Chiang Mai Elephant Camps: The Inside Story 

by Kshaunish Jaini, on Dec 24, 2016

Often featuring prominently on ill-thought bucket lists, Elephant Camps are a testament to the consequences of misinformation. All credits go to the tourism industrial complex that has successfully created a fallacious association between wildlife conservation and sitting on a tacky chair strapped to the back of an unwilling, intelligent living-being. For the discerning traveler, Thailand can often feel like an unsought indulgence, packaged for the lowest denominator of fuss-free, mindless tourism. Of course, real Thailand is far removed from the relentless showcase of commoditised experiences of ping-pong shows and tiger temples. For a glimpse of the other side of Thailand, the inside story, visit the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.

While domestication of elephants is steeped in Thai tradition, modern ethics and public awareness has led the industry to adopt a gentrified façade. As an environmental conservationist, words cannot describe how I feel about elephant camps advertising “elephant-treks” while masquerading as a conservation sanctuary. Here’s the truth in plain English -
Humans kidnap elephants. They then chain them, starve them and beat them repeatedly with sticks, hooks and worse; till they lose their mind, identity and spirit. The wild elephant now becomes a “working-elephant” and can be controlled by mahouts with metal hooks. This process takes anywhere between a few weeks to months.
Elephant Nature Park is one of the two sanctuaries in Chiang Mai that rescues these “working elephants” and places them in an environment where they can learn to be themselves again, under the love and guidance of other elephants and passionate human beings. Chiang Mai is home to a number of other conservation camps with varying philosophies and here’s a good summary of their ins and outs. However, as an environmentalist, I favour the rehab based approach that is focussed more on what’s best for the elephants, rather than what is more enjoyable for visitors and volunteers.

Lek’s Elephant Camp - A Real Sanctuary

I still have vivid memories of my first day at the sanctuary. As the gates opened, there was a dramatic, wide-eyed, Jurassic moment – a rumble of giant creatures walking in the distance, birds screeching and the sound of an elephant through the silence. Nestled in the forests of Mae Taeng, the park is spread over 250 acres of woodland, pastures and a bubbling river, where you can wake up every morning to the mesmerising view of a herd of elephants strolling by.
The woman behind the sanctuary, Lek, is a superhero among global conservation advocates. Her journey from a hill-tribe village of northern Thailand to the pages of international magazines is an inspiration for all environmentalists. In person, she’s a smiling bundle of energy whose love for animals goes beyond elephants. The sanctuary she’s created comes close to being an eco-utopia, teeming with rescued cats, dogs and birds, wandering freely among sensibly built bamboo huts and tree-houses. A delicious vegetarian buffet is prepared fresh for every meal, from locally sourced produce. Imagine authentic Thai cooking, farm to table, in the middle of a beautiful park where elephants roam free. The food alone is worth staying for.
The politics surrounding the industry and complex and entangled in a country where elephants have traditionally been used in Agroforestry. While Lek’s work has been celebrated around the world, the locals in Chiang Mai see her projects as a threat to their way of life. The people who run elephant camps are outspoken in their opposition to Lek’s sanctuary and are known to vehemently misguide well-intentioned tourists into elephant enslavement camps.

The Life of a Volunteer

Elephants are complex, emotional beings. As a volunteer, you get to know them a tiny bit better with every passing day. You learn to identify the naughty one, the shy one and tell the young ones apart from the herd. You get to feed them, bathe them and play with them every day. But most importantly, you get to watch them be themselves in a supportive habitat – playing, socializing or just strolling by in reflective introspection. And no one rides the elephants. Not even the mahouts. Elephants’ bodies are not designed for anyone to ride on their necks or backs.
For me, the most gratifying part of the experience was seeing for myself that these elephants were finally in an accepting environment which was sympathetic of their history and mental well-being. And it felt good to be part of their therapy. And when elephants aren’t around or are busy with their elephantine activities, there’s a lot of other things to occupy your time. From farm work to exploring the park to playing with one of the many three-legged dogs or one-eyed cats that roam the sanctuary. Also, there are plenty of other like-minded volunteers from all over the world at any given time for company. And there’s Wi-Fi!

A Real Sanctuary

As a conservation endeavour, the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is an extraordinary achievement where conservationists, volunteers and animals coexist in an almost perfect harmony. The park is an exemplary space with thoughtfully integrated structures, zones and activities that not only help elephants recover, but also facilitate positive, supportive interactions with human beings. This goes a long way towards the elephants’ therapy who have only known to fear other humans in the past.
Elephants are vital to the jungles of Asia which they’ve helped shape and propagate. As the largest animals, perched high up on the natural food chain, they are responsible for a huge chunk of fertilization, pollination and landscape management of the self-sufficient ecosystem of a jungle. Removing an elephant from the wild to “conserve” them for entertainment, however well-intentioned, is utterly misguided and short-sighted. Elephant Nature Park is funded entirely by contributions from volunteers and visitors to avoid associations with special-interest groups. You can either visit the park for a day, stay overnight or spend an entire week volunteering. It’s an incredible opportunity to learn what a truly successful conservation project entails. If you are looking for an alternative, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary is another place to contribute towards wildlife conservation efforts in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Header picture by Aaron Goodman and the rest taken by Devan Panchal.