The highlight of our Thailand trip was staying at the Elephant Nature Park, approx one hour north of Chiang Mai.
Asian Elephants are currently on the move towards extinction. There are only 3,000 Asian elephants in total left in Thailand. The wild Asian elephants are protected by law, but the life and treatment of domesticated (working elephants) in Asia is not protected in any way. These magnificent beings are often treated very poorly.
The Elephant Nature Park was founded by award winning conservationist Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert. She began rescuing injured and mistreated Asian elephants in 1992, and in 2003 (with the support of a Texan millionaire) was able to establish a permanent home for them in a beautiful lush valley.
There are now over 30 rescued elephants at the park. They are free to choose a family, form small herds and live amongst people who love and respect them. They are not expected to work or perform. Instead they are able to wander the park, feeding at their leisure, bathing in the river and playing together in the mud pit. Each elephant has a distinct character, which becomes more evident as they come to regard the park as their home and leave their past behind.
Visitors to the park help feed and bathe the elephants. If you stay overnight as we did, you may get to walk around the park in the morning, meet many of the elephants and hear about their working lives. Most of their stories are unfortunately heartbreaking.
I was in awe of all the elephants; their wise eyes, huge heavily grounded bodies, their gentle natures and their ability to forgive humans for the pain and suffering we, as a race, have put them through.
Personally, I fell in love with Mae Khum Kaew (also spelled Mae Kham Gaeo). She was radiant and gentle. Even her skin was soft!
Creating the Elephant Nature Park was a huge achievement by Lek. Unfortunately there is much more work to be done to save and improve the lives of Asian Elephants. Lek Chailert is working on a variety of additional projects:
- Lek is in the process of setting up more properties for rescued elephants including 2,000 acres of land in Surin.
- She set up Jumbo Express, an outreach program that endeavors to improve the lives of domesticated elephants as well as offer free medical assistance and education to their mahouts and people they work for.
- Lek speaks out about the cruel practice of the 'Phajaan' or training crush, the horrific, violent traditional method of ‘breaking in’ an elephant to be ridden and worked. This practice is still used widely in Asia. Lek is campaigning against this, in favour of training methods that use positive reinforcement. For those of you reading this and thinking ‘Monty Roberts for elephants’, I agree there are strong similarities between Monty and Lek’s missions. With Lek's blessing, I emailed Monty’s office introducing Lek to him and inviting him to contribute his support to her excellent work.
What you can do to help:
- Visit or volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park (you can go on a day or overnight trip from Chiang Mai or you can volunteer at the park for a week or two).
- Volunteer as part of the Surin Project.
- Foster an elephant (this makes an excellent gift).
- Make a donation to support the activities of the Elephant Nature Foundation.
- Shop at the online Ele store (more great, socially responsible gifts).
- Help raise awareness and funds (there are lots of ideas to get you started here)!
- Join the Elephant Nature Foundation.
- If you’re in the USA, join the Serengeti Foundation which supports ENF.
- If you are in the UK and want to help, contact ENF UK.
- Join the ENF Facebook Group.
- I recommended the organisation set up Flickr Groups for: Elephant Nature Park, Surin Project, Elephants that need saving. Will update with links if/when available. ***UPDATE: ENP Flickr Group is now live.***
- Read the recent media articles about Elephant Nature Park and please talk about the plight of the Asian Elephant. This National Geographic video featuring Lek is an excellent resource to share. The more awareness and people involved, the better!
- Join 'Elephants in Crisis' (EIC), and ElephantVoices, two other organisations doing excellent work.
- Discuss the plight of elephants, potential solutions, pilot projects etc in the 'Professionals Protecting Elephants LinkedIn Group'.
Note: If you are in Asia
- Please do not support elephant street begging, elephant painting or elephant shows.
- If you feel you must go trekking on the back of an elephant, please take a long hard look at the elephant’s health and enthusiasm for its work before you pay for the trek. If you really think about it, you may prefer the idea of walking beside a free elephant to riding on a working one!
Some of my photos from the Elephant Nature Park can be viewed in my 'Thailand' set on Flickr, starting here.