Elephanting Ethically

The van pulled up to the Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai and disgorged six sweaty strangers. Not one of us had any idea what to expect from a night spent in an elephant sanctuary, or that in just 24 hours we would leave the park forever changed – and forever friends.

I fell into step beside Jenn, a 28-year-old hospital social worker turned world traveler, as our guide, Tong, hurried us along a broad patio to an unspecified location. We stopped short when, upon rounding a corner, we found elephants politely reaching toward baskets of bananas that lined the platform where we stood.

A little timid with the first elephant feeding.
Excuse me: I can’t quite reach that banana.

We were all timid with our first elephant encounters, tentatively nudging the bananas forward, but leaning our bodies back. Minutes later, as we embarked on our first walk around the park, we took pictures, carefully keeping the elephants far in the background, politely handing our cameras to one another.

Elephants snuggling
Hey there, sweet snuggling elephants! Just snuggle way over there, OK ?

In contrast, the next morning, we laughed together as we carried totes full of bananas and watermelons across a marsh and up a hill with no idea of our destination, though fully expecting to run into elephants, and snatching each other’s cameras and phones to snap pictures when we actually did encounter two waiting for their breakfast.

Feeding elephants at the Elephant Nature Park
Feeling quite a bit more comfortable feeding elephants the next day.
Laughing while feeding elephants.
Karen laughs as this elephant gives her a little nudge.

But that first morning, we still had much to learn about each other – and about the elephants.

Elephant gazing
Alberto taking it all in.

To Ride or Not to Ride is No Longer a Question

Any tourist to Thailand is greeted with ample opportunities to visit or trek with elephants. Pamphlets abound advertising “a ride with elephants,” or, alternatively “no ride” parks – the latter having caught on to the fact that carrying tourists around for hours on end is harmful to these gentle giants. (Please note that some “no ride” parks have simply caught on to the fact that conscious tourists are looking for ethical sanctuaries, and they may use the words “no ride” or “sanctuary” without, in fact, being a safe place for the elephants. Do your research!!)

Knowing not to ride an elephant is a great first step, but it’s equally important for tourists to seek out an ethical sanctuary where elephants are treated with love. The Elephant Nature Park is a particularly good choice because it is a rehabilitation center for older elephants who were abused in the trekking, entertainment or logging industries.

Two elephants feeding
Elephants peacefully grazing at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.

Volunteers and handlers nurse elephants who have stepped on landmines while hauling logs, or elephants who are blinded from beatings received while hauling tourists.

An elephant foot after stepping on a landmine
This elephant is being cared for after stepping on a landmine.

The Circle of Life

The Elephant Nature Park must purchase the elephants in order to rescue them, so the owner seeks to purchase older elephants for two reasons:

  1. To avoid perpetuating the cycle of abuse, since the lower cost of the animal means less cash passing into the hands of those who might seek to buy a new elephant.
  2. To provide a safe haven, so that overworked elephants might spend their last years in peace.
Elephant selfie
Elephants are free to (safely) approach guests, or to keep to themselves at the Nature Park.

Our group saw with heart-wrenching clarity the importance of the second reason when, with the sunset, BuaLoy, an elephant who had long fought kidney failure and other ailments, chose her final resting place and laid down for the last time. Her handlers sat with her during her final moments, while her constant companion, a blind elephant named Lucky, stood stoically nearby.

Finding Sanctuary Here

Our overnight tour group at the Elephant Nature Park
Our group: Alberto, me, Jenn, Dave (the “elephant ambassador”), Shi Tsyr, Karen and Lauren

That night, our group talked about how we discovered the Elephant Nature Park, and the life circumstances that brought us to Thailand. Over rum and the famous beer, Chang, which, according to Thai urban legend varies in alcohol content from batch to batch, we laughed and told stories with the occasional sound of an elephant trumpeting in the distance.

Luckily, the legendary “Changover” didn’t have too much impact the next day.

For one reason or another, each of us had learned that life can change on a dime – a knowledge that was the foundation for the separate decisions that had brought us all to the very same place that night.

As our new tour guide, Chin, joined in the fun with an impromptu dance lesson in swing and salsa, I propped myself against the platform railing and thought about how very close I came to postponing my trip to the sanctuary.

When I called the park to confirm my visit two days before, I was fighting off a bit of food poisoning that had leveled me for an entire day, and I very nearly asked to defer. Something told me to suck it up, though, and I’m glad that I did. Because I came very close to missing the chance to meet this beautiful group of people.

Group shot at the elephant Nature Park
The gang plus tour guide Chin.

Saying Goodbye

The next morning, we were invited to join in a ceremony to send BuaLoy on her next spiritual journey. Volunteers, handlers, and overnight guests stood in a ring around the giant grave that was dug in the precise place that she chose to die. We tossed flowers and blessings on her, and shed tears on the ground that had offered her a safe place to spend her final years.

It was a beautiful send off for an elephant who was injured while working in the logging industry, then forced into street begging, and then chained up for three months in a forced breeding program – all before her rescue and subsequent healing at the Elephant Nature Park.

Burying an elephant
A traditional Buddhist ceremony for BuaLoy.

My tears were shed not just for Bualoy, but for Lucky, who we could see standing in a holding area near the gravesite, waving her head in a sign of emotional distress. Having recently lost my own partner in life, I could relate with Lucky.

Volunteers say goodbye to an elephant at the Elephant Nature Park.

But, as I stood close to my new friends and acknowledged the circle of life, I felt confident that Lucky would find her way.

Shi Tsyr pays her respects to BuaLoy.

And before long, it was time for us to say our goodbyes as well. With hugs and promises to stay in touch, we continued on our respective journeys with the knowledge that we would never forget our time together – or with the elephants.

Until we meet again!

Thinking of visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand? Save this for later!

Elephant nose

3 Comments on “Elephanting Ethically”

  1. Pingback: Confessions from a Full-Moon Party Newbie | The Lens of Jen

    • Thank you! After receiving a few questions about whether it’s OK to ride elephants, I added in a bit more about what landed BuaLoy in a situation where she needed to be rescued – and made it a bit more clear that it’s important to research the right/ethical elephant sanctuaries. Every little bit of getting the word out helps these beautiful creatures. Thanks for reading!

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