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In the area around Chiang Mai, there are a number of elephant parks. But we also heard that elephants in Thailand are often held for profit reasons. In the search for a sustainable elephant park, we found the Elephant Nature Park. The park provides a sanctuary for former captive working elephants and other animals. So we want to get a first-hand impression. It shall become the highlight of our visit in Chiang Mai.
The office of Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is not far from the city wall, in 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing. At least 10 dogs frolic around the office and have found a good home here. We book a day trip to the Elephant Nature Park.
A minibus picks us up the next day and we drive for approximately 1 hour in a northerly direction. Finally, the mountains become higher, the jungle thicker and the roads narrower.
Elephant Nature Park
We are welcomed by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the founder of the park. In the park, she is only called by her nickname Lek. She tries to give us a short interview, which is somewhat turbulent. Two of her favorites elephants find that she should not to deal with the strangers, but with them. We nevertheless learn some interesting facts.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 100,000 Asian elephants in Thailand. Not least by the increasing diminution of their habitat by humans, the population today is only estimated at 30,000 worldwide, 10% of it in Thailand. Of the approximately 3,000-4,000 elephants, half of them are domesticated and suffer under appalling conditions.
After teak logging had been banned in Thailand in 1989, most elephants and the woodworkers lost their livelihood. The cost to feed an elephant is high. Tourism seemed to be the way out. Elephant shows and elephant rides were the predominant attractions.
1991 we have seen such a show at the Rose Garden near Bangkok (see Thailand photo gallery ). We did not find it tingling at all. In addition, the elephants suffered increasingly from poaching because of the ivory.
In 1998, Adam Flinn, who owned an organization called Green Tours, and Sangduen Chailert, who owned the land, founded the Elephant Nature Park. At that time the elephants had to perform tricks during the daily shows and elephant rides were offered.
There was also an isolated section where the elephants were being cared for. Sangduen Chailert called this area Elephant Heaven.
In 2002, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert became known for her campaigns against the ill-treatment and extermination of elephants in Thailand. The animal protection organization PETA called for a boycott of Thailand. After being insulted and threatened with death, she was named one of Time Magazine’s Heroes of Asia for her work in conservation in 2005. Ever since her elephant park has enjoyed increasing popularity. Meanwhile, she has established several offshoots in Thailand (Erawan Elephant Retirement Park in Kanchanaburi and Suri) and Cambodia. Another one is planned together with the organization “Save the Elephant Foundation” in Phuket.
Meanwhile, the business model has changed. There are no elephant shows and no elephant rides anymore. The park offers guided tours for visitor and for $ 400 per week, including board and lodging, volunteers can take care of elephants. Nevertheless, the Elephant Nature Park is essentially dependent on donations.
Lek tells us that currently, 85 elephants live in the park. The regular upkeep of the park including food etc. costs around $ 200,000.- year.
During the interview, two elephant ladies constantly ask for her attention. One is Jokia, who is blind. When Jokia gave birth to a calf, while she was pulling the logs in the jungle, the calf rolled down a hill and died. Her mahout forced her to carry on work, but she refused. So he shot her with a slingshot, blinding her eyes.
When Jokia arrived at the Elephant Nature Park in 1999, she was taken care of immediately by the elephant lady Mae Perm. Mae Perm, with more than 90 years the oldest elephant in the park, was the first elephant that was rescued by Lek in 1992. Mae Perm became the eye of Jokia as both walked through the park and the woods. Since then, both were inseparable. The friendship lasted almost 17 years. Unfortunately, we learned after our return that Mae Perm passed away peacefully in April 2016. We hope that Jokia will overcome the loss.
When asking Lek, if she has been in a dangerous situation caused by the elephants, she denies. Only once, one of her elephants has broken her a couple of ribs during a rapid embrace. But this happened unintentionally and will never happen again.
The elephants coming into the park are partly traumatized. Some of them are still insecure today when they hear sounds from tractors that remind them of the work in the jungle. An elephant never forgets. Lek works only with reward, never with punishment. You have to treat the elephants with respect and trust and it is a long way to building that trust.
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We would have liked to continue our conversation with this fascinating woman, but Lek gives in to the urge of the two elephants. She says goodbye and guides them to the water.
So other elephants use the moment and beg for fruit provided by the visitors.
After that, we can also go to the open spaces of the elephants. First we visit Kabu. Kabu was with her mom who was working as a logging elephant. At the age of two years, a log rolled out of control, breaking her front left wrist which healed badly. Nevertheless, she was also put to work and was used for forced breeding.
We can feed her by hand. You can feel how sensitive, but at the same time also powerful she handles her trunk.
All around, we see different groups of elephants. While Kabu gets her fruits, some elephants eat palm leaves. Mahouts lead others to the river and spray them with water or remove the mud.
After that, the elephants take a dust bath to have a protection against the sun.
Between this we see young elephants, carefully guarded by their mothers and aunts. Sometimes they frolic around and play with hung up car tires, sometimes their mothers bring them back when they get too far away.
We are astonished by the flower in the ear of Jan Peng. It is a symbol of the friendship from his mahout Patee, covering the scar on her ear. The calfs of the working elephants were always tied to the mother’s ear so that they could follow her.
Despite their weight elephants have a sensitive skin and love to take a bath. But a highlight for the elephants is a mud-bath where they clean their sensitive skin of parasites.
After that, they are rewarded with fruits. Visitors may then scrub the elephant with brushes and clean them with water.
On the other side of the river, we see people walking with elephants and dogs. The dogs also take a bath in the flowing waters. Everyone makes an eased and content impression.
Just as we do. Deeply impressed both by the elephants, but also by the petite elephant rescuer Sangduen “Lek” Chailert and her work, we drive back to Chiang Mai.
If you want to do something for elephants and would like to support the work of the Elephant Nature Park, you are welcome to donate to the Save Elephant Foundation.
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