Reconnecting with elephants

When I had ventured to Chiang Mai I originally wanted to study the Karen villagers who formed small communities in the hills of Thailand. Communities that lived in remote areas and who were often farmers despite the fact that resources were scarce.

Although this meant that they adopted more sustainable forms of living especially when it came to cultivation practices, it also meant that they suffered from a lack of viable income—a common benefit from technological advancements in the agricultural sector. As someone who is passionate about sustainable living, I wanted to further investigate the tradeoff that occurs from this inaccessibility and help them recognize the environmental benefits of alternatives and how it can still be an efficient mode of production.

However, my journey to a Karen village made me discover that these individuals were one of the first to capture Asian elephants and domesticate them. My conversations initially highlighted how elephants were first used to bear rid of their impoverished lives. Although they are considered pests when they are living in the wild, they had told me that once they are domesticated they are able to interact in a docile manner with humans. They told me that they can even help Thais attract tourists who may also want to interact with them. Suddenly, I became intrigued by elephants again. I also wanted to connect with the creature I remember admiring the way that these Thais supposedly did. Since they had a long cultural history with them, I initially understood this as a loving bond with Asian elephants.

I then visited a Karen mahout (elephant caregiver) who had several elephants living on his land. To my surprise, instead of what I had pictured: a loving relationship with elephants, I witnessed the exact opposite. These elephants were chained and whenever they were free, they were controlled by sharp objects like the bullhook. I tried to understand the desperation these individuals faced when it came to sustaining their lives, but it broke my heart. I left that day defeated, not only because of the Karen’s situation but also because of the thought that Asian elephants were possibly used as a commodity and nothing else. That ‘domestication’ meant mistreatment: where they were chained and/or controlled by hooks that dug into their skin. I knew that there had to be other humane ways to interact with these animals, especially for those Thais that relied on them.

Hope from The Elephant Nature Park

I then stumbled upon The Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary aimed at helping elephants like the ones I saw. They rescue, rehabilitate and allow tourists to understand the Thai-elephant relationship, in a much more humane way.

Elephant Nature Park Mission Statement

  1. Sanctuary for endangered species: We provide homes for these animals as well as contributing to their welfare and development.
  2. Rain Forest Restoration: One of the most exciting developments at the park is our program of tree planting the surrounding area. The ecological balance of plants and animals will be encouraged by the re-introduction of the rain forest. Some 25 acres of the mountainside will be planted every year for the first 5 years.
  3. Cultural Preservation: To maintain, as much as possible, the cultural integrity of the local community. By creating employment and purchasing agricultural products locally we are assisting the villagers in sustaining their distinct culture. Park managers are recruited locally to oversee the park’s progress.
  4. Visitors Education: To educate visitors, individuals, study groups, schools and interested parties. Emphasis on the plight of the endangered local species will be presented in an entertaining and constructive manner. Future phases will include audio / visual equipment and other modern educational aids. It is anticipated that small conferences and workshops will be organised at the park.
  5. Act independently: of pressure groups and political movements that we consider contrary to the well being of the park and the creatures in its care. 1

I intended to learn about The Elephant Nature Park’s efforts through a single day visit but that turned into weeks of volunteering. After all, they renewed my hope for the conditions Asian elephants face in Thailand.

The Phajaan

The Elephant Nature Park embodies a better alternative to experiencing the beauty of Asian elephants through watching them roam freely in their natural habitat. However, as their Mission Statement highlights, the park emphasizes further education. For instance, The Elephant Nature Park helped me understand what the domestication process (known as Phajaan in Thai) really entailed.

The Phajaan is a process that The Elephant Nature Park’s founder Lek summarized as a training ritual that forces a baby elephant to submit to humans. The process begins with capturing baby elephants in the wild and then entrapping them in a small enclosure. The baby elephant must reside in this cramped cage for several days and despite obvious physical and emotional pain and a desire to escape, the individuals performing this “ritual” continually jab the calf with those sharp objects like the bullhook or with kicks and hits. In addition to this, the baby elephant is repeatedly tormented verbally.

According to Thais, in a matter of days, the elephant’s spirit is broken, allegedly making him/her more submissive. The elephant will then go on to be used for riding, trekking, illegal logging and even begging. 2

The Importance of Scrutiny When Travelling

Yes, it is extremely unfortunate to witness the ways in which animals suffer at the hands of human selfishness but it is also much worse to be unaware. The image of riding on an elephant, watching an elephant perform at a circus or other entertainment outlets are dreams dominated by most Western ways of thinking, especially when it comes to Southeast Asia. Yet, when I witnessed mistreatment and when I came across The Elephant Nature Park’s website, I knew that the use of elephants for tourist spectacles was just plain wrong. 3

Since I believe in the notion that all animals deserve the same rights as we do, the miserable lives of many captive Asian elephants made me disgusted as to how I was so unaware of an issue that goes against my own beliefs. It is why I will continue to further investigate tourist attractions before I travel and why I encourage everyone to do the same.

Thus, volunteering at The Elephant Nature Park was much more than just being surrounded by elephants. I not only learned about the plight of the Asian elephant, I became a bigger advocate for animal rights, fuelling my preexisting passion and dedication that I have when it comes to animal welfare. This rehabilitation centre where elephants roam freely and happily for the rest of their lives without any bullhooks or chains, taught me the value of being a smart tourist. Someone who knows where her money is going to and at large, what causes she supports and opposes. Evidently, this involved supporting a cause that was in line with the way I view the world, further emphasizing my strong opinions of the importance of protecting and respecting all forms of life.


  1. About us. (n.d.). Retrieved April 5, 2017, from Elephant Nature Park website: https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/about/about-us/
  2.  Circa News. (2016, November 21). There’s a really dark side to elephant tourism [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfGZpaXEZvE
  3. Elephantnews. (2015, September 27). Journey of rescued elephant Kabu [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_XbtfKWgLY

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