I spent the past two days at the Elephant Nature Park two hours outside Chiang Mai. The first day was a little overwhelming and seemed too commercialized. There were hordes of westerners all over the park crowding the elephants, trying to take pictures and touch them, knowing full well that these animals have been severely abused. I saw a lady almost get head butted by a baby, who’d had enough of her trying to get a selfie with him. (If he’s backing away that most likely means he doesn’t want you to touch him).
I went to bed feeling as if I’d blindly paid for something because it seemed like a good thing to do. This feeling was not a good one.
The next day was a wildly different experience. We had a new guide, the crowds were non existent and as a small group we ventured out into the park and watched the elephants as our guide told us some of their stories and explained how the park operated. Each of the adults had gone through something and the evidence was clear to see on their bodies. Any elephant that is trained has been beaten or starved or isolated in order to break its spirit. I saw elephants with noticeable indentations from riding camps, broken legs, two were fully blind. But what’s more heartbreaking is the psychological damage inflicted. While the elephants with physical deformations now belong to loving family groups who watch over them and take care of one another, the elephants with emotional issues are usually too hostile to live with the group and live in isolation. It’s easy to know what to do with a broken bone, but what to do with mental trauma is another beast entirely.
Despite what I’d seen the day before, the elephants seem to be well taken care of and they do get to live their own lives for the most part. What’s even better, the park itself is expanding, which means that perhaps one day they can put the babies and healthier elephants back into the wild.
Here’s hoping Thailand decides to change the laws surrounding the treatment of their elephants.