I remember being blown away by a remarkable story about a herd of elephants that inexplicably showed up at the home of a South African conservationist after his death. They had traveled 12 hours to mourn and pay their respects. Deeply touched by this story and fascinated by their behaviour, I found a new appreciation for conservationists.
When researching my trip to Thailand, I came across a volunteer program in Chiang Mai at an elephant sanctuary called the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). Situated in the mountains, ENP is a peaceful safe haven for Asian elephants rescued from abusive working conditions.
Ever since I can recall, I’ve had a love for wildlife. I yearned for an opportunity to have a more meaningful connection and experience with them. For most of my life, I have volunteered in one capacity or another. I knew that someday both of these would intersect, leading me to embark on a journey involving volunteering with wildlife.
Founded by a remarkable and inspiring woman named Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the park is home to over 30 elephants ranging from calves only a few months old to matriarchs aged 50 to 60 years. Here elephants are free to be themselves, roaming, playing, bathing and enjoying life. As a Park Volunteer, I helped out with daily chores mashing bananas, chopping corn stalks for feed using a machete (so awesome!), bathing the elephants in the river and scooping poop (which really isn’t as bad as it sounds!).
The most profound memories from my experience were of spending time with the elephants and learning about their past. Each had their own personal, often heartbreaking, story. Simply observing them interact, left me with a serene smile and a feeling of personal contentment, the kind that warms your insides. Witnessing the connection, friendships and familial bonds between the elephants was like nothing I had ever seen before. As I saw them gingerly touching each other with their trunks to say hello or show affections, I was struck by how emotive elephants are.
The most cherished moment was watching the park’s newest member, Navann, during his mud pit and bath time. Only 4 months old, Navann was filled with a playful spirit and pure joy. Every late afternoon Navann, his mother, auntie, great auntie and nanny (yes, he had all 4!) made their way to the river and mud pit to cool themselves off. While Navaan clumsily weaved through their legs, the females stood over him protectively never once breaking formation as they kept an ever watchful eye. It’s amazing how this little creature could silence a group of people and then move them to laughter.
Born in the park, Navann was fortunate to only know a life of freedom and innocence. Sadly, this is not the reality for working elephants in Thailand. Many work in abusive conditions in the illegal logging business and tourist activities, such as trekking rides, circuses and performing tricks on city streets. Elephants in these tourist trades are overworked and subject to brutal training and reinforcement methods involving the use of sharp hooks to force obedience, submission and inflict punishment. Fueled by demand, these tourist activities continue to flourish and grow in Thailand, as does the mistreatment of elephants.
Unfortunately, ENP is unique in its vision, practices and concern of the welfare of elephants in Thailand. Choosing how you invest your vacation dollars can make an impact. Shifting the demand to activities and operators involving ethical treatment of elephants, such as positive reinforcement techniques, sends a message that tourists are making conscious choices on how and where they spend their money. This has the potential to influence more operators to follow the flow of tourist dollars and also adopt these practices.
For more information about the park, visit their website. ENP offers day and overnight trips, as well as volunteer opportunities.