Responsible elephant tourism in Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

Getting to sniffing distance to the elephants was no doubt the highlight of our trip to Chiang Mai. I had done a little bit of homework on trying to find the most ethical elephant farm to visit – but I had not realised how vast the issue of animal tourism is in Thailand. It seemed like many of the tourist attractions were based on the suffering of animals: riding elephants, elephants painting pictures, monkeys riding bikes and tigers posing for selfies. This article in the Guardian gives you an idea on the scale of the issue.

We chose to visit Elephant nature park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants founded by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, award-winning conservationist. The park is situated in the beautiful hills about an hour north of Chiang Mai. During the day, visitors get an opportunity to mingle with the elephants, and the only trick the elephants do is to pick up fruit that you feed them.

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park: groups and guides

The visitors are divided into small groups and assigned a guide that stays with you all day. You get many opportunities to feed the elephants, touch them and hang out with them in different parts of the large area where they roam freely. The elephant handlers, mahouts, guide the elephants around with the help of fruit and toast(!) rather than the iron hooks so common in other elephant operations. The story of the pair in the photo below is just one among the many in the park, and you can read here more about Mae Jan Pen and Patee Bpae Tru – and the flower in her ear.

Lunch is included in the trip and is tasty and plentiful. Afterwards the visitors get to watch a film about the plight of elephants in Thailand – a film that makes you very ashamed of yourself if you’ve ever ridden one. It explains the horrid practise of “breaking an elephant” – an ordeal all of those docile looking tourist elephants have gone through to become domesticated.

The guides kindly suggested we take the kids out 10 minutes before the end of the film – it really is too gory for the tiny eyes. By that time, the elephants were already on their way to the river. Armed with plastic buckets, kids and adults alike took to the task of splashing the gentle giants – while they munched away from their fruit baskets. Change of clothes or swimwear for the kids is recommended!

After the bath the elephants obviously need to move on to the muddy puddles specially dug out for them and cover themselves with dirt, that acts as natural insect and sun repellent. We balanced between watching them have fun and moving away from their path. With very young kids this may get a bit stressful, there seemed to always be an elephant behind my back when I stopped to take a photo.

Elephant Nature Park

Most of the elephants in the park have a tragic past and visible injuries to show for it. Our guide knew all the elephants by name and shared their funny and sad stories – and was good at keeping the kids out of the way of the “naughty ones”.

After seeing those shackled elephants on the road leading to ENP carrying heavy frames loaded with people and the mahouts using their iron hooks to guide them there is not doubt about the merits of the ENP. I am, however, still feeling a bit guilty – surely these giants would be happier without the tourists herding around them. Then again, they eat 3.5 tonnes a day – someone needs to pay for that. The ENP doesn’t buy or purposely breed elephants.

If you want to know more about animals and tourism and how to go about it responsibly, a conservation NGO, World Animal Protection has made a guide for animal friendly holidays.

Click here to find out what else we got up to in Chiang Mai. We’ve also visited a similar elephant park in Phang Nga Province , that doesn’t offer rides.

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