How to help at the best elephant sanctuary Chiang Mai offers
When you look up things to do in Thailand you stumble upon an array of elephant activities. They all look pretty affordable so you think, why not, that's a cool experience that will spice up my Insta feed?! Unfortunately the tourism industry has some dark secrets and elephant tourism is one of them.
When I was in Chiang Mai I was lucky enough to spend a day at an elephant sanctuary, The Elephant Nature Park. There we learned about the gruelling process of taming wild elephants for tourism. I want to share a few things that resonated with me. But if you don't feel like reading on, just take away this one piece of information:
DON'T RIDE ELEPHANTS and if an "animal sanctuary" offers elephant rides, they're NOT a REAL sanctuary.
4 things I Learned about Elephant Tourism
1. Babies are separated from their mothers
To get started in the industry wild baby elephants are taken away from their mothers after birth. Why? Because you can't train a large wild elephant without some serious risk, while a baby is small and easy to manipulate.
2. Their spirit is broken through Phajaan
After they're captured they're taken out into the forest, chained up and beaten. This process is known as "breaking their spirit" or "phajaan" and it's a way for the elephant to learn that the human is the dominant and they need to listen to their commands.
3. painting and circuses are torture not entertainment
After the baby is tamed they are shipped off to be trained in all sorts of things, it can be anything from the lumbar industry to tourism. In tourism they can be seen in circuses, performing tricks. You may see an elephant "painting" well it's not like they have a passion for the arts. They have their master poking sharp objects in their ears in order to maneuver their heads.
4. Elephant's backs are not structured to support human weight
And yes, riding an elephant is horrible. In fact while elephants are massive animals, their backs are not structurally made for riding. At the end of their "career" they often retire because their backs are deformed and broken from the stress.
*The above 3 are not my photos but used to highlight the issue
What CAN YOU do to Stop The BAD Elephant Tourism?
I'm sharing all of this not to upset you, or shame you if you've done these activities in the past. My parents took me on elephant rides as a kid and they just didn't know any better.
I'm just trying to raise awareness and help spread the word.
1. Don't go on elephant rides
If less people chose to partake in these activities then they'll stop. Basic supply and demand (thanks Econ 101). So simply put - don't ride elephants.
2. Don't give your money to companies that offer elephant rides
If you want to spend time with elephants I highly encourage you to look for somewhere that doesn't offer elephant rides. There are many "conservation" or "eco parks" for elephants in Thailand, but if you can ride elephants there then they're pure b.s..
You can chose to spend a day with elephants or volunteering for an extended time at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
Below are a few pictures of our experience at The Elephant Nature Park. We spent the day walking and feeding them. The highlight was when we met them in the river. They were cooling off and we showered them with buckets of water. They seemed to like it and we appreciated the cooling down too.
Because these are retired elephants, and not wild, the risk of charging and injury is minimal. They were very friendly, especially if you're holding a banana.
Walking with elephants at the Elephant Nature Park
Elephants eating after their bath
A closeup of one of our elephants
Elephant foot vs. human foot
An elephant and volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park
Food storage for elephants
This is the food storage area. Elephants eat between 200-600 lbs of food a day. The Elephant Nature Park uses part of the tour money towards feeding the elephants.
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