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When booking my trip to Thailand, I knew I wanted to spend some time with elephants. However, I wanted to make sure that my money was going to a place where the animals are treated with kindness and respect. During my research, Elephant Nature Park came up quite often and after verifying it was indeed an ethical and true sanctuary, I booked a couple of visits. Here is everything you should know before booking a visit at Elephant Nature Park or any elephant sanctuary, for that matter.
What is Elephant Nature Park?
Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation center located just outside the city of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. The park was founded in the 1990s as a sanctuary for elephants. Today, the primary focus is still elephants, but ENP also has dogs, cats, water buffalo, and other rescued animals. The park provides a natural environment and caring staff for the elephants it rescues and serves as place for them to safely live out the rest of their days. Visitors are welcome to Elephant Nature Park through a variety of programs, including extended volunteer work.
Where do the elephants come from?
The elephants at Elephant Nature Park end up there for a variety of reasons. Two of the main reasons being tourism and logging. Elephants are domesticated in order to be used in circuses, to beg on the streets and give people rides. The process of domesticating an elephant is referred to as “crushing”. It is called this because it literally crushes the elephant’s spirit.
A baby elephant is usually taken from the wild after it’s mother and other adults around it are killed. It is then put in a large stall or cage and is bound in a way where it can not move its limbs or head. The elephant is then beat with sticks or chains, stabbed through the ears and feet with nails, and deprived of sleep, food and water. This cruelty takes place for an extended period of time until the elephant becomes so depressed it gives up and becomes submissive. Many of these elephants are captured in Myanmar and then trafficked into Thailand, where they are then put to work. Many elephants are put to work in the logging industry, where chains are harnessed to their body and they are used to transport heavy teak wood through the hillsides and waters. Logging was banned in Thailand in 1989, but illegal logging still exists within the country and is still legal in surrounding countries. After the ban, many of these elephants entered the tourism industry.
The elephants continue to experience cruelty after the “crushing” process as well. An elephant is not built for many of the tasks that are forced upon them. The tricks they perform at circuses are often extremely painful, resulting in deformed and sometimes broken limbs. Elephants that are forced to give rides spend their time in chains when out of the public eye. They give rides continuously throughout the day, often without food and water. Their backs are not meant for riders or that much weight (often two riders and a saddle, which alone weighs at least 100 pounds). They experience cruel beatings daily and even die from exhaustion. The elephants will be forced into these tasks until they are too old or injured. This is where Elephant Nature Park steps in and negotiates their release. ENP also rescues and rehabilitates elephants who have become injured in the wild. It is actually not uncommon for them to step on landmines in the war-torn country of neighboring Cambodia.
There seem to be a lot of sanctuaries in Thailand. Are they all ethical?
No. Many tourists visiting Thailand are no longer naive to the abuse and have chosen to boycott elephant tourism with their dollars. Many places have become savvy to this and have begun calling themselves a sanctuary in order to mislead the public. The elephants should not be forced into any activity they don’t want to do and should absolutely not be ridden under an circumstance. If a place offers elephant rides it is definitely not a sanctuary. The same goes for chains. Many places chain their elephants when visitors aren’t present. If an elephant is chained for any period of time, this is not a sanctuary.
Please do thorough research before visiting any place that calls itself a sanctuary, orphanage, rescue, etc. It may appear ethical on the surface, but after a little digging you may come to find quite the opposite. Elephant Nature Park is the only ethical sanctuary in Thailand that I am aware of and can recommend.
How can I visit?
Elephant Nature Parks hosts visitors daily in hopes of educating the public, raising awareness and eventually putting a stop to the violence many elephants endure. Funds collected go to the high cost care of the animals. The park offers a few different options when it comes to visiting. If you would like to spend a day or two at the park, you have the option to go as a visitor. You can do a half or full-day visit or even stay overnight.
If you would like to spend more time at Elephant Nature Park, then you can choose to volunteer for up to two weeks. Volunteers will not only have the chance to interact more with the elephants, they’ll be assisting in the care of the other animals as well. All visits and volunteer work should be booked through Elephant Nature Park in advance. I suggest doing this as early as possibly because spots do fill quickly. If you find yourself in Thailand without a reservation, call for availability. There are often cancellations.
What is a day at ENP like?
I chose to do the short park visit. A shuttle picked me up from my hotel in Old City, Chiang Mai early in the morning and we drove for about an hour through the beautiful, green countryside before reaching Elephant Nature Park. Upon arrival, we fed the elephants bananas and watermelon. We then got to spend some time taking photos with and petting one of the older elephants. A vegetarian lunch was then served and we had some free time, which I spent visiting the cat center. After lunch, we walked down to the river where we got to observe some baby elephants playing in the the river as their mother kept a watchful eye over them. We continued to walk through the park while learning about the elephants and observing their behavior before returning to the shuttle in the late afternoon.
What is the Saddle Off program?
After seeing how successful Elephant Nature Park has become in recent years, many of the elephant camps in the area have begun to rethink their business model. ENP has helped many of these, once unethical, camps learn how to be successful while being saddle off, or no riding. The camps are being taught how to treat their animals with kindness instead.
The Saddle Off program offers a few different experiences. These are booked through ENP, but are all off-site. I spent a full day participating in the Elephant Highlands activity, located in a very remote part of northern Chiang Mai. We spent the day feeding and walking with the elephants, while being surrounded by beautiful scenery. At the end, there was an option to bathe the elephants. I chose to sit this out. Elephant Nature Park no longer offers bathing at the park and I wish this was something they would enforce with their Saddle Off programs. Hopefully, if people start to opt out of this activity, they will no longer offer it. Other than that, it was an incredible experience.
Whether you choose to visit Elephant Nature Park or participate in one of its Saddle Off programs, you are guaranteed to have an amazing day at an ethical elephant sanctuary. If you’re looking for a place to stay in Chiang Mai, I suggest staying in Old City so you can take advantage of the included shuttle service that ENP provides. I stayed at the Pingviman Hotel. The hotel has spacious rooms, a beautiful pool area and is conveniently located to many of the city’s attractions.
To read about other fun activities in Chiang Mai, check out my post, “The Eight Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai.”