While in Thailand, I was lucky enough to spend two days at Elephant Nature Park (ENP): An elephant sanctuary dedicated to saving these creatures from elephant trekking camps (where tourists ride their backs) and the illegal logging industry.
On the first day, I was picked up from my hotel by the ENP bus. During the long ride into the jungle, they played a documentary titled “Spirit of Asian Elephant”. This documentary discusses the unfortunate situation many captive elephants are stuck in throughout Thailand and several other South East Asian countries. If you are unfamiliar with unethical tourism, I urge you to refer to the “Elephants in Tourism” portion of the “Elephants in Captivity” section of our website.
On the first day, we began by feeding the elephants fruits behind a fence. This allowed the visitors to become comfortable in the presence of these large animals. They smell the fruit with their trunks, then gently wrap the tip of their trunk around it and throw it in their mouth. Next, we walked through the many fields on premise toward the Mae Taeng river. The elephants are free to play in the river as they please, which serves as a great site for bathing. My tour group grabbed buckets and splashed around with one elephant.
At ENP, the elephants freely roam the large premises by day while being supervised by their mahouts. The mahouts do not use bullhooks to discipline their elephants – rather they use positive reinforcement to guide them. By night, the elephants are put in large enclosures. Since there is no fencing around the premises, this avoids the elephants exploring into trekking camps that sadly neighbor the heaven on earth that is ENP.
The elephants at ENP have been rescued from trekking camps or from the illegal logging industry. Most of them arrive disabled and in bad psychological condition from previous abuse. The fantastic veterinarian on site, Dr. Tom, provides veterinary care to these animals to keep them comfortable.
On day two, I was able to shadow this veterinarian along with other veterinary students from North America. We began by scrubbing several foot abscesses with hexane solution, followed by squirting iodine on them with syringes, and finally spraying with an antibiotic spray.
Chiang Mai University is conducting a research study on elephants in captivity in the region. This study involved analyzing serum for stress hormones. I was lucky enough to draw blood from a vein in an elephant’s ear to submit her sample for the study!
The Asian elephant is in a dire situation, with just as many elephants being kept in captivity for tourism than exist in the wild. The vast majority of these elephants spend most of their day being chained up in a cement enclosure with a 150lb saddle on their back, waiting for their next ride. As an animal lover that understands basic elephant behavior, it was emotionally trying to witness so many of them suffering with no end in sight. Thankfully, tourists are slowly becoming more educated about the consequences of their decisions – hence the popularity increase of sanctuaries like ENP.
I’d like to hear your comments on whether or not you agree with elephants being used in tourism like this. Would you consider ENP as holding its elephants in captivity? Do you think breeding elephants at this park would help with their conservation? How do you think the elephant mistreatment in this region can be solved?
Veterinary student and CPO of Elephanatics