One of the more controversial aspects of a visit to southeastern Asia and Thailand is whether to visit a Thailand animal sanctuary. The pervasive animal cruelty in Southeast Asia is well documented in many places. There are many animal sanctuaries that have sprung up to help alleviate the awful conditions many of the animals are in and to educate people to make better decisions. For conscientious people, making the decision to visit an animal sanctuary will take a good bit of time and research to ensure they are truly a sanctuary and not profiting from abuse.
As someone who does animal rescue in my local community (of dogs and cats), it was very important to me to find an ethical place to visit. I desperately wanted to see elephants! I specifically avoided tiger “sanctuaries” because of all I had read, but I was hopeful that I could find a reputable and ethical Thailand animal sanctuary that rescued elephants. My research led me to Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
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Thailand Animal Sanctuaries
You should be very careful before supporting Thailand animal sanctuaries, or for that matter, any in Southeast Asia. There are so many reports of cruelty and it’s astounding and rather sad. Elephant tourism is a thing, and it was once very popular to go for an elephant ride in Thailand, Cambodia, and some other countries in the region. However, the elephants are taken from the wild in the jungle, forced into captivity, and repeatedly tortured to get them to submit.
A person called a mahout, who trains, rides, and acts as the elephant keeper, does the work to essentially “break” the elephant. They use chains, metal hooks, and other devices to control the wild elephant and to get them to submit. It’s a horrific process, and we got to see a little bit of it on the ride to the park and it make me sick to my stomach.
I had no idea what these poor animals went through for our entertainment and now I know why Thailand animal sanctuaries seem to be everywhere throughout the country. And I think if more people know, they wouldn’t want to ride them and continue to support this cruelty.
Thailand animal sanctuaries aren’t just for elephants, though. Tiger sanctuaries were once fairly popular as well. However, it’s not normal for you to be able to sit next to a tiger to take a selfie. Many times, it has been found that these beautiful creatures are drugged for them to be safe enough for people to be around them. Is that really what you want to use your dollars to support?
A Little Bit About Elephants
There are two kinds of elephants: African and Asia. There are a number of differences between the two physically. Most noticeably, the Asian elephants are much smaller than their African cousins, and their ears are much smaller as well.
Where Elephants Live
Additionally, there is a big difference in population. I saw some different counts in my research, but there are believed to be between 400,000 and 500,000 elephants remaining in the world. Of which, less than 50,000 are Asian elephants (I read estimates from 30,000 to 50,000).
It’s an alarming figure and they are now officially an endangered species (African elephants are considered vulnerable, not endangered). The population overall has dropped more than 50% in just three generations.
Elephants live in the southern parts of Asia and most are in India and Thailand. There are some differences between elephants found in India and Thailand though they are very similar. The primary threats are poaching, inhumane treatment, and people encroaching on their natural environment.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were around 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Now, there are only a shocking 3,000 to 4,000 in the country. Of them, close to half are domesticated and most of the remaining live in animal sanctuaries and preserves. These are really troubling figures.
Females tend to live in herds with their family designed to raise their young in a community setting. You can see several generations of females living together. Males often live on their own, though not always. Baby elephants are called calves, and a female may birth a calf every 2 to 4 years on average. They weigh a whopping 110 to 350 pounds at birth (50 to 150 kg) and live to around 50 years in a natural setting.
Elephants are incredibly social and smart animals. They are loyal and devoted to their families and are just truly beautiful creatures.
Elephant Nature Park History
Elephant Nature Park was established in 1994 by Sangdeaun Lek Chailert. She grew up in a small village two hours north of Chiang Mai and became a fierce advocate for the Asian elephants in Thailand.
Lek began advocating for their rights and welfare, advocating for positive change. She has also started the Save Elephant Foundation and is internationally known for her work. She also encourages other countries in the region to do the right thing and helps to support this by providing sustainable alternatives to the local villages.
Today, the park not only has a herd of around 75 elephants, but they also have over 2,000 dogs and cats, pigs, cows, monkeys, and water buffalo. Many of the dogs and cats were rescued during natural disasters over the last few years. All of the elephants were rescued from horrible situations and though they do try to separate males and females generally, there have been a few born in the last few years as well.
My Elephant Nature Park Experience
After doing my research, I felt very comfortable supporting this organization. ENP will schedule pick up and drop off at any of their local offices, and I got lucky that one was just a short walk from my guest house.
