Interacting with elephants is a sought after experience in Thailand and one that Steph and I have been looking forward to. Although there are many opportunities for this throughout Thailand, elephant abuse is still a problem and it is up to the paying customer to choose wisely and influence this industry positively with their dollars. We chose Elephant Nature Park because it is a tried, tested, and award winning ethical elephant sanctuary. Our day was spent feeding elephants, taking a tour of the sanctuary grounds, meeting the elephant family groups, and bathing the elephants at the end of the day.
The park lies 50 miles north of Chiang Mai. As we made our drive the bustling city vibe, noisy roads, and urban buildings slowly gave way to to lush greenery and countryside. Banana and papaya trees dotted the roadside as we made a gradual ascent toward the sanctuary into notably cleaner, fresher, sweet smelling air. Upon our final approach to the sanctuary mountains cloaked in clouds rose up around us, we sat curious and excited waiting to meet one of the most revered species on the planet - especially in this region.
After passing through the gate a vast mountain valley sprawled out before us, the sight of the reserve bustling with morning activity, animal and human alike, was a welcome and soul warming sight. We quickly learned that the park is home not just to scores of elephants but it is also sanctuary to hundreds of water buffalo, dogs, and cats who are constantly roaming the property. This veritable garden of eden and safe haven nestled in the mountainside was more than we could have expected, after a short briefing we set out onto the grounds to meet the residents. As a former zookeeper and lover of all organisms, I was excited to say the least.
We met countless elephants each with their own story, either visible from their scars or recounted to us by our guide, May. Some had physically altered posture from years of riding or logging with too much weight, others were blind from camera flashes and spotlights, some bore the scars of land mine encounters, one extremely rare white elephant even wore a leg prosthesis from one such encounter. Each elephant has their own keeper called a mahout and each mahout shares a special bond with their elephant and the level of dedication is obvious when you observe their interaction. We even met an elephant in her late 70s showing signs that she might pass into the next life soon, her mahout was so dedicated he was with her day and night, sleeping in a shack next to her at night to provide comfort to make sure she would not pass alone.
This was, to say the least, a humbling experience and although the elephants we met endured hardships the visit was free from any macabre sentiments. The mahouts, keepers, guides, and staff at the sanctuary do not harp on these facts or hold ill will. They move forward with the elephants best interests in mind and seeing the way they interact with each animal attests to this and instills confidence.
Elephant Nature Park is also one of the leading organizations spearheading reforestation projects in the forests of Thailand. They are opening Elephant sanctuaries all over Thailand, Burma and Cambodia to expand their efforts, each undertaking a similar mission statement of elephant rehabilitation and stewardship over the environment.