How to Play, Feed, Bathe, and Protect the Elephants in Thailand

By Nomadic Matt | Published April 7th, 2014

elephants at elephant nature parkElephants have long been important in Thailand, where they are a symbol of religion, history, royalty, and power. According to Buddhist legend, Queen Maya of Sakya, Lord Buddha’s mother, dreamed that a divine Bodhisattva on a white elephant touched her side. She later became pregnant, and since then, elephants have had a strong connection to divinity and royalty in Buddhism. As Thailand is a Buddhist society, elephants are held in high esteem (the old kings of Thailand rode around on white elephants). Additionally, elephants were used in the logging industry to help clear trees, so there was a practical nature to their importance.

As the logging industry dwindled in Thailand, all these elephants had no “purpose,” and owners were left needing a way to make money for their families and the care of the elephants. Since most tourists came to Thailand thinking, “I can’t wait to ride an elephant,” it was a lucrative transition.

Elephants were taken into cities and fed by tourists who wanted a photo. In the jungles, riding camps were set up, and visitors could ride an elephant through the jungle, take their photos, and return home with tales of their cool experience.

When I lived in Thailand, I finally learned about the true nature of elephant tourism. I learned how those elephants roaming the streets were drugged and often starved. It was illegal—elephants in cities had been banned for years, but, as is common in Thailand, officials turned a blind eye or were paid off. I was always torn—do I ignore them, hoping this will eventually end the practice, or do I feed the elephant out of kindness but perpetuate this cruelty? It wasn’t until a few years ago after an accident that left a child, a driver, and an elephant dead that officials in Bangkok finally cracked down and made it elephant-free. (Once in a while, you still see them in Chiang Mai.)

elephants at elephant nature park

elephants at elephant nature park

elephants at elephant nature park

elephants at elephant nature park

When you ride an elephant, you get glimpses into their poor treatment. I remember once yelling at the mahout (trainer) for swinging his hook a little too hard at the elephant. It left me very perturbed. There are no good elephant riding parks in all of Thailand. All abuse and mistreat their elephants.

But there’s a growing movement to protect the elephants, led by Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park has been around since 1996 and is the biggest conservation and elephant rescue organization in Thailand. Located outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, it is currently home to 37 elephants (plus a menagerie of other animals).

Demand is so high, not only for visitors but volunteers too, that you have to make reservations in advance to visit (for volunteers, that might mean up to a year in advance). When I tried to visit two years ago, they were already booked for the next month.

This time, I booked ahead and was able visit and see all the good they do:

The more you learn about elephants in Thailand, the more you realize the need for change. It was heartbreaking listening to the stories of each elephant and seeing so many with broken backs, legs, and missing feet. Luckily, because of organizations like ENP and more socially conscious tourists, things are changing. ENP has started to work with the riding camps to give up riding and move towards more animal-friendly practices. Thais are learning that people will pay big bucks to feed, bathe, and play with elephants, and that this can be more lucrative and popular than offering rides.

The elephant camps aren’t gone yet. They won’t be for a long, long time. But with more educated tourists and an economic incentive for locals to treat the elephants better, hopefully we can severely reduce these camps in the next few years (and eventually eliminate them).

elephants at elephant nature park

So the next time you’re in Thailand, please don’t ride the elephants. If you want to see an elephant, visit Elephant Nature Park or a similar program and help protect these amazing creatures. You’ll get a closer and more personal interaction with the elephants, and you’ll be doing good.

It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

comments 31 Comments

Maisie Lucas

Great article. I’ve heard about this park before and it’s definitely a really positive move for elephants in Thailand. A few of my fellow traveller friends have done the elephant riding thing, and it always makes me really uncomfortable seeing their photos. Hopefully one day things will change and there will be more places like this!

Great post! My wife and I are heading to Elephant Nature Park next year, and can hardly wait. Love the video :)

Great post Matt! I was at ENP too last year and stayed for a month, I’m so glad to see and read more and more about it in the travel community, it means more people are becoming aware of the fact that the Asian Elephants need help. Thanks for sharing!