The Ride to the Elephant Nature Park
A small van picked us up for the almost two-hour drive to the sanctuary. There was a driver and a guide named Ging. The guide told us a little bit about the park and his time there as well as the elephants. He then shared a video that honestly, I’d love to be able to block from my mind forever.
On our drive, we saw many riding camps and Ging pointed out a couple where ENP rescued elephants from that were going to be sold or possibly killed as they were deemed to no longer be useful.
In the video, they shared the rescue work that they do saving elephants from the logging trade, circus shows, ride camps, and other places. The elephants are “broken” during a two-week process that entails starvation, torture, and extreme cruelty. I won’t go into more detail, but it was horrific.
The park keeps a close eye on the injured animals and tries to buy them. Sadly, they must generally purchase them to save them from being killed. I’m torn as this does in turn, support the work the camps do. It’s a tough situation. Ging said that a healthy elephant costs around 4 million baht (around $127,000 USD). That’s a lot of money here, though if they sell a few old or damaged elephants, they would likely have enough for a younger and healthier one.
Many of the animals that live at the sanctuary have injuries: some are blind from slingshots or other eye injuries, and some have land mine injuries. So, understandably, some are more friendly than others. He told us to be sure to listen to him at the sanctuary to be sure we would remain safe.
Elephant Nature Park
The park is in a beautiful area, partly wooded and partly cleared. There are a number of large buildings and many smaller ones around. People can volunteer here for a week or more, so there are accommodations as well.
The first thing I noticed is that there are cats everywhere. Some are in enclosed areas as are the dogs, though many do roam free (both dogs and cats). Ging gave us a brief overview of the park and we introduced ourselves to each other. It was a small group of maybe a dozen and there were people from Spain, England, Australia, and one other American as well.
After we got our sunscreen and bug spray on, we set out to feed the elephants. They are allowed to join the tourists or not as they choose and we had several come forward for a snack. We stood on the back of one of the larger buildings where lunch is served and fed the elephants from behind a railing. My favorite was Grandma, who clearly loved watermelon. When she was ready for more, if we weren’t quick enough, she would thump her trunk on the floor. So demanding. Ha!
Walking Around the Park
Next we walked around some of the grounds. We saw a small group of female elephants and Ging told us which we could slowly approach and which we should stay away from. Even the ones he said to not approach passed really close to us. It’s hard to believe what majestic creatures they are as they are so huge, but they somehow manage to walk with an incredible grace.
Each elephant has a staff member assigned to them for the safety of the elephants and the tourists. As we approached any elephants, Ging talked with the person assigned to the elephant and told us if we were allowed to approach and if so, how. Some had sensitivity due to blindness so it was best to approach them on a certain side. Some elephants approached us and others moved away as we grew near, so we quickly learned what they were saying.
We walked a bit along the river taking in the sight of these beautiful animals. We got to see them dusting, or kicking up dirt to put on the backs for sunblock. There are several mated pairs and we got to see a couple of them as well. Apparently they remain together always.
Could there be anything cuter than a baby elephant?? There were three babies at the park. For most of the elephants, they do attempt to separate them into groups of males and females to eliminate breeding. Ging introduced us to one 5-year old male living in a female family and laughed, saying that they wouldn’t confess who the father was!
When we approached, the mother smacked the ground with her trunk to notify her herd to circle to protect the baby. We kept our distance, and in a few minutes, she began to feel more comfortable and the circle loosened. We were told to keep our distance as if anyone got closer, the herd would encircle the baby again.
Elephant families have a nanny elephant that the mother assigns to care for her baby. Elephant gestation is two years (OMG TWO YEARS??!!) and babies nurse until around 5 years old. So, apparently at that point, the mother decides enough is enough and assigns a nanny. Go, mama! While we were watching, the baby went to play in the mud and the nanny elephant followed after him.
Lunch was a massive affair with a huge spread of different Thai vegetarian dishes. There were probably 25 different dishes to choose from including vegetable dishes, noodle dishes, salads, appetizers, and desserts. It was a nice break from the sun and incredibly tasty.
We had the opportunity to go check out the cat and dog areas at the sanctuary, so of course, I did. ENP Dogs was started as a result of the catastrophic floods in Bangkok in 2011. ENP volunteers rode boats down the streets helping the rescue effort and 155 were brought to the sanctuary.
