Travel Spotlight

Chiang Mai Elephant Shelter

To me, Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park is the equivalent of an Elephant Refugee camp—with a road map for a hopeful future. The park itself is located in the Mae Taeng Valley, about a ninety-minute drive from Chiang Mai. Established in 1995 by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the camp is a tribute to one individual’s quest to free an enslaved species from torture and inhumane conditions.

Lek truly is the “elephant whisperer.” She was awarded the Time Magazine Asia Hero of the Year in 2005 for her work with elephants, and she has been the subject of National Geographic, Discovery Channel and BBC coverage. Her fame is deserved, though more of the world should know her cause.

There are about 4,000 domesticated Asian elephants, with some 30,000 in the wild. Those here have been rescued from the former, and their history of abuse is documented both on paper as well as on their bodies. One elephant I met was blinded when stabbed in the eyes for collapsing after her newborn baby died during work hours. Another was addicted to drugs after years of being force-fed amphetamines to work longer hours. To train an elephant, a baby is put in a stocks-like contraption for as long as week while being repeatedly kicked, stabbed with spears and whacked with sticks covered in nails and knives. This systematic torture breaks their spirit and forces them to act on command.

The villagers that own domesticated elephants rely on these animals to work for their livelihood: once for logging, now for other labor, such as trekking and tourism. (Be aware that even elephant shows require torturing the animal to teach him to act on cue.) The agonizing “initiating” abuse of the elephants has long been a tradition in this culture—it is considered essential for human economic survival and as a rite of passage for the elephants.

While these practices continue, Lek relentlessly bears compassionate witness to these historical cultural practices while steadily offering alternatives for the elephant owners. Her organization provides free veterinary care, medicine and occasional housing for sick elephants in the area. She is also single-handedly demonstrating to her fellow Thais that “free elephants” can also provide an economic solution for local people. Lek’s camp, for one, is an example of an economically sustainable eco-tourism concept that turns a profit while delivering care and preservation to this fast disappearing species.

Having said all that, there is nothing to adequately describe a trip to this “park.” As a guest, I was able to feed, walk and bathe the elephants—getting close enough to a massive mammal to examine its eyelashes is an astounding experience. Perhaps more astounding are the park's overnight trips, during which guests trek with the elephants into the mountains to sleep while the elephants roam. Die-hards can also volunteer for short- and long-term stays to contribute to the operations of the park.

Every single person I came across employed by or volunteering for the camp was hard-working, lively and in love with the elephants. It is, indeed, a heavenly place. Lek is a maverick and a role model; her organization is a model for preserving that which is disappearing before our eyes, but she still needs more land and the camp needs support.

If you love animals, go visit the park. I can’t imagine a more meaningful experience for children–they may be the last generation to see these prehistoric creatures. My perception of what I see now is altered having visited Lek’s camp and learning about the plight of the elephants and their owners. I am informed, aware and changed.

Published onJanuary 5, 2008

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