Thank you for an eye-opening article. Change happens when people become aware. It’s articles like these shared from influential people such as yourself that are needed in the tourism industry. We all have a duty to be responsible travelers – even if all we can do is spread the word from our own computers at home. Will definitely be sharing on our social media sites. Thank you!

Great article, Matt. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned how harmful elephant riding is. We used to ride them at the fair! Now, I think of how mistreated they must have been. I’m glad that places like the Elephant Nature Park are (slowly) changing how elephants are treated and also educating people.

Thank you for this post, Matt! We actually just booked a visit to ENP last week after doing a lot of research into the subject of elephant treatment in Thailand — it seems to be the only place that 100% does not use bullhooks. It also sounds like they limit the number of visitors per day so that the elephants aren’t overwhelmed by too many people. I’m really looking forward to visiting and enjoyed your video!

Lea

I find it hard to believe that unless and elephant ride is stamped as “westerner-approved & ethical”, something terrible must have happened to the creature. I attended the Surin Elephant Festival in northeastern Thailand in 2012 and had an amazing time. We Westerners were by far the minority; I highly doubt a festival such as this would be supported by locals if the elephants were abused. As you mentioned in the beginning of your article: Elephants hold a special place in the Thai culture.

Life for an elephant has got to be easier as a tourist ride then they were as weapons of war or lumber transporters in earlier elephant lives. I can empathize with unethical practices in heavy-tourist areas, but that goes for human, economic and environmental well-being as well as animal welfare in Thailand.

Take the road less traveled is probably the best advice I can give for anybody concerned about ethical travelling. Don’t make a point to not do something, because you may miss out on memorable experiences. Do make a point to do your research and listen to your gut about whether or not the person on the other side of the deal is in it for the money or for hospitality.

Lea, while a lot of locals may revere elephants, that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in using harm to control them. I think you should go back to the Surin Festival but this time really focus on the hooks that the mahouts are carrying. Guess what those are for?

Saying “Don’t make a point to not do something, because you may miss out on memorable experiences” sounds like you’re just contradicting what I think you’re trying to get across. You should totally make a point to not do something, even if it will make a great picture, if it means supporting irresponsible tourism.

“Life for an elephant has got to be easier as a tourist ride then they were as weapons of war or lumber transporters in earlier elephant lives” is an ignorant thing to say. Life for an elephant would be easier out in the wild, where they belong. Tourist elephants get treated the same exact way as elephants who are used in logging (which happens illegally to this day). Please do your own research.

Hi Lea,

I also attended the Surin Elephant Roundup festival in the same year that you were there. I, however, saw a completely different side of things.

Furthermore, high attendance numbers to animal-exploitative events is not directly proportional to how well those animals are treated. Just look at Sea World, countless zoos, circuses, rodeos, cock-fighting, and the list goes on and on. All these places are visited by “locals” and the animals often live deplorable lives.

NomadicMatt

While Thais do have a special place for elephants, they still abuse them on the whole. We love dolphins and orcas but Seaworld abuses those animals!

Riding an elephant actually causes severe back problems and can break it over time. That’s why many of the elephants in the post have curved backs. They are broken and this also causes many of the females to be unable to reproduce.

Education is very important but as someone who has lived in Thailand for many years, I can definitely say that the vast majority of elephants involved in tourism are poorly treated.

Nice job Matt! I will admit, when I first came to Thailand I was filled with information about how elephants are so near and dear to Thai culture, that nobody harms them and everything and everyone treats them well. While this little fantasy was nice to think about, the reality is much different.

Now, three year later, I see that many of camps are all in for the money and they don’t care for the wellbeing of the animal at all. I’m glad you found this place. When people ask me where to go for an elephant experience, I tell them just not support it at all. I’m glad I can perhaps recommend this place now.

So true Matt, I have seen elephants being ill-treated in other parts of the world too. In India, we see them starved or made in stand in sunlight. The national parks are trying their bit to rehabilitate them. Just hope these majestic animals have a better future.

David

Great article Matt! Playing with, feeding, and caring for elephants was one of the best experiences of my life!

