Last month I volunteered for a week at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), and it was the most incredible, eye-opening, heart-breaking (yet heart-warming), totally inspiring experience. I know I will visit and volunteer as much as I can for the rest of my life.
The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is about an hour away from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. They rescue weak/sick captive elephants and provide rehabilitation in a natural environment. They also liberate trekking/riding camps by educating/supporting villagers, and providing them with another source of income.
A lot of elephant ‘sanctuaries’ downright lie. They tell you they are doing good but they still mistreat the elephants. The more I learn, the more I realise how on their own ENP are in terms of the work they do. Read on to meet the herd and learn about the many fantastic projects ENP offer for you to enjoy these wonderful animals in an ethical way.
But first, the hard stuff…
The truth behind every working elephant is a process knows as Pajan, aka The Crush. When they’re young, they’re taken away from their mum and are tied up so they cannot move. They’re starved and beaten severely with metal hooks/nails for an intense and long period of time. The aim is to break their beautiful spirit to ensure they fear and obey their trainer/mahout. The abuse is so bad that their trunks have to be tied up as they often try to commit suicide by standing on them!
You may see a working elephant and think they’re okay as they’re doing what they are told and not trying to fight it, but there’s a mahout with a hidden hook/nail by the side of each one. They continue to suffer daily abuse as long as they are working.
Many captive elephants are used for religious ceremony as they are considered ‘sacred’, yet they are treated horrifically… do not be fooled!
Please never ride an elephant! Don’t go to see one perform in a circus or any show where they’re doing tricks (like painting). When they sway side to side, they are not ‘dancing’, (as the mahout will tell you)… it’s a sign of severe distress!
If you see someone using an elephant to beg for money, your cash is not going to help the elephant. Some people use injured elephants claiming they need money to treat them, but the elephant will go untreated and the owner will happily let the elephant die when it is no longer any use to them.
The ENP film, Love and Bananas, exposes the cruel secret that every captive Asian elephant has had to endure, and shows what can be done to prevent the extinction of Asian elephants. I urge you to give it a watch! You can download on iTunes & click here to watch the trailer. Education is the only way this cruelty will ever stop as Asian governments still support elephant tourism and appear fiercely opposed to change because of this. That’s why the work of the Elephant Nature Park is so important.
Before I talk about the amazing projects ENP offer, let’s meet some of the herd…
This beautiful lady is Jokia. She was born around 1960 and rescued by ENP in 1999 from illegal logging and excessive abuse! She suffered a miscarriage while pulling a log uphill and was not allowed to stop working to check whether her baby was dead or alive causing extreme physical and emotional trauma. She refused to go back to work so was deliberately blinded in both eyes! She suffered 39 years of daily abuse before she was rescued by ENP.
Mae Sri Nuan
This is Mae Sri Nuan. She was born around 1962 and rescued from Surin Province in 2005 with her now adopted daughter. Her last job was street begging, but she has also worked in trekking and probably logging. She is blind in her left eye, most likely from a sling shot injury. She suffered daily abuse for 43 years!!!! Luckily she will live the rest of her days loved and free from work at ENP!
This is Malai Tong. She was born around 1985 and was rescued in 2005. She was being used for illegal logging when she stepped on a landmine in around 2002! Once she had recovered well enough to bear weight on her foot, she was taken to work street begging in Bangkok. However, she had reoccurring foot problems and her owner was not able to work her so he sold her. She was made to work for 20 years – 3 of which with a landmine injury!
When she arrived to ENP, she immediately knew she wanted to look after babies and has been nanny to 5 so far at the park! She’s a caregiver and when she’s not looking after babies, she‘s looking after her blind, older best friend!
ENP Projects – Single day ‘Saddle Off’!
ENP recognise that they cannot rescue all the elephants in Asia and give them a home at their park. They also realise elephant tourism is unfortunately the livelihood of many villagers. Therefore, they help local independent elephant owners to improve the life and treatment of their elephants. They help with vet care, education & the general management of these camps. They take the ‘saddle off’ and now the elephants are pampered by adoring visitors who can experience the incredible animals up close by feeding, walking and bathing them, instead of sitting in heavy saddle cages on their backs.
There are plenty of single day projects to choose from all over Thailand which you can check out here! I’ve been twice now to the single day ‘Elephant Trails‘ project an hour from Chiang Mai which cost just Baht 2,500 / £58 for the entire day, including lunch and transport to and from Chiang Mai.
