Note: If you’re going to Thailand you’ll probably want to visit an elephant park at some point. I recommend Elephant Nature Park. (Special thanks to Caroline Schiff for the amazing photos.)

More than 60,000 muscles can be found in the incredible trunk of the Asian elephant. Together they form a sort of mega nose-mouth-arm that can be as incredibly expressive as it is practical.

Thanks to its trunk, an elephant can shake your hand, suction up a thin slice of watermelon, rip a limb from a mature tree, and even appear to be smiling.

What it can’t do is speak English. But if could, perhaps the elephant would ask a simple question: “What is it with you people?”

Elephants can be incredibly expressive

Elephants can be incredibly expressive

Elephant Encounters

For 5,000 years we’ve worshipped them as gods. We’ve  used them as chattel and tools. We’ve traded them for gold and land.  We’ve hitched them up to til the land. We’ve saddled them with our goods. We’ve turned their bones and body  into idols.

You could say that we love elephants, even to death.

These days there aren’t many elephants left – whether in the wild or out of it. In Thailand — the most visited of the Southeast Asian countries — only about 3,000 are left in the wild. That means for the vast majority of us the only places where we can meet these creatures is either the zoo or the theme park.

Thailand’s elephant parks provide a compelling alternative. At most of these, visitors can see Asian elephants up close, help to feed them, learn their stories, and even take a ride on their backs.

A mahout at Elephant Nature Park walks with his bonded animal

A mahout at Elephant Nature Park walks with his bonded animal

Hang Out with Mahouts

No part of the elephant park more represents the complex relationship of man to elephant than the mahout.

While individual elephants at an elephant park or in a circus may be tamed, elephants as a species have never been domesticated.  In the wild they are highly social, usually bonding with up to six or seven others and working together to keep safe and raise calves.

In training, in order to get them to do things they don’t want to do, you need a mahout – or elephant handler — who is versed in the arts of elephant handling and able to be paired at a young age with a specific elephant in order to develop and nurture that bond.

It’s lovely in theory, but in practice the ancient practice of the mahout can be pretty vicious.  To get elephants to respond traditional separated young elephants from their mothers, then use chains, hooks and a keen eye for the sensitive parts of elephant anatomy to slowly adapt the creature to doing specific tasks.

When you see an elephant at work begging – as you still can in Chiang Mai and Bangkok – it has been carefully and precisely trained to please the crowd. But it does so against its will, and critics of the practice have pointed out all the different ways that street begging elephants suffer from it.

While the typical elephant park may not feature begging, many of the same training practices rule out. In fact, when you’re at most elephant parks the highlight of your day will probably be riding an elephant. It’s a thrilling end to the perfect outing. Sadly, most people aren’t unaware of just how destructive it can be for the animals.

The Name Says It All

Sweet, slow and wrinkled, the elephant in front of me nudged into my hand, looking for something to eat. Its five-foot long trunk unfurled, rough skin prodding my forearm. Quickly I pocketed my camera and reached for a piece of watermelon. In a second the fruit was gone and the elephant turned away.

I was at Elephant Nature Park and I was seeing, for the first time, what misuse can do to an elephant.

As it shuffled away I could that something had happened to this one’s spine. Whereas the backs of the other Asian elephants in sight had smooth spines that arced down from their massive heads to their rears, this one’s vertebrae was more like a camel’s – misshaped and lumpen. And it lumbered much more slowly than the others, noticeably in pain.

Located about 90 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center that takes a different approach than most  parks. The damage I was seeing was from an elephant that was forced to carry dozens of tourists each day on its back. Slowly its spine collapsed from the weight, until the creature couldn’t earn any more money for its owners.

Today’s it’s one of about 30 Asian elephants at Elephant Nature Park. Nestled in the gorgeous Mae Taeng Valley, about an hour north of Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park is surrounded by other elephant parks. But its approach sets it apart. Instead of the elephants working to support humans, here staff and volunteers care for the elephants.

While it may sound generic, the name Elephant Nature Park does a great job identifying what makes this place different. Here the focus is on helping elephants that have been rescued from difficult situations to regain their ability to function in as natural surroundings as possible.

Not Enough Forest

Founded in the 1990s by Thai activist Lek Chailert, Elephant Nature Park weaves  the twin threads of elephant conservation and responsible eco-tourism with a mission that’s firmly focused on helping elephants win back their wild spaces.

Visitors helping the elephants keep clean and stay cool

Visitors helping the elephants keep clean and stay cool

Here every elephant has a story. One was rescued from the wild as humans closed in. Some came from circuses. Many were bought from trekking companies and elephant parks that provided rides. Others were rescued from street begging.  Each arrives broken, and in time and with loving care becomes whole again.

Visitors can stay for the day or more, staying on the property and spending a lot of time feeding, washing, walking, or just hanging out with elephants. Stately trees and an elegant river wind through its 250 acres, making Elephant Nature Park a true retreat from the congestion and grit of Chiang Mai.

Volunteers at work at Elephant Nature Park

Volunteers at work at Elephant Nature Park

The organization also has a sizable volunteer program – involving both skilled and unskilled help for task including helping to wash the elephants and provide their health care. When we visited volunteers were building stone pillars around some of the trees on the property to protect them from the nibbles and back rubs of the elephants. Left alone, in time the trees will grow to provide the elephants will shade to stay cool from the 100-degree plus days of the Thai hot season. The volunteers I spoke with said it was hard work — but hey, they get to hang out with elephants. 

The Future of Elephant Parks

The organization leverages its incredible park visitation program to create awareness about issues related to Asian elephants and other endangered species and, in partnership with the Save Elephant Foundation, helps to raise funds for rainforest habitat restoration projects.

Just some of the 300-400 pounds of food a single elephant requires every day.

Just some of the 300-400 pounds of food a single elephant requires every day.

More money means more land for elephants – which means more elephants can be protected. Outside of Thailand, Elephant Nature Park is already developing projects in two nations – Cambodia and Myanmar – where economic pressures are leading to even more mistreatment and habitat loss for elephants.

With mahouts who have been trained to provide compassion and care instead of aggression and violence, the elephants also can renew their relationship with humans at Elephant Nature Park.

Importantly Elephant Nature Park provides an alternative to elephant parks that put elephant riding up front and center. As I polled various friends that I knew who has been to Thailand, few knew that their elephant riding was so unhealthy for the very animals they were there to see. Considering that so many trekking and riding parks go to great lengths to rationalize their training procedures, it’s no wonder why.

Hanging out with Lek Chailert and one of her friends

Hanging out with Lek Chailert and one of her friends

As I talked with Lek Chailert it was great to hear how Elephant Nature Park was expanding to support elephants on neighboring properties in the valley. Next door, for example, when the owners saw that they could profitably bring in visitors with a gentle and holistic awareness program, they too were interested.

Perhaps with time and the patience of elephants, all of Southeast Asia’s elephant parks will be like this one.