I have heard good things about Elephant Nature Park, so definitely a solid recommendation. I ended up attending the Patara Elephant Farm (http://www.pataraelephantfarm.com/) as an “Elephant Owner for a Day” program when I visited Thailand. Was incredible! Either ENP or Patara is a great choice for anyone.

Alan

Hi Matt

Great blog as usual. You may want to check out the website for the Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary, I think they are on the right track:

http://www.blesele.org/

Also, elephants are very social animals and, in the right circumstances, seem to enjoy taking people for rides.

Keep up the good work

In the past six months I rode an elephant in both Thailand and India. Although I saw no evidence of abuse in either place, I am heart broken to think I was in any way contributing to a hurtful process. Thank you for educating us.

NomadicMatt

I rode them once. I regret it but I didn’t know better. Now I do. And so do you.

Thanks for posting about this! I’m heading to Thailand next spring, and, while I really want to see and interact with elephants, have heard so many horrible things about their treatment that I’d pretty much given up on an elephant experience while there. I will definitely look into visiting the park! Do you know if they take donations as well?

I have seen elephants being ill-treated in other areas around the globe too. In Indian, we see them deprived or created in take a position in sunshine. The nature are trying their bit to restore them. Just wish these spectacular creatures have a better upcoming. Thanks for sharing.

Jen

I would be so honored to do this one day. They are such incredible creatures. I love the work that ENP does and think there should be more places like this in areas where the elephants are mistreated.

This is amazing, elephants are grand creatures that need our protection and aid. Again, love these photos!!! Matt you are so inspiring.

Thanks for this post Matt. Elephant abuse and mis-treatment is an unfortunate thing in Thailand and there are awful institutions out there who condone elephant painting, circus activity and the like, but there are equally some institutions that care about the welfare and care of elephants in their natural habitat and without whipping, etc.
I’m no expert in these matters but all I can say is that I remember seeing an elephant on the street in Bangkok. This was 1999 and it was awful to see how wretched that elephant was. It broke my heart.

melissa

thank you for educating others about elephants. you rock.

NomadicMatt

I feel guilty too but I didn’t know better. We can only educate and ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.

Many uses of elephants in Thailand are abusive, but the people behind Elephant Nature Park are great people … I also encourage travelers to drop in and see the good work they do, and possibly volunteer as well!

Thanks for the post. I havent been to the elephant areas of Thailand but last month, I went to Sri Lanka and felt the same. Sadly I rode an elephant, bathe and fed them also. I was very excited with the idea at first but when I came face to face with it, I have mixed feelings while doing the said “tourist must do’s”.

I was thinking of how to write a blog about it cause I was torn if I will have to discourage people to visit it in order to stop the ” pro tourist attraction”, but I know for a fact that most of the money needed to maintain the elephant facilities and orphanage comes from the tourist.

Thanks for at least bringing some light into it.

“There are no good elephant riding parks in all of Thailand. All abuse and mistreat their elephants.” So true. Thanks for writing about this. A friend told me about the nature park and first educated me about the abuse. You can still enjoy the elephants and get close to them without riding them.

I take my hat off to Lek Chailert for founding the Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai, Thailand. Those elephants deserve better treatment.

Ian Smith

You are spot on with this one Matt.
My wife and I live in Chiang Mai and have absolutely loved our visits to ENP.
As soon as you enter the park you can sense that it is different, and the time spent with the elephants, interacting with them whilst they do what elephants do, is so much more rewarding than riding them. Lek is incredible, and you leave this beautiful sanctuary with a different perspective than when you arrive.
Would recommend this as a must do for anyone visiting the north of Thailand.

Great video, really enjoyed this post. It’s great to see the a post showing the positive work that people are doing out there for elephants :)

BaiM

That just breaks my heart. Elephants are such amazing creatures and so important to so many cultures. I’m so happy they are finding ways to protect them!
Great article.

The greatest elephant protector in history has been Mark Shand.
Unfortunately he passed away not long ago.
He got in love with an elephand named Tara and rode her across India. An amazing adventure. The result was the creation of the ‘Elephant Family’ charity that has raised millions of dollars for the protection of Elephants around the globe.
Every effort to protect these magnificient animals is grant!!

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