The Elephant Nature Park located in the Mae Taeng Valley 60kms north of Chiang Mai is an outstanding place to visit.The Park operates as both a sanctuary & a rescue centre for distressed & sick Asian Elephants from all over Thailand.If you are interested in working with elephants, in a very relaxed,natural & ethical environment this is a great excursion for you.
The Elephant Nature Park is just one hour's drive north of the Thai city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand,and is located in the beautiful natural settings of the Mae Taeng Valley, which enjoys a scenic river running through it and is surrounded by the densely forested mountains of the area.
The park operates as both a sanctuary & a rescue centre for distressed & sick Asian Elephants from all over Thailand.
The park which covers a total land area of 800 hectares (2,000 acres), was founded in 1996 and was the brainchild of Sangduen "Lek" Chailert & her husband Adam.
Lek (meaning "small" in Thai) grew up in a local village not too far away from the park, and it has been through the endless hard work of Adam & Lek plus the continued support of her family that the park has been able to continue to expand and become successful.
The "goals" of the Elephant Nature Park are very simple yet thought provoking:
To offer a sanctuary to an endangered species - Asian Elephant numbers in Thailand have decreased dramatically over the last century from over 100,000 down to less than 2,000 animals left today.
To help restore the ecological balance by rain forest restoration - the park is carrying out an aggressive programme of tree planting, with the aim to replant 25 acres of trees a year for 5 years to help re-introduce the rain forest & with it promote the plants & animals that rely upon it.
To preserve the cultural integrity of the local community - by creating employment and purchasing agricultural products locally the park is helping the villagers to sustain their distinct culture.
To promote the park as a means of education - for visitors, individuals,study groups, schools and interested parties, with the key focus being on the plight of the endangered local species presented in an entertaining yet meaningful way.
The elephants that live in the sanctuary of the Elephant Nature Park are mainly from private owners having been acquired by negotiated fees.
Some of the majestic beasts merely "outlived" their usefulness to the Hill Tribe People who used them for logging purposes, as the use of the animals has diminished due to both mechanisation & much stricter controls on the management of Thailand's forests , others were so badly treated that they became weak & sick, therefore useless to their trekking camp owners.
The park is now home to 31 elephants of all ages from just one year old right up to "grand-daddy" at over 70 years old! The Elephant has a similar lifespan to humans, and form families of similar composition and duration.
Some of the "youngsters" have mothers but all have "aunties". There are elephants that help out, or have adopted them, even if not genetically related. There are a couple of older male elephants including the king of the clan.
Thailand as a country is FULL of elephant "experiences" available to tourists,you can ride them, watch them paint pictures, play drums, play football, do a trick or two for food, or lug supplies on trekking adventures, but this park is different because it does not allow ANY of these cruel exploitations.
It is home to elephants that have been abused in this manner or orphaned or rescued over the past ten years.
Most tourists visit the Elephant Nature Park as "day-trippers', the park does also offer 2-7 day stays, & even "volunteer" stays of 14-30 days, there is something suitable for everyone.
After being collected from their Hotels or Lodgings in Chiang Mai, the first port of call for the visitors is to buy fruit at the Local Daily Market ,an elephant can eat up to 200kg of food a day, so "wholesale buying" is the order of the day.
Arriving at the Elephant Nature Park you meet the other tourists, numbering on average between twenty & forty per day,dependent on the Time of the Year of your visit. Your guide for the day begins by introducing you to the various elephants and their relationships with each other and before long a dozen or so of them are sniffing around the visitors with their trunks, expecting lunch shortly.
Each elephant has its own laundry basket full of fruit made to order. One wants its watermelons peeled, another won't eat bananas, and another won't touch the cucumbers until the rest has all gone. Feeding doesn't take long & there are enough elephants for every tourist to have their own to feed and you soon discover their individual personalities.
There are cheeky elephants, nosy elephants, lonely elephants, greedy elephants, fast eaters and slow eaters. But be warned - you won't get out of this exercise without a lot of elephant drool and "snot" on your hands!.
After the elephants have had their lunch the tour groups will have theirs, the food is actually very good, it's a buffet so there is something for everyone,even including vegetarians which for Thailand is quite unusual.
Once lunch is over it is time for the next highlight of the day. The elephants are bathed twice a day at around 1pm and 4pm, and it is without doubt their favourite times of day, and certainly by the time its bath time they are usually completely covered in a mixture of mud, dirt and flies.
Everyone heads down to the river for the washing ritual and it is one of the funniest things you could ever see. These giants of the jungle like nothing better than splashing around & playing in the water, rolling over and over.
At times they totally disappear under the water only to re-appear and trumpet water over anyone & everyone within range.With buckets and scrubbing brushes the visiting group sets to work cleaning,much to the appreciation of the elephants.
After the elephants have been bathed, if Lek (the founder) is available, she always appears to greet both the tourists & to say hello to "her family", as she approaches, all of the elephants come over to greet her and it is very clear she has a special affinity with them. The groups are also informed about the individual elephants & the sorry tales behind each of them, one of them walks like an invalid this is because her legs got broken in various logging accidents. Another one is totally blind because the mahout (handler) stabbed her eyes out with arrows in order to get "obedience" from her.Yet another was shot because he threw some tourists off his back whilst undertaking a dangerous ascent up a narrow jungle path, even "The King" of the elephants had been a victim of ivory poachers.
Every elephant has a different story, but the common bond shared between them all is that they have suffered abuse at the hands of us humans!
As the sun starts to set, the day trippers leave & the "boarders" watch some of the very gentle training that is used to keep the elephants happy & contented.
Dinner is equally as delicious as lunch, and we have chance to meet & chat with the volunteers, some of whom have been at the Elephant Nature Park for weeks some even months!.
The accommodation is somewhat on the "basic" side, but the beds are comfortable, and it's surprising just how tired you get during your day with the elephants.
The nights though are far from silent, as apart from the 31 elephants there are well over 50 other "pets" ranging from dogs, cats, water buffalo & cows,not to mention the frogs, and millions of insects throughout the park.
All round it's great fun & the experience of living & working with the elephants is something that provides fabulous living memories for many years to come!!.
For more information please visit the Elephant Nature Park Website.