Visiting Thailand had been one of my dreams since spacing out during my high school math classes. I pictured myself drinking fresh coconuts and looking like a goddess as I rode on the back of an elephant through a tropical jungle. When I finally got the chance to come to Thailand, I had myself plenty of coconuts but faced shattered dreams when I realized the horrors that stem from elephant riding.
After a whole host of research, it became quite apparent that these tourist funded elephant camps offered unforgettable experiences for visitors at the cost of the health and wellness of the elephants that people traveled so far to see.
Using a combination of physical abuse and breaking of their spirits, the animals are forced to perform tricks and carry tourists around against their wills. Not only is the training process abusive but the actual act of carrying passengers takes a toll on the elephant’s backs.
However, my dreams weren’t completely ruined as people out there do actually care about the ethical treatment of elephants and a refuge for those who have been mistreated was created at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
We booked onto a small tour of about eight people and were taken on a 1 and ½ hour journey to the sanctuary. To keep us entertained during the drive, we were shown a documentary showcasing the work of the elephant camp and the horrifying back stories of the animals they have saved from the tourist and labor industries.
When arriving at Elephant Nature Park, it became apparent that the day would be extremely laid back and filled with real and gentle interactions with the elephants.
We watched them roam around freely and were given large baskets of watermelon and bananas to feed them as long as we cared for. Our guide walked us around the grounds and we spent hours petting, observing and feeding the gentle giants as we wandered amongst them throughout the day.
When we finished feeding the elephants their lunch, we headed up for our own and enjoyed the largest vegan buffet I had ever witnessed. A gesture that only reinforced the camp’s love for animals.
As the elephants were led into the river for their baths, we followed behind and were given buckets to help them wash their hard to reach spots and fed them more bananas while they cooled off.
We took one last wander around and watched the newest arrivals, two babies and their mothers play together and the volunteers working hard to help the place run. The volunteer program costs are around $400 USD which includes food and accommodation and is something I would love to do in the future.
This experience was invaluable to me as it opened my eyes to the unethical practices of animal tourism as well as the kindness and dedication of the animal activists out there.
Witnessing the volunteers who were giving back to a fantastic cause educated and inspired me to do what I can to support these causes too. I can’t wait to come back someday and share my passion for animals and a helping hand to this organization or one like it.