While my sister and I were travelling in northern Thailand one of her bucket list items was spending the day with elephants. I had always avoided this because there is a lot of controversy over how elephants are cared for in these camps. However, my sister was really excited about it, so we did our research and talked to the wonderfully helpful tour agent at our hotel, The Eco Resort, and we found a couple of good options.
The first option was the Elephant Nature Park, which is a sanctuary and rescue center in Chiang Mai. This park is very well respected and has received numerous awards and been featured in shows on Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel for its approach to nature conservation and animal protection. The main aim of the park is to educate visitors about the plight of the local endangered animals as well as about environmental sustainability and cultural preservation of the local tribes in the area.
It sounded amazing, but there was one catch you don’t get to touch the elephants. They are often recovering from traumatizing situations so this is totally understandable and certainly is best for the welfare of the elephants. There is also often more than 25 people per tour group which mean you do not get any one on one time with the elephants or guides. While we respected the rules of the park the tour did not quite fit with the expectations that my sister had. So, we decided to go with our second option for a more intimate elephant experience. However, if you are in Chiang Mai and happen to check out the Elephant Nature Park let me know how it is though because I am curious!
Our second option was the much smaller neighbouring Happy Elephant Home. This was definitely the right choice for us and we had so much fun and learned a lot about elephants. This camp is also a rescue facility and the elephants are allowed to roam freely and follow their own schedule, but a caretaker accompanies them at all times. The caretakers have often been with the elephants for years and you can see how much they love them. They do not use hooks to control the elephants, but are there to ensure they are safe and healthy.
Our day started with the drive from Chiang Mai to the Happy Elephant Home and it was just me, my sister and one other guy. We arrived and were told to change into the traditional dress so that we could get our hands dirty with the elephants. At the Happy Elephant Home you do not ride the elephants, although our guide who has been working with them for years told us that if you ride them bareback and treat them with respect they do not mind, in the same way that horses do not mind. We were happy to just hang out with them and did not feel the need to ride the elephants. The first thing we did after being introduced was feed all the elephants A LOT of bananas, as they eat between 200-600 pounds of food every day!
Next we walked with the elephants down to the river and watched as they played around in the water. We even joined them for a while to help cool them off. Elephants are very playful animals and we had a lot of fun splashing around with them. After a delicious lunch we walked with the elephants again over to their favourite mud whole, where we helped to cool them down by caking them with mud. They love this, as it is a huge relief in the hot weather and also from pesky insects. Next we had to wash them down again and then it was time to say our goodbyes.
The cost of the tour is expensive, 89 USD when we did it, but it is well worth the cost and almost all of that money goes towards the welfare of the elephants with only a small portion going to pay the wages of the elephant caretakers and guides.
Overall, I can understand why some people get upset about the welfare of elephants and say that these camps perpetuate a cycle of domestication and abuse when they should be wild animals. However, as our guide pointed out there are thousands of elephants in Thailand, especially around Chiang Mai and almost all of them are domesticated as they have been for decades. The development of Thailand has meant there are almost no wild elephants left as there are almost no areas untouched by humans and those few who are still wild often live in danger of poachers and other predators. So while you cannot turn a domesticated animal back into a wild one you can and must take the best care possible for the elephants living in domestication.
The best thing to do if you want to help the situations of elephants is do your research and choose a sanctuary that has ethical and sustainable practices. You can visit these sanctuaries to learn more about these majestic animals or you can simply donate so that they can continue their great work. The most important thing you can do is to not go to entertainment shows that feature elephants or have elephant rides as these places tend to be the ones with the harmful practices.