The Story Behind Thailand's Cruelest Tourist Attraction

Friday, 23 June 2017

When we think about Thailand many of us think about elephants - I mean they are even the logo for their local beer, Chang! Travelling from England, a place not renowned for its elephants, I wanted that elephant experience we all want when we visit Thailand. Like most people who want the 'elephant experience' I am also a HUGE animal lover. From as young as I can remember I have been obsessed with animals, and elephants were no exception. Having this profound love for all creatures, great and small I became super aware from social media and even word of mouth just how cruel some of the conditions most of the elephants were kept in, in Thailand and other areas of South East Asia. If you had asked a 6 year old Elly what was one of her 'must dos' in her life she would of replied 'ride on an elephant!' but with what I know now I can't imagine anything worse.

On the 24th of May 2017 myself and Craig visited Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Set in the beautiful, tropical Chiang Mai country side ENP is home to 200 elephants, 400 dogs, hundreds of cats and loads of water buffalo - it's literally a haven for all animals (many of the cats and dogs at the park were rescued after the 2002 tsunami). Lek, the lady who founded ENP works relentlessly helping to rescue and rehabilitate these creatures, giving them love, hope and a place to call home. I cannot begin to tell you what an incredible place it is, and I feel so unbelievably lucky and proud to have been part of Lek's journey.

We were lucky enough to stay at the park for a night, allowing us to enjoy the animals for a full two days - I HIGHLY recommend you do this as one day would simply not be enough! Plus the accommodation you stay in is stunning and over looks where the elephants sleep (you can even hear them snore!).

Before arriving at the park we watched a video in the minivan that picked us up. Although I was aware of the cruel mistreatment of elephants in Thailand, nothing could prepare me for what I saw. Before elephants can be used in the tourist industry, the mahout (or elephant trainer) has to perform something called 'the crush' on the elephants. This involved chaining them up and torturing them. During this time the elephants will survive on hardly any water or food and be constricted to a small area where they will have to remain standing in their own urine and faeces. They are taken away from their family, which if you know anything about elephants you will know this would be extremely traumatic for them as they are extremely social and family orientated animals. The elephants taken will usually be babies and sometimes still be suckling from their mother. This process happens for around 2 months. Eventually once the elephants sprit has been crushed they will be ready to endure a life of suffering for the entertainment of tourists wanting 'the elephant experience' we so desperately crave!

Elephant show/circuses, watching an elephant paint, riding, giving money to a street begging elephant these are all acts of animal cruelty and if you, like me, love animals please do not enter into any of these activities or give money to organisations that do any of these. Even if it's just to get that one Instagram snap or just to say 'When I fed an elephant in Thailand', it's not okay, by giving money you are still supporting the cruel mistreatment of elephants.

During their lives working in the tourist industry the mahouts will use sharp, knife like hooks in order to 'control' the elephants causing cuts to the elephants skin, often resulting then in infection. Loud noises from shows, or cities such as Bangkok (where they are often seen street begging) causes great pain to the elephants acute senses of hearing and the lights often make their sensitive eyes blind.

When you see that awesome video of an elephant painting on Facebook sadly the mahout will be out of shot with their hook digging it into the side of the elephant, guiding it to where they want the elephant to paint. When you see an elephant swaying or 'dancing' in their pen, they aren't happy - they are extremely distressed and unhappy.

Logging is also STILL an issue and although it was made illegal in Thailand to use elephants for logging in 1989 unfortunately it still goes on. This is where elephants are made pull gigantic heavy logs in the smouldering heat, often causing them to fall and seriously injure themselves - we met and fell in love with an elephant, Kabu, at ENP that became a cruel victim of the logging trade.

And as for riding or trekking, probably the most common tourist attraction in Thailand, it is not okay, under any circumstances. Despite their sheer size and apparent strength these animals are not designed to carry over 40 kilos of saddle or chair, let alone your weight on top of that - it hurts their backs especially as the elephants won't get regular breaks to rest. Plus any elephant you ride would have had to of gone through 'the crush' to make them placid and 'safe' for tourists - do you feel comfortable supporting this?

Okay enough of the miserable sad ranting and onto mine and Craig amazing experience at ENP...

When arriving at the park we met our guide, Jackie who took us on a tour of the park and this is where we were first introduced to the elephants. The majestic, gentle and extremely intelligent creatures were fascinating to watch and interact with. At the park the elephants are assigned a mahout each, that stays with them throughout the day, looking after them and tending to their every need (without nasty hooks or chains). It was incredible to watch the elephants happily roam freely around the park in their makeshift herds. I couldn't believe just how big the park was and it even has a river running through it - a popular favourite amongst the elephants and dogs!

Although we met and grew fond of many of the animals at ENP, one in particular sticks in my mind. I mentioned her briefly before, her name is Kabu. She was just a baby when sadly she permanently broke her leg. Kabu's mum was working in the illegal logging trade. Kabu would follow her mum at work but when a chain broke it sent one of the logs flying into baby Kabu causing her leg to break. You would have thought that after enduring so much pain at the hand of humans that the mahouts would take pity on Kabu but instead they continued to force Kabu to work and even participate in street begging (with her broken leg they believed she would attain them more money). Thankfully Lek was made aware of Kabu's story and rescued her in 2015 - now she lives free at the park and although having what could be the saddest story out of all the elephants she is one of the most loving, softest and forgiving of all the elephants we met - she enjoys hugs and kisses! Currently Kabu has to be kept in a separate area from the rest of the elephants whilst her leg undergoes treatment but she still gets regular visits from her best elephant gal pals!

Another great experience was being able to bath the elephants at the park. As you can imagine Thailand gets extremely hot and elephants like nothing more than to cool down in the water. They love to be splashed, play and roll around covering themselves (and whoever is involved) head to toe! This was probably one of the most magical experiences of our entire trip, being in the water having a bath with a few elephants!

As an over night guest you also get the opportunity to make nutritious rice balls for the elephants. These included rice, shredded coconut, sugar, salt, oats, banana, corn and other grains. It was messy but fun to finally get our hands stuck into actually helping out with the care of the elephants. We made no hesitations picking which elephants we wanted to feed our creations to, you guessed it, Kabu was one luckily lady that afternoon.

Along with morning walks, elephant baths and feeding time myself and Craig also spent a lot of time at 'Cat Corner' cuddling and playing with some gorgeous kitties. We also had a little visitor in our room! Honestly I was in animal heaven!

I will also add that ENP offer a volunteer program, where you can work at the park for a week helping out with all the nitty gritty stuff; poop scooping, dog walking, cat feeding and elephant food preparing! We would have loved to do it but time and money was a slight issue - plus it gets booked up so quickly so get in fast if you want to give it a go.

I have nothing but praise for ENP, it was everything I could of dreamt of and more. Every elephant was chain free and happy, roaming about in a herd of other elephants causing mischief (how it should be). Not only will you have the best day ever BUT your money will also go towards helping rescue more elephants suffering torture and cruelty. ENP continue their journey every single day and although they have rescued over 200 elephants there're still over 1500 in the tourism and logging trade, in Thailand alone.

Below I leave the links for ENP's website, where you can find out more info about the park, how to help and book up your elephant experience. I will also leave a link to a video telling you more about Kabu's story.

I'm sorry if this post isn't quite as cheery as the rest, but I hope now you will think twice before engaging in elephant tourism and instead choose ENP to get your elephant fix whilst also doing your bit.

Elly x (find out more about ENP - donate, volenteer and visit) (Kabu's story)

*images of elephant crushing not my own - found via Google images*

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