We urge anyone wanting to go to an elephant park in Thailand to do their research before they go. Many of them are exploiting these endangered animals. They have elephant shows forcing them to do stunts and tricks. The animals are often mistreated extremely overworked.
Throughout our travels in Thailand there was one name that kept coming up and that’s the park we choose to visit. We had an amazing experience at the Elephant Nature Park.
Elephants In Thailand Were Originally Used For Logging
Thailand was once riddled with elephant camps that keep them for logging purposes. They were worked for long hours every day doing heavy logging throughout the country. The land was so over logged that in 1989 the government had no choice but to put a complete ban on it. The barren landscape had created a disaster. With every wet season there would be people losing their lives due to mass flooding and landslides. With all the trees gone there was nothing left to absorb the water or keep the land in place.
This left hundreds if not thousands of elephants and their owners out of work. It’s very expensive to care for and feed an elephant. Many of the mahouts (the name for traditional owners and caretakers of elephants in Thailand) were forced to take to the streets of Bangkok and beg for money and food for their elephants. Tourists would take pity on them and buy bunches of bananas and other fruit. The elephants were being kept in horrible conditions and very under nourished. The government banned the elephants out of the city of Bangkok. You can imagine the chaos caused by bringing such huge animals into a busy city full of traffic.
Elephant Tourist Camps Were Born
Someone had the idea to make elephant camps outside of the cities. These are places where tourists come by the bus loads to get their fill of the creatures. The sad thing is that many of these camps also treat the elephants very poorly. Elephants in Thailand even though they are on the international endangered species list are only considered as “live stock”. They are treated the same as cattle and poultry. Many are subject to brutality, abuse and overworked by their ignorant owners who are hungry for tourist dollars.
These camps have people coming in and out on a daily basis. Most of them come for the thrill of riding on the elephants back. They do anywhere from 1 to 5 day elephant treks. People are loaded up into baskets on the elephants backs to trek throughout the forest. The mahouts have been riding elephants for centuries, but they ride on the back of the elephants neck right up behind it’s ears. This is the strongest part of the elephant and where a person should sit if they do so. The back can become weak and even deformed after carrying basket loads of tourists over and over.
The elephants in some of these camps have gone through a training ritual that would make you cringe if you saw it. They are beaten into submission, poked at with sticks and have all four legs tied to the point of their skin being rubbed raw. This goes on for days until the elephants spirit is broken. We have seen video footage of it and it was very difficult to watch.
The Elephant Nature Park In Thailand Is Created, A True Sanctuary For Elephants
After doing some research and after seeing beautiful elephants in the wild in Africa we decided going to one of these camps and riding on elephants backs was not what we wanted to do. We had started to look for an alternative to this. It seems that seeing elephants in the wild in Thailand would be a rare sighting. Other than a few national parks, there is virtually no wildlife left. It has all been poached.
The lady who started the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand is nick named “Lek.” It means small in Thai. People say she is barely 40kg and 35kgs of it is her heart. She worked hard to create a sanctuary for abused and mistreated elephants. Some of these elephants stories would break your heart. They are forced to work when they are sick and old. They are not fed properly and allowed very little rest. Sometimes an elephant will have many different owners. Each of them wanting to get the maximum amount of time from the elephant to cash in on tourist money. Saddles with baskets to carry tourists are clamped on very tight. In some cases the owner does not know the elephant is pregnant. This causes stillbirths and miscarriages. Many mothers are put back to work within a month of giving birth. The poor baby has to try to keep up along side the working mother. They often die or become deformed not being able to withstand the conditions.
One elephant Lek rescued named Jobaan was brought to the park. She was sold by one owner to another at ripe old age of 70. The new owner figured he could get at least another good ten years of work out of her. Lek acquired her at the age of 80. Still she had to pay the person to give up the 80 year old elephant.
Another female elephant had miscarried due to overwork. She was forced back to work and then got pregnant a second time. She gave birth only to watch helplessly as the 2 day old calf was washed down the river. She became very depressed after this and refused to work. The owner wanted her to mate again immediately, but she refused. They basically set it up to have a male forced upon her. When she became pregnant again she was rescued and brought to the park to have her baby in safety.
Another elephant named Jokia is totally blind. She lost her baby and became too depressed and refused to work. One of her eyes was damaged when her owners used her for target practice and hit it with an arrow. Her new owner decided to pierce her other eye so she became totally blind and would be more submissive. She now lives out her retirement days at the park. Another adult female elephant name Mae has taken it upon herself to be Jokia’s caretaker. She stays by her side most of the time. If she leaves her for a short time in the day it is a huge commotion when she returns. She calls out to Jokia to let her know she has returned. Jokia calls back in great excitement and they continue to greet each other and touch trunks.
Lek has had a very tough struggle in trying to save elephants in Thailand. She is seen as a threat by many of the elephant owners. Some of her own family turned against her. At one time she had threats on her life and had to go into hiding. Someone even came on the park property and poisoned one of the baby elephants to get revenge on her.
The Elephant Nature Park Gets The Exposure And Recognition It Deserves
Through international exposure the government has been forced to recognize Lek and offer reluctant support. Lek and the park have been featured in National Geographic, in Time magazine, CNN, BBC and many other publications around the world. Some reporters from the Toronto Star were there just prior to our arrival to do a story. Lek also has the Royal Family of Thailand on her side. The princess comes to stay at the park occasionally. The Royal Family can have a great influence over the government.
How The Elephant Nature Park Operates
The park has many rescued dogs and cats as well. There is an older adult cat with no eyes, but he manages to get around very well. The first day we were there Lek had brought two 4 week old kittens. They both had bad eye infections. One seems to be able to see a little, but the other one has membranes over both of his eyes. No one is sure whether he will ever see or not. One volunteer was assigned to be their caretaker. They stay with her 24 hours a day. She keeps them in a little cloth bag and they go with her everywhere. They are already so content in knowing they are being cared for. There are two cows who fell off the back of a truck that was on it’s way to a slaughter house. One was unconscious when it was found. Both are doing well now in their new home. Lek rescues all kinds of animals, she just can’t say no!
At the time of our visit there were 28 elephants at the park. It was pretty much to capacity, but Lek is always trying to acquire more land. There were several babies including a 2 month old that stole everyone’s heart. He is cute beyond belief.
When elephants have their babies the father has nothing to do with them. Another female automatically steps up to act like an Aunt. She will take just as much care with the baby as the mom. All elephants will work together to keep the baby safe.
There is one mahout assigned to care for each elephant. They are all local Thai people. Lek has rescued some of the elephants from terrible situations. Some of them come from owners who have approached her because their elephant is very ill and they can’t afford to keep it anymore. A price tag comes with this though. It has become a very careful balance for Lek. She wants to rescue as many elephants as possible, she has to be careful not to set a huge precedent with the price she pays.
There have been some really emotional cases where someone has brought Lek a very sick elephant. She takes it in and agrees to look after it for free in hopes the mahout or owner will sell it to her. They love to play a game with her saying they will only lease it to her. Out of the kindness of her heart she will agree and not only takes care of the elephant but pays the mahout to keep the elephant there. Sometimes they will eventually sell it to her. Other times everyone at the park has to deal with the emotion of the elephant being taken back by the owner, sometimes a year or more later. The owner basically uses the park as a respite for the elephant to get well and then puts it right back into its abusive work situation again.
Hopefully the way people look at elephants in Thailand will continue to change and they will be protected and valued. It’s strange to think this is one of the main symbols of Thailand. You can’t walk down a street in Thailand without seeing some kind of elephant symbol. It’s hard to understand the how they are treated.