When I was in Chiang Mai, I had the opportunity to visit Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary devoted to rescuing and rehabilitating them in Thailand. But this sanctuary is the exception, not the rule. Most outfits allow tourists to ride elephants, many times up steep hills with seats on their backs. After I learned all that I learned in Thailand about the ethical treatment of elephants in Asia, it is safe to say I will never ride them.
I have to admit, years ago, I thought it was super cool to have a picture sitting on an elephant’s back, or to ride one on a nature trek or something. I especially loved the video of the elephants painting, and at one time all of these things were bucket list for me.
But thanks to some travel groups I am a member of, I learned that these types of outfits that allow elephants to be ridden are actually treating them very badly.
That was why it was so important to do research ahead of time. When I searched different areas of Thailand, as we were trying to nail down the itinerary, I ran across a number of places locations that have “sanctuary” in the name but I was unable to determine if they allowed riding and if they were really rescuing elephants or just using the word sanctuary to draw visitors that may be concerned about the ethics treatment of the animals.
I eventually landed on Elephant Nature Park, a place that a number of people I know have visited that actually focuses on rehabbing injured elephants with no riding. So, we make the trip up to Chiang Mai rather that some other regions, in order to see and play with the elephants.
Elephants Treated Badly
So what exactly makes the treatment of elephants in Asia so unethical? From the research we found, along with the video that Elephant Nature Park showed, it is largely the training of elephants to be human attractions that is so mean. In order to get elephants to be trained enough for someone to ride them or to perform for humans, they are often beaten. They go through a process of breaking the elephants where they are chained and trained until they comply. During this process—and even after while performing—they are often poked with sharp objects to get them to do what the handlers want them to do. This is why it’s not just the riding of elephants that is considered unethical, but also why elephants painting isn’t good treatment of the elephants, because to get them to paint those standard pictures, they are poked by the handlers as they paint for the public.
But it isn’t just the training of the elephants that hurts them. It is the riding. When people ride elephants, they first have to place a huge, metal seat on the elephant’s back, which weighs quite a bit. Then they are shuttling two plus people up and down uneven trails and grounds for hours of the day. Many of the elephants have broken backs and hips from the weight of people climbing on their backs, and that pain is only exacerbated by continued rides and pressure on their bodies.
Watching the video makes you profoundly sad. And, in fact, as we were in the van riding to the sanctuary, we passed people riding elephants up the steep road, and everyone in the van got sad all over again. Once you put it in perspective and know the abuse that goes on, it’s hard not to be sad when you are immediately confronted with it. And most people don’t even know that this is an issue, as they just want to ride an elephant or have a cool picture for Instagram.
Elephant Nature Park
At Elephant Nature Park, they actually rescue the elephants and other animals. At the sanctuary, the emphasis is on protecting the elephants and giving them what they need and want. Thus, everything moves to the beat that the elephants designate.
Our first activity was feeding the elephants bananas. We were given specific instructions on how to do it and keep ourselves and the elephants safe.
It was awesome! It was nerve wracking at first, but it was such a cool experience to feed the gentle giants by hand. We had such a good time feeding them.
Next, we went out to where the elephants were playing and took no-flash photos and selfies. Well, they actually call them “elphies” that we could take with the elephants. And they were super adorable! The elephants would move and almost pose to be in the picture with us. They were super kind and relaxed around us, largely because they must have felt safe at the Nature Park. But there were some of the elephants we couldn’t approach because they were blind in either one or both eyes (from camera and light flashes, likely at a circus). Because they couldn’t see us, we couldn’t go near them for risk of them getting scared of our presence and taking us out.
After we had lunch, we made our way down to the river where whole elephant families were bathing in the river with the babies!
Baby elephants are the cutest things ever. I want one! Even though they are little, they are still quite big in actuality, but they are super adorable. But know that their moms and grandmoms and nannies are super protective of the babies. So anytime a baby was near us, you could see mom in the background just giving us the side eye, making sure she didn’t have to go on the offensive.
After the ellies washed themselves in the river, they trotted out and immediately went to a mud hole and covered themselves in mud to stay cool and to keep the mosquitos away. It was such a cool experience to watch, including the baby ellies being clumsy and falling it. Our last activity of the day was to wash the elephants. We got to splash water on them on the riverbank.
At no time was an elephant ridden or climbed on or pulled on or poked or prodded. It was amazing to see the elephants comfortable with the workers at Elephant Nature Park, and also to see how the workers really did make their needs a top priority.
Ethical Treatment of Elephants in Asia
I wasn’t compensated in any way to write this. It was just something I wanted to do. I am by no means a tree-hugging, animal lover…by any stretch. But elephants are such sweet creatures that it made me sad to see how badly they were treated. But after visiting Elephant Nature Park, and having such a great time with the animals, I have a much greater appreciation for them. And I will never ride them.