Elephant Nature Park

by David on December 20, 2009

The elephant is the national animal of Thailand; elephant images adorn the flag of the Thai navy, kings used to ride them into battle and one of the highest honors awarded in Thailand is the Order of the White Elephant, bestowed by the king himself.  The primary work of elephants has been in the logging industry and although logging was banned approximately 20 years ago, it is still practiced in the Thailand / Myanmar border areas, where the Karen hill tribes continue to catch and train elephants.  Unfortunately, the training process as it is traditionally carried out involves separating an elephant from its mother at 4 years old (elephants live to be about 80 years old, and a four year old generally has never been separated from its mother) and restraining it in a “crush”, a wooden frame that pins the elephant in place while ropes are tied around all four of its legs.  Once it is fully immobilized it is beaten with sticks, stabbed with bamboo poles with nails stuck through the ends, and deprived of sleep, food and water for days.  The process is overseen by a village shaman, who recites the magical words needed to break the elephant’s spirit with black magic and make it obedient; I’m thinking that the beating and stabbing probably have the greater, and darker, effect.  That is just the beginning of the training process, and once the young animal is released from the crush it is still restrained and beaten until it obeys commands immediately and consistently.

Unfortunately, work opportunities are limited in the hill tribes and owning an elephant can make the difference between getting by and living in poverty, meaning that even the villagers who do feel for the elephants have a major incentive to downgrade them from “revered being” to “source of money to feed my family”.  As a major source of labor providing much needed money to poor communities, elephants are worked hard.  Although adult elephants only need to sleep for three to four hours a night, many still end up suffering from exhaustion and malnutrition after being worked around the clock for days, sometimes even given amphetamines to keep them awake and working.  Not all mahouts treat their animals that harshly, although even at many of the tourism focused elephant parks and shows the animals are found to be in dire straights.

Happily, there is at least one organization in northern Thailand dedicated to helping elephants.  The Elephant Nature Park was founded by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, who grew up in a hill tribe where her grandfather, the village shaman, had been given a retired elephant in return for saving a man’s life.  Lek grew up with that elephant as a pet and companion, growing to love and admire the animals. When, in her teens, she saw how the animals were treated in other villages she felt moved to do something to help them.  After graduating from college, she began working to try to improve conditions for elephants.  This led to the foundation of both Jumbo Express and the Elephant Nature Park.  Jumbo Express is an organization which provides medical care to elephants in the field, often hiking for hours into the jungle to provide veterinary care in areas inaccessible by roads. The Elephant Nature Park is an elephant care and rehab facility which acquires elephants, usually sick or injured, from owners who can’t afford to care for them or who can be persuaded to sell them.  The elephants at the park are trained using only positive reinforcement (no beatings), are not used to give rides and do not perform tricks, although they are taught to obey commands related to giving them medical care.

The main sources of income for the park are donations from around the world as well as visitors who pay to spend anywhere from one day to six weeks at the park, during which time they get to feed and bathe the elephants, as well as learning about these remarkable creatures. Caring for an elephant is not cheap, either: their digestive systems are not very effective, absorbing only about 40% of the nutrients from the food that they eat, meaning that they  need to eat about ten percent of their body weight daily.  For a fully grown elephant this can be as much as 500 pounds of food PER DAY!

My day at the park began with a safety lecture, the take home messages of which were:

1) Listen to the mahouts if they tell you to do something, and

2) When the elephants are laying down in the river don’t stand directly in front of their faces/trunks, they don’t like that.

These were both on my personal list of things to do before I even arrived, so I didn’t foresee having any problems following the rules.  After the lecture it was feeding time; each elephant had its own basket of food which was brought onto the deck of the main building, which is situated at elephant head height.  We were free to move around and feed any of the elephants as long as we only fed them from their assigned basket.

Cradling Bananas

They really like bananas.

Child and Elephant

Some of the younger members of our group were a little nervous at first.

Me Feeding Elephant

Okay, some of the older members were a little nervous too.

Baby Getting Fed

The babies were fed by their mahouts.

It should be noted here that they watch over their charges very closely.  No matter how determined you are it is pretty much impossible to take a baby elephant home with you.  Trust me on this.

Two of the more amazing elephant rescue stories were Jokia and Malai Tong.  Jokia was worked to the point of exhaustion and collapse, and in order to try to get her to work harder her mahout used a slingshot to shoot rocks at her eyes.  After blinding her in one eye she lashed out, injuring him.  If I understood the story correctly the mahout then took a knife and stabbed her in the other eye, leaving her completely blind.  Fortunately she is able to get by just fine at the nature park, especially since elephants tend to group up in pairs and she has a very devoted elephant friend who helps her get around.


Being blind doesn’t stop her from making uber-fashionable grass hats for herself.

Jokia 2

The elephant equivalent of leaning casually against the bar.

Malai Tong was being used for illegal logging along the Thai/Myanmar border when she stepped on a land mine, something that I was told occurs fairly often.  She survived and healed well, and after undergoing surgery is able to get around just fine.

Malai Tong Foot

That’s one tough creature.

Malai Tong Foot 2

This one is a bit blurry but gives a good sense of how extensive the damage to her foot was.

After eating it was bath time.  Although it’s winter in Thailand the temperature is still in the high 80’s most days and while the mahouts said that the elephants were less eager to get in the water than during the summer, they still seemed to enjoy it a lot!

In The River

Elephants do not wait an hour after eating.

Me with Elephant


After bathing of course, it’s time to coat yourself with a layer of fresh dirt. Evidently elephants can sunburn and constantly apply fresh dirt to themselves to protect against the sun.  Grass also works well as demonstrated by Jokia in the earlier photos.

When I think of elephants, the word “frolic” doesn’t usually come to mind, but lead them to a big patch of mud and that’s exactly what they’ll do.


Faceplant! She acted just like a big dog rubbing its face against the carpet.

Mud Chaos

This was even more chaotic than it looks.  The buffalo in the background are taking it all in stride, though.

Throwing Dirt

A little dry dirt to top everything off and you’re ready for hours of walking around eating everything you can find.

After the bathing and mud wrestling, the humans watched an excellent documentary on elephants in Thailand, then it was time for another feeding and another bath before we hit the road.

Open Wide

One for the road.

After that it was back to Chiang Mai with a slight sunburn, 300 pictures and sense of amazement.  If you ever get a opportunity to interact with elephants you shouldn’t miss the chance, but please research the company well before you ride one or watch them doing tricks.

Coming soon: Cobra Whiskey!


Nello December 30, 2009 at 06:05

Wild. Loved your commentary (“Elephants do not wait na hour after eating”) and laughed out loud at the thought of you trying to smuggle a baby elephant out under your shirt and into your hotel room.

Miho January 2, 2010 at 09:12

Amazing. I have always loved elephants – this must have been a phenomenal experience. It is hearbreaking to hear the story of “breaking” the elephants, but I love that this woman has created a place for them to be surrounded by love and care. Wish I could have been there!

Anita January 22, 2010 at 10:56

What a life experience! Take it ALL in! So excited that you are have this ‘adventure’ in life…. not everyone can say ‘hey, I went there, I did this’

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: