Our visit to the Elephant Nature Park, 60 kilometers from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, was replete with wonderful photo opportunities. At one point, I carefully aligned my camera to take a photo of my husband Steve (a/k/a Mr. Excitement) and was somewhat annoyed when his fake smile disappeared and he became a little agitated, waving me to one side. My pique evaporated when I finally realized he was not trying to interfere with my photographic independence, but was trying to warn me that there was a large elephant fast approaching behind me. Considering that an Asian elephant can grow to ten feet in height and weigh up to 11,000 pounds, you would think you would hear one walking behind you, but in fact, they move very quietly on their wide, well padded feet.
We had already learned that they can travel at 25 miles per hour and this particular elephant was on a mission to get to her baby who had wandered off. One swat or “nudge” from an elephant trunk would definitely get me to move, but with my Baby Boomer osteopenic bones, a broken hip is always a possibility — not the way I wanted to start our month long sojourn in Southeast Asia — even though it would have made for an impressive “how I broke my hip” story.
I moved. Quickly.
In researching our trip to Thailand, it became obvious that some type of elephant encounter had to be on our itinerary. There are many options for interacting with pachyderms in Southeast Asia, but many of them are not fun nor healthy for the elephants. After consulting some blogs, I arranged for a visit to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), a rescue sanctuary for exploited, injured and abused Asian elephants founded by Lek Chailert.
I arranged our visit to ENP in advance on line. On the appointed day, we were retrieved from our hotel by an ENP 10 person van where we met Ae, our guide for the day. On the ride out to the refuge we watched some videos about Asian elephants and about Lek’s work with this endangered species. During the day, we stayed in our small group (all nice people) and had the chance to feed elephants (they’ll eat watermelon, but they looove bananas), to help bathe them — so they could re-dirtify themselves asap, and to visit the elephant clinic and the new dog rescue facilities. BTW, most elephants eat bananas, peel and all, but for some of the older herd members who no longer have teeth, the bananas are peeled and we fed them steamed pumpkin.
Lek adopted her first elephant in 1995 and the ENP herd now numbers 36, ranging in age from six months to about 76. There are no elephant rides nor elephant tricks. Indeed, the ENP’s elephants have been rescued from logging operations, street begging and elephant performances where the elephants’ compliance was achieved by training methods ranging from harsh to torture. Each rescued member of the ENP herd has his or her own tragic story.
At the ENP, the elephants are allowed to be elephants to the greatest extent possible. We learned that depending on their prior life experiences, the elephants naturally bond with either one other elephant (a true BFF) or small herds (“families”). We witnessed one instance where a year old (very cute) elephant who had been born at ENP vocalized some distress and was instantly protectively surrounded by the four fully grown elephants in his family. This baby was a miraculous gift to the herd from an elephant who had been rescued some 20 months before she (surprise!) gave birth. (Elephant gestation is generally 20-22 months). If it seems difficult to believe that no one noticed the pregnancy given that Asian elephants weigh between 250 and 350 pounds at birth, consider that some humans also manage to pull off the same feat. “I just thought I was getting a little chubby”.
Given the traumatic pasts of many of the elephants, each is assigned his or her own mahout (elephant handler). The ENP re-educates mahouts who previously worked with elephants using less enlightened training techniques. Many elephants arriving at the ENP require veterinary care which is provided at the ENP’s elephant clinic staffed by volunteer veterinarians and veterinary students who are afforded a unique opportunity to do “hands on” large mammal care. The ENP also provides free care to outside elephants as a way to encourage local elephant owners to provide good care for their elephants.
Lek (and the ENP) is not only devoted to elephant rescue. The ENP also cares for over 400 dogs rescued from the streets in Chiang Mai and Bangkok and over 150 formerly feral cats. Some of the dogs wander the grounds, seeming utterly at home, finding sunny places to snooze. A number of the dogs wear red collars to warn visitors that they might not be pacifically receptive to being petted by strangers. The baby elephant seemed to enjoy chasing dogs, but never strayed too far from mama, so the dogs always got away. One Anglo-Italian travel blogging couple visited the ENP and ended up staying for a month caring for the dogs in what they describe as a life altering experience.
Time constraints prevented us from signing up for what I think would be the best way to visit ENP – a week-long volunteer stay where you currently pay approximately $365 for the privilege of cleaning up elephant poop and preparing elephant food. You also get to interact with and learn from the elephants themselves and, of course, from Lek and her dedicated staff. A one night, two day volunteer opportunity is also available. If the vegetarian lunch buffet we enjoyed during our visit to ENP is representative, you will also eat really well. Funds raised from visitors and donations help to defray the costs of running the ENP. Elephants eat a lot — as much as 330 to 340 pounds per adult elephant per day.
Our visit to the ENP was definitely a “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Philadelphia anymore” experience and one of the highlights of our trip.
Should you go?: Absolutely, if you are fond of animals and are not terrified afraid of interacting with ones that outweigh you by maybe 10,000 pounds. If you are visiting Chiang Mai, it is also a nice opportunity to get into the countryside, out of the bustle of Thailand’s second largest city.
How to arrange a visit: You can register and a pay a deposit for your ENP visit or volunteer experience on line. It is best to do this as far in advance as possible to maximize your chances of them having a slot available within your travel schedule. (Search for “Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai Thailand” to find the latest website where you can make a reservation).
Update: So, I thought Asian elephants were big and imposing—-until I ran into some African elephants on a game viewing safari in South Africa. You can read about that (and see a photo of a really.large.elephant. HERE.)