There are some large dog runs, enclosed outdoor areas, and some of the dogs do roam free. A small animal hospital was built and a full-time vet supports the work. They now have over 400 living at the sanctuary (and they are adoptable!)
I also got to talk with a volunteer. She shared that she works with dogs and cats for her profession so she was excited to get to work with elephants. Given her experience, she was able to work directly with the elephants instead of doing work supporting the sanctuary overall.
After lunch, we headed to the river to give an elephant a bath. Her handler offered her bananas while we sprayed her with buckets of water to remove the mud from her back. She repaid us not ten minutes after we were done by rolling in another big mud puddle.
We were told to bring a change of clothes and it was a good thing, as our guide overshot a bucket of water and nailed someone on the other side of the elephant in our group. Whoops! We all got a bit wet though honestly, it felt so good on such a hot day. And we dried quickly.
When the bananas were gone, she walked further down the river to steal another elephant’s bananas.
More Park Exploration
We got to spend a little more time walking around the grounds. There is a large viewing area that we climbed up to view as far out as our eyes could see. This property is huge and the elephants have a lot of room. We saw an adorable “couple” and the female kept stealing the male’s food and wouldn’t let him eat. The guide snuck him a few bananas and both were happy with the arrangement. The couples tended to walk with one in front of the other but very close together.
We then got to see another family with a 4-year old baby. The herd didn’t circle him, but he stayed close to the group at first. Then he started to walk away and his nanny was close on his heels. He decided to have some fun in a big puddle of mud and was playing and rolling around. Then he decided to climb out on the higher side of the puddle and had a bit of trouble. We cheered him on as he made it out.
On our way back to the main building, we got to walk through a herd of water buffalo. There were a few in the water and all we could see were the horns on the top of their heads. Many of them walked past us so close we could almost touch them, and yet they let us pass through without a concern.
What You should Bring to the Elephant Nature Park
Here is a list of what I recommend you to bring on your visit to this Thailand animal sanctuary (depending on the weather, of course):
- lightweight and wicking/fast-drying clothing
- bug spray
- change of clothes
- Waterproof shoes (something like water shoes or rugged sandals are best, otherwise, bring a second pair of shoes as you will go in the river)
- refillable bottle of water
- long-sleeved shirt, jacket, or raincoat, depending on the weather
- phone and/or camera
The Elephant Nature Park also offers a number of other tours in a more native and natural setting where. Here you can visit elephants that were released into the jungle and are looked after. Some are supported by the Elephant Nature Park directly and others are local groups that partner with or have a relationship with ENP. If I were to go back, I would definitely do one of these ENP tours.
My Thoughts on a Thailand Animal Sanctuary
For most of the elephants that we saw, we learned their stories. These beautiful, broken creatures were rescued from harsh captivity and given a chance at a better life. While some people may not like the idea of a sanctuary requiring that the animals do things for food, like the bath, these are elephants that have been (sadly) domesticated and are accustomed to being fed. None of the animals was forced to do anything that I saw and they enjoyed the treats they got.
I will admit the fact that they have to pay large sums for injured animals or those that have outlived their usefulness at a terrible place doesn’t sit well with me. It’s a wonderful thing for the rescued animal, but the funds go to support the very business that is damaging these poor animals to begin with. I’m not sure of the right answer and think it’s not a black and white decision.
Many people have strong opinions about going to a Thailand animal sanctuary and perhaps my mind will change as I learn more. We always learn in hindsight—I have been to zoos and I rode a camel in Morocco. It wasn’t until after I went that I really thought about this and the financial aspects of this type of rescue. And I’ll be truthful to say I’m not really sure how I feel now. I read this post from the Danish Nomads, another blogger I know, and it gave me pause and made me think.
My Thoughts on Elephant Nature Park
I believe ENP is a reputable place that is doing what they feel in their heart is right for the elephants. And I know that with the numbers dwindling, it’s important to keep as many as safe as possible. So, is it wrong to support a Thailand animal sanctuary? I think that’s a very personal decision and one to think about before going.
Elephant Nature Park is located at Kuet Chang, Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai 50150, Thailand. There are many tour options available. A half-day visit to ENP takes around 6 -7 hours and a full-day is 9 – 10 hours. costs x and a full-day visit is from 6 to 7 hours. Tours range in cost from 2500 baht (around $80 USD) to 6,000 baht (around $195 USD).
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