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Chiang Mai: Elephant Nature Park

When in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Laura and I were privileged to visit the Elephant Nature Park, where we learned much about these intelligent creatures and the unnecessary dangers they’re facing.  Elephant Nature Park is a unique project set in Northern Thailand. Established in the 1990′s its aim is to provide a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants. The park is set in Chiang Mai province, some 60km from the city, and has provided a sanctuary for over 34 elephants from all over Thailand. Set in a natural valley, bordered by a river, and surrounded by forested mountains the area offers a timeless glimpse of rural life. 

The elephants at the sanctuary are rescued from street begging, logging or tourism. Their scars, mental and physical, need to be healed. Some outlived their usefulness to loggers while others became useless to trekking camp owners.  Unlike other elephant tours in Thailand, the Elephant Nature Park offers no rides or shows.  You’re put to work helping other volunteers to care for the elephants.

The picture above shows me feeding the elephants at lunch time.  They enjoy banana and watermelon.  You simply hold the food out and they take it from you with their trunk.  Oh, and it’s important to remember to let go of the fruit.

After lunch, you walk the elephants to a stream and give them a bath. The Elephants really dig the water and appreciate your splashing those hard to reach places.  As soon as they’re done with their bath, they roll around in the dirt, which helps keep moisture in their skin and blocks out harmful sun.

Sangduen “Lek” Chailert (pictured above) is the founder of the conservatory. Lek’s love of the elephant began as a youngster. The family cared for an elephant which became a close companion to Lek. This affection led to working with elephants in the forests. With a vet they provided medical care to sick elephants in remote areas. Travel to these areas is hazardous and often involves hours of walking narrow jungle paths inaccessible to vehicles. She is often away for days at a time. The park’s current herd includes disabled, orphaned, blind and rescued, elephants of all ages. Lek’s work takes her deep into the jungles of Northern Thailand where, with the help of medical staff, she treats tribal villagers and their families with medical care and, often, donated clothing. Her Jumbo Express programme provides much needed care to elephants in the jungles in Chiang Mai province and beyond.

Above, Laura is receiving a wet smooch from Hope, one of the elephants at the Park. The Elephant Nature Park found Hope when one day the team was called out to a trekking camp to treat a female elephant who had just miscarried. The drive to Huy Pak Kood village was over 11 hours away. Arriving after midnight the team saw a baby elephant which appeared to be under one year old. He was very skinny and looked so depressed, startled and his eyes were full of fright. He kept hitting his head against the side of a narrow cage. His skin was riddled with parasites and he was in a very sorry state. Lek and her colleagues offered milk but he would not accept it nor any other comforts from the team.

The next morning the owner of the bedraggled orphaned baby elephant came to talk to Lek and asked her to take care of the baby.  The baby still needed milk and the owner could not afford it. The baby had liver-worm and parasites infested his blood. These were the conditions that had killed his mother. He was not given much chance of survival.  The team moved him to a new home and gave him the name “Hope”.

Lek tried hard to make Hope accept milk from her, but he knocked against her, attempting to hurt her many times. He chased the visiting elephant volunteers around the pen trying to knock them down and tried to kick out or vigorously swing his trunk at anyone who came close to him. He was nervous the first three nights and could not sleep at all. He kept everyone else awake trumpeting over and over throughout the night. The fourth night he fell into a sleep and Lek used this opportunity to get close, patting and comforting him. When he would wake up she ran from his pen.

She did this every night until finally Hope accepted her. He awoke and slowly opened his eyes then silently tiptoed over to see Lek. She sat beside him and he sat wearily down. He kept laying down letting her pat him and was soon fast asleep again. Lek knew that he had accepted her and released him out of the pen early next morning to walk with him and the volunteers.
After Hope had been with the Park for eight months, his owner came to take him back. He was to be trained for work. Lek told him that the youngster still needs milk and could not let him go back. The more Hope stayed with her the more she loved him and she really couldn’t let him go back to cruel training and arduous work. With the help and kind support from financial donations, Hope ultimately won his freedom.

The Elephant Nature Park is fascinating in how it allows you to interact so closely with these magnificent animals.  Here I’m shown rubbing an elephant’s tongue! Make no mistake – these are wild animals that up to weigh 800 lbs. But, provided they’re not threatened, they have a kind disposition.

Laura and I came away from the Elephant Nautre Park much more knowledgeable about the intelligence of these animals and their unfortunate plight. We believe it obvious that all animals feel fear and pain.  No animal should be made to suffer unnecessarily.  However, in the case of elephants in particular, we believe their intellectual and emotional capacity makes their suffering especially distressing.

We highly recommend visiting the Elephant Nature Park if you’re in Thailand (but be ready to shed a tear or two).  More importantly, we encourage you to support the Elephant Nature Park and, more generally, support efforts to protect these wonderful animals.

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