Do not ride elephants. They do not deserve to go through the pain and suffering they are put through, just for an hour of your paid fun.
After the most eye opening week at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, my whole view on sanctuaries and treatment of elephants has changed. Before I came out to Thailand I was determined to do some conservation – to help, as well as be a tourist. The Elephant Nature Park was an obvious choice seeming it was the Elephant sanctuary with the best care in Thailand, however shortly after arriving we realised it wasn’t quite what it had been made out to be.
In Thailand, elephants are sadly unable to live in the wild anymore – they are poached to be used for logging and tourism for shows and rides, and rarely ivory. To be domesticated enough to be able to be riden, they are captured as babies and go through the Phajann ceremony which is supposed to break their soul, so they are able to be used for these trades. They are chained up in the forest, with their trunks and ears clenched shut. The babies are separated from their families so that they forget about the love they felt and the feelings they had, so that they are ready to be submissive to a mahout. Elephants feel the same emotions as we do – anger, sadness, pain and anxiety, so know exactly what they are going through. They are beaten and burnt, stabbed and scratched for a few days, after which they become completely submissive to the mahouts and are then able to be trained.
During training they also endure pain – for example to be able to ride an elephant, they use a hook to pull back the ears and pierce the skin whenever they step out of line, until you are able to jump on their back without them flinching. They are taught through pain and aggression to roll onto their sides in bathing pools for tourists – an act which is unnatural for an elephant as usually if an elephant falls over, it is unable to get back up and ends up dying. They go through all this pain and suffering, just so that us tourists are able to have an hour of ‘fun’ on their back, or watching them dance in a circus. If it wasn’t for tourists, this trade would be unable to continue as the only reason it exists today is from the money that tourists will pay to participate.
Across the river from the Elephant Nature Park we are staying in, there are two different elephant camps. One is to ride elephants, and one is to bathe the elephants. On Wednesday when walking around the park, we stopped to watch. The elephants were being riden bare back up and down a steep hill – Lek, the founder of ENP had persuaded the camp to stop using the big metal cages for tourists to sit in so they now use nothing at all, which is a step in the right direction! One elephant had a baby elephant which looked about a year old, and every time it got in the way of one of the rides it was beaten by a mahout. The poor mother hadn’t even had a chance to recover from birth!
In the other camp elephants had a chain around their necks and were being bathed in a pool, after being taught to roll onto their sides for the tourists to wash them and lifting them up with their trunks for pictures. One elephant decided to rebel when a mahout sat on it, and after screaming and kicking, the mahout beat it with a hook and his feet until taking it away. Dan, our leader, told us that it was to be taken to be chained and beaten to be taught that it had missbehaved. Many people got emotional, including me and even the tour leader, as it doesn’t really sink in until you see it with your own eyes.
Please, do not ride or bathe elephants in these camps. Or even go to anywhere that endorses any of this behaviour. They go through so much pain and suffering for an hour of your paid fun.
Elephant Nature Park –
On the day we arrived at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, we were shown videos of the breaking of the soul ceremony, told that riding them put them through pain and suffering, and that the hooks were only used for abusive reasons. Shortly after, we were shown a video of the owner Lek and how she began her foundation. She said her love for elephants had bought her to save them from the lives they had before, which seemed pretty heroic, until shortly after on the video we watched her riding the elephant with a hook in her hand. After asking about why this was the case, I was told that it was an old video and that she has changed her views since then. But if that was the case, why would you show the video in the first place?
Since then us, and a few other of the 70 volunteers here have witnessed things that have made us feel uneasy. We have seen mahouts with small spikes in their hands trying to hide them away from us, when shortly after pulling an elephant away from us by its ear and very likely using the spike on it. A woman we met from Kent also witnessed a mahout get agitated with the elephant as it would not move away from the day tourists, and when all the tourists turned to move onto the next elephant he poked it in the eye, causing the elephant to recoil and do how it was told. These elephants were all from the same herd, and 2 nights ago another elephant from this herd flung open the gate to the park and tried to escape when it was trying to be put to bed. After being lured back into the park with food, it continued to batter its way into the tourist area and eat all of the well pruned plants.
The fact that the elephant had done this when being taken to bed did not surprise me – the elephants are locked up from 5pm until supposedly 7am the following morning, when that morning we had seen a mother and baby still in its cage at 10am shaking their heads and feet which is a sign of distress. After complaining they were released shortly after, and bounded into the fields with their mahouts sprinting behind them.
Being a volunteer here has been both rewarding, and embarrassing. Preparing the food has been rewarding; from cutting down banana trees & corn, to unloading watermelon trucks and making rice balls. All of this is stuff that is essential, as the elephants need to eat! However we have also bathed the elephants and been on elephants walks which is completely unnecessary. To bathe the elephants, they are lured down to the river with big buckets full of food and coaxed by the mahouts by their ear. If the elephants wanted a bath, they are perfectly capable of walking down to the river and using one trunk full to wash themselves instead of our 10 buckets! The elephant walks also consist of us walking up to the elephants and stroking them – something that is completely unnatural and also something I don’t wish to do again.
However, here they do have a dog and cat sanctuary. Two areas which make a huge difference! They have over 500 cats and 500 dogs, and they have been rescued from a variety of backgrounds such as puppy farming, dog meat, and dog fighting. They are all kept in huge cages where they can roam free – they are all healthy and happy, and up for adoption. I am so desperate to adopt this little black one called Zumba, she’s so cute!
Don’t get me wrong, this elephant sanctuary is doing good work. Compared to how the elephants are treated in the sanctuary opposite, this is a whole lot better. They get the most amazing medical care; they have vets on site to treat every need, from bad feet after being hurt in the logging industry, to back problems from the metal cage to carry tourists. They get all the food they could possibly eat – the before and after pictures speak for themselves, they go from skin and bones to chubby little elephants!
Although I don’t agree with everything that I have witnessed in this sanctuary, they are most certainly in a better place, and certainly not treated half as badly as they were before! However I believe that these elephants should be able to roam free. They do not need all their own individual mahouts, they just need a vet and someone to feed them! They should not have the hundreds of day tourists that enter this park every single day standing within meters of them touching them, feeding them, having selfies with them, while their mahouts keep them there by calling, holding and food. They do not need to be taken for baths, they are perfectly capable of bathing themselves. They should not be locked up for the whole night seeming there is 24hour security, they should be able to roam free! This park does some good – but it has a long way to go until I can class it as a sanctuary. It has been the most amazing experience and taught me so many lessons and facts that I would not even have realised unless I had came here, and has spurred me on to make as much of a difference as I can. However sadly, I did not learn the way the park wanted me to, but a harsh reality that they were trying to hide.