ‘ their spirit. For the previously wild elephant this is a terrifying and exhausting experience. Once released from the cage, elephants are forced or dragged (with ropes) to walk behind their mahout, often beaten, until they learn to follow obediently. Learn more – but please be warned, it is very distressing footage.
This training can only be done once a baby elephant has been caught, which often leads to the mother or other protective elephants being killed. Baby elephants should stay with their mothers and family herd until around the age of 12. Those being caught in the wild are much younger and are not mature enough to be separated from their families. The training can take up to a month to complete, where the elephant will then be sold on to live its life in chains.
At ENP, traces of the elephants former life can be seen; some with land mine injuries and severe deformities from being chained or caught in traps, some who were deliberately blinded by their mahout, and others with deeply rooted emotional issues. Despite their wounds, these elephants had been forced to continue their work. That’s where Lek comes in. Rescued from traumatic pasts, these elephants are welcomed into the ENP family where they can learn to live naturally – without chains or hooks, and with minimal human influence. With ongoing monitoring and medical care, an amazing ‘roam free’ environment, and of course plenty of love and emotional support, these beautiful creatures can find peace.
The weekly volunteer program is fantastic. Food preparation, cleaning up elephant poo, cutting corn, planting grass, feeding and bathing – everything done is for the benefit of the elephants. In spare time, you can relax in the surroundings, enjoy a traditional thai massage and feast on the delicious buffet-style vegetarian and vegan food. You can also take the opportunity to visit the dogs and offer your services – with lots of dogs and cats who are sick, injured or rescued from the meat trade, the team are always in need of helpers for walks and cuddles.
The idea of riding an elephant may seem exciting on holiday, but for the animals it is anything but. Elephants used for rides will almost certainly have been trained using a crush cage and then are forced to work carrying tourists on their back. The seats and rope used to attach them to the elephant can rub and cause painful sores. And their diet is often insufficient. Elephants in the wild spend a lot of time eating, but being fed at set times and made to walk miles every day can cause problems for their digestion and nutrition.
Those used for begging in cities are often young elephants torn from their family. Tourists keen to feed the elephants in exchange for money are often unaware that their close up encounter is a result of suffering. Elephants have very sensitive feet and pick up the vibrations in a bustling city, which is both confusing and frightening. Surrounded by traffic and fumes and being forced to perform on command is no way for these beautiful animals to live.
ENP aims to inform and educate visitors about these issues, and what to avoid as an ethical tourist. Both the volunteers and day visitors are encouraged to respect and admire the animals without harming them. The employed mahouts are taught to care for the elephants using positive reinforcement and do not use ropes or hooks.
As a tourist, it’s tempting to want to get up close with elephants, but there are ways to do this without riding them or otherwise causing them to have a terrible life in the tourism industry.
The message is spreading and people are finally realising that merely being in the presence of these majestic creatures, walking by their side and observing their strong and compassionate relationships is so special in itself.