Please choose an ENP project if you’re planning on spending a day with the elephants when in Thailand. I naively and in good faith went to single day project run by another company claiming to be doing good for the elephants, but I now know how badly those elephants were being treated. If you have been/have booked with another company and still want to go, keep your eyes open and notice the warning signs. Elephants should not:
- kiss you with their trunk
- lift their trunk to allow you to pose for photos
- sway side to side (sign of distress)
- squirt water on command
- raise their leg to help you mount them
- be ridden
Challenge your guide/mahout if you notice any of these things, and look out for hooks/nails or any physical action between the mahout and the elephant. They are still broken and forced to behave unnaturally through fear.
Let’s meet some more of the ENP herd…
This is Phong Sri and she was rescued just a couple of weeks ago. The 2 photos below were taken before she was rescued – the mahout working her was carrying riders just 3 days before she was saved by ENP!
She is still incredibly weak and has to be helped to stand most mornings. She is an old lady and has the scars to show for her hard working life. Hopefully she will make a full recovery and live the rest of her days happy and free from work!
This is Mae BuaLoy. She was born around 1965 and rescued in 2008. Her first job was in illegal logging and her back right leg was broken during this time. Since she was unable to do any heavy labour, she was next used for street-begging but people complained about her bad leg, so she was taken away. Next, she was put in a ‘forced breeding programme’ and at one point was kept chained continuously for 3 months and forcibly mounted 29 times. She did not become pregnant so her owner decided to get rid of her. She was made to work for 43 years!!
She is mostly blind and sensitive to the cold so in the cold season she wears an elephant jacket to keep her warm. Luckily she will spend the rest of her days warm and loved at ENP!
This is Jan Peng (which means ‘Full Moon’). She was born around 1943 and retired to ENP in 2009 after a life of logging and trekking. She’s had 5 calves, 4-6 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. She has survived many attack’s and falls during her working life with only stiff joints and a bitten off tail to show for it. She always has a flower in her ear… given by her mahout to cover a scar from a hook, to make something pretty out of something terrible. She was made to work for 68 years!
ENP Projects – Elephant Nature Park Volunteering (7 days)!
This will be the most amazing week of your life! You live at ENP amongst the elephant herd, 200 cats, 400 dogs, water-buffalo, cow, and many other rescued animals. You learn so much about elephant care by getting totally stuck in. Although it’s a volunteering programme, you only really ‘work’ for 4 hours a day, so there is plenty of free time where you can enjoy the stunning surroundings as well as different evening events and walks.
It costs just 12,000 Baht (£280) for 6 nights accommodation, 3 amazing meals per day (buffet style with loads of choice), transport to and from Chiang Mai, internet connection and the most fulfilling, positive week ever! CLICK HERE to see a video I made of the trip.
What we did…
Every morning you will be woken by the animals (elephants trumpeting… amazing!) and will see lots of them on your walk to breakfast…
Each day you’ll have 2 jobs (1 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon) which you complete in groups. Jobs include…
1 – Ele-food
This ranges from unloading watermelon / banana trucks, to washing fruit, to picking yellow bananas, to peeling and mushing the bananas with rice and coconut milk for the older elephants who have no teeth!
Elephants spend literally the whole day eating! Which isn’t surprising as they eat about 10% of their body weight every single day. A 4 ton elephant would need about 4000kg of food!!!! So as you can imagine, there is lots of food prep to do!! After you’ve prepped the food, you get to see the elephants 😀
2 – Ele-poo
Because elephants eat a lot, they poop a lot too!!! Luckily, it is less like dog poo, more like grassy hay, so it isn’t a particularly horrible job as you might imagine! It’s a great physical work out – scooping poop and loading it onto a truck to take to the compost. ENP not only does uses the compost to grow food on its own land, it also allows local villagers to pick up truck loads of compost to use on their land to grow crops free of charge.
3 – Clean the park
Quite similar to the ele-poo job. You visit each herd of elephants to take away the old food and any additional poop! It’s great as you’re close to the elephants and other animals in the park!
4 – Clean the tanks
The food / water tanks have to be cleaned out twice a week. If the weather is bad, this is quite a hard task as the tanks get super muddy (and these elephants don’t like dirty water)!! However, if you get a sunny day and the tanks are clean, you spend the time sitting with and watching the elephants.
5 – Enrichment
This is a super cute job! You take a variety of food to the enclosures to decorate them and make them interesting for the elephants at bedtime. This is especially done for the babies who never want to go to bed. Finding lots of hidden food gives them something to do for a few hours!
6 – Ele-walks
You can’t really call this a job, but ele-walks is where you get taken round the park and introduced to the herd. We luckily had Darrick (who is Lek’s husband) for one of our talks which was just incredible! You really do learn so much, and to see Darrick’s special relationship with the elephants is just magical. We were fortunate enough to see a family Darrick helped rescue surround him with love and take him off to their enclosure!
On the first night we had a ‘welcome ceremony’ before dinner where we were all given bracelets to unite us as a family for the week.
On the second night, Lek, the founder of ENP and Save Elephant Foundation, came to give us an inspiring talk after showing us a video on the captive Asian elephant which was very difficult to watch. Despite the Thai government and groups wanting to stand in the way of the work Lek is doing, with hard work her voice is now internationally recognised and her voice continues to be heard throughout the world. In 2010 she was honoured as one of six ‘Women Heroes of Global Conservation’, she was named one of Time Magazines’ Heroes of Asia in 2005, and the Ford Foundation’s ‘Hero of the Planet’ in 2001. She really is an absolutely incredible woman, and despite having to be up at 4am the following morning to defend herself again against the government, (they feel she gives Thai people / culture a bad name by exposing the truth behind the captive Asian elephant), she spent the evening eating with us and answering our questions.
We also had an evening where we learned all about Thai culture and a few Thai phrases and songs.
One night women from the local village came to perform traditional dances. These women have very tough lives and backgrounds (some are refugees) and ENP help them with work and support. They provide mats, chairs and massage equipment for them at ENP in the ‘massage room’ free of charge. All money the women make from the massages is kept by them – ENP just provide the facility and opportunity for them to work. The massages are incredible! An hour long foot massage / full body Thai massage is 180 Baht / £4! I had one every evening!
There are 400 dogs currently living at ENP and you’ll see many of them roaming free around the park. You can also volunteer to look after the dogs for a week!
ENP has already re homed around 400 dogs! All the dogs currently at the park are up for adoption, but until then they are loved and showered with attention to get them ready for forever homes.
In your free time you are able to visit the dog kennels and either walk some of the dogs, or go into the kennels and ‘socialise’ them! Most dogs are incredibly friendly and loving, but some are timid and frightened because of their pasts. It’s really rewarding when you’re with a dog who wants to be touched but is too afraid to come close to you, but after 30 minutes of gentle coaxing, plucks up the courage to have a cuddle. It is incredibly fulfilling.
ENP also looks after just under 20 disabled pups. Many were hit by cars and have lost the use of their legs. It is distressing to see them without their wheelchairs, but they’re so full of life and joy with their wheels on. Unfortunately, adopting one of these pups would be a 24 hour commitment as they can do very little for themselves, so I think ENP is probably the best home for them as they have that constant love and care.
ENP is also home to about 200 cats who live all over the park as well as in Cat Kingdom.
The cats are actually more like dogs! They are SO friendly and tame – unlike the cats I am used to in the UK. Which actually posed a problem as I am allergic and was low on anti-histamines! Below are pictures of cat rescue from my bathroom!
The food is absolutely incredible! It’s all vegan and buffet style so there is lots of choice! There is so much flavour and variety!
Each evening there is a different main station, as well as all the standard buffet selection. One night we all cooked our own food together in a hot pot.
*TOP TIP* mango & sticky rice is literally the best thing in the world and I suggest you eat as much of it as possible when in Thailand.
ENP also has a shop where you can buy alcohol / soft drinks, ice cream and other treats! A large beer (Leo / Chang) is only 80 Baht / £1.90!!!
You can hang out with the gorgeous cows saved from the slaughterhouse!
You can spend your free time chilling in the skywalk which has a great view of the park. Elephants also rub themselves under the platform which you can see.
If you’re wondering what the accommodation looks like, here are some pics:
It’s pretty basic but does the job and the mosquito nets make you feel safe from the bugs!
Things you need to take:
- wellies (I had cute little ankle wellies which were perfect)
- walking boots / old trainers
- gardening gloves (ENP have a bag full of them but nice to have your own for poop related tasks)
- a light rain coat – if you’re going during rainy season, definitely pack a light rain coat. It rained 2 of the days we were there and it was incredibly difficult and sweaty working in a poncho
- old clothes you don’t mind getting muddy / dirty
- a sleeping bag liner – I slept on top of the covers in a thin sleeping bag liner which was cooler than the sheets if you’re going when it’s hot
- a travel towel (they fold up really thin and dry quickly)
- a bum-bag to put your phone / any other items in so you can keep on you when you’re working
- a book – to read on the platform during free time – bliss
- shower gel / shampoo / conditioner
- bug spray
ENP provide a water bottle and carrier which are essential when you’re out in the heat!
Our guides were absolutely incredible – Guy, Dan, C and Wat! They work from 7am until bedtime. When I asked when their ‘free time’ is, Guy said: ‘I work for ENP, it’s always free time!’ Say hi from me if you see them!
It was the most fulfilling and fantastic experience. If you get the chance, please go!
Shall we meet some more of the ENP herd?…
This brave little soldier is KhunDej – his name means ‘Knight’! He was born around 2010 and arrived at ENP in 2014. When he was a baby, he was roaming in the forest and caught in a snare set by people to catch animals (although not an elephant snare). He was not found for days and when he finally was, the wound was very deep and the infection had already set in – it was amazing he did not die.
He was taken to a nearby government centre for treatment and whilst he was looked after, he was on his own, bored and frustrated! ENP allows him to interact with other elephants! He now has an adopted nanny who does not leave his side, even when he’s being treated for his wound everyday.
This is Dao Tong which means ‘Golden Star’. She was born in 1975 and rescued in 2012. Before street begging, she working in illegal logging where she had an accident which resulted in her right back leg being broken. Unable to pull logs, she began her career in street begging. She spent her days chained in a rice paddy field and her nights walking the streets with her bad leg. She is doing well at ENP despite her handicap and will be loved and free from work for the rest of her life!
The gorgeous lady at the front is PornSawan. Before she was rescued, she was working in illegal logging and in 2011 she stepped on a landmine and was seriously injured. The mahout knew if he left her in the jungle she would surely die, so he took a risk and started walking her back to the village so he could call for help. It was a slow and difficult walk (8 days) and would have been horrifically painful. ENP were reached out to and acted immediately. Although her injury was serious, she is now in the best hands! When she was moved from the hospital and introduced to the herd, she did not hesitate to join the nanny group for young boy Yindee and now is his no.1 nanny!
This is Thai Koon, born in 1996 and rescued from illegal logging in 2014. Her left front foot was injured by stepping on a landmine when she was young. Her right leg has had to bear most weight so has grown deformed making walking difficult for her. She has the best love and care now at ENP.
Kabu was born around 1990 and arrived to ENP in 2015. Her mother was a logging elephant and when she was a baby she had to go with her whilst she pushed / pulled logs. At 2 years old, a lot rolled out of control and struck Kabu, breaking her front left wrist which healed badly leaving her very handicapped. Despite this, when she was old enough she was also put to work logging. She was also subject to forced breeding and has 2 babies, neither of which she was able to keep for very long. One was a bull who died soon after his spirit was broken. The other was a female who was sold into the elephant show industry.
Since Kabu had to use her leg to carry weight, it has grown very deformed. She’s lived with this handicap her whole life but does not let it hold her back. She is a survivor!
She was forced to work for 25 years, but will live the rest of her days loved and free from work at ENP!
Kham La (meaning darling) was born in 2011. At that time her mother was working at a trekking camp. As is the norm in the working elephant world, Kham La was separated from her mother and put through the ‘crush’ so she would submit to humans. She began training to perform in an elephant show and because of this intensive training, she developed stereotypical behaviour which has only diminished slightly since her arrival. Thankfully, ENP were able to rescue and re-unite Kham La with her mother Mae SaiNgern. Kham La has a particularly special relationship with Lek’s husband, Darrick!
ENP Projects – Surin Volunteering
I don’t know as much about these projects, but there are opportunities to volunteer in a home stay in Surin where you can stay with mahouts and their families to learn about the mahout culture, as well as the local communities.
ENP Projects – Cambodia Volunteering
ENP is now working with the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary to protect and conserve 1 million acres of jungle habitat about an hour north of Angkor Wat (also visiting – click here to read my blog).
ENP is constantly expanding so check the website to read more about other opportunities.
I am running the London Marathon 2019 and am doing it for the elephants. It’s going to be a hard task, but if elephants can go through the crush and a life in captivity, then I can get through a 26.2 mile run. If you’d like to support me and the elephants, please click here!
I arrived back in Chiang Mai and the first taxi I hopped in was advertising many elephant / tiger days which would look amazing to an innocent tourist who didn’t know any better. Please tell your friends / anyone who will listen not to visit these types of places. Please share this blog and spread the word. Let’s change the lives of the captive Asian elephants still working right now.