elephant conservation thailand

Elephant Nature Park – Animal Conservation in Thailand

elephant conservation thailand

One of the elephants with a permanently dislocated hip, rescued from forced breeding programme

Our Elephant Nature Park visit definitely deserved a post of its own, especially as a follow-on from the post about Thai wildlife. Although the elephants in the park are not ‘wild’, they’re as wild as they’re ever going to be due to their prior circumstances.

Because most of these creatures went through the awful ‘breaking’ process during training, and have always been under the violent control of people, releasing them into the wild would be impossible. They have no natural social cues and so wild elephants would either see them as weak or a threat – and so they would end up killed.

Our role in the park was to help unload fruit trucks, clean and prepare elephant food, shovel elephant poo, bathe elephants, shovel more elephant poo, plant trees, weed and manure trees, and to also help walk the many shelter dogs (rescued from floods, abuse and the illegal meat trade) on a daily basis.

There was a good balance between helping out and getting to watch the elephants (as well as cattle and water buffalo herds) from various viewing platforms, and there were also talks and walks amongst the elephants in their grounds. We also got to interact with the local village shamans and school children, taking part in ceremonies and special Khantoke dinners, so we really did get to see a slice of life in that part of the country.

Considering the situation they are faced with, the Elephant Nature Park is doing an incredible job of rehabilitating these physically and mentally abused elephants through positive reinforcement. They are faced with a bit of a conundrum, however, which some people found a little difficult to get their head around.

elephant nature park thailand

Water buffalo, crossing the river

Lek (founder of ENP) and her staff want the elephants to live as normal lives as possible, making their own friendship and family groups and being allowed to roam the grounds on their terms, but they also have to bring in money for the park to keep it open and to be able to rescue more elephants. This means they have to let people get close to the elephants by feeding them, bathing them etc – which keeps the element of human interaction high.

Although some people feel this is going against the park’s original ethos, I disagree. It is clear that the elephants that interact with visitors will never be able to be released into the wild, and the interaction they now receive is wholly positive – no riding, no bull hooks, no violence.

I don’t think they could do the amazing job they’re doing any other way – and I truly believe that if it is possible, Lek, will find a way. Her love for the animals is bottomless, and the way she interacts with them has to be seen to be believed – if there is such a thing as an elephant whisperer, then that’s her.

elephants, thailand

Viewing posts make the best scratch pads!

There are a couple of exceptions among the elephants that are worth noting – two fully grown bulls that were orphaned. These animals were not exposed to the ‘breaking’ cruelty as they were rescued and raised by Lek at a young age. They have never witnessed violence and do not see humans as their superiors or friends – in fact, one is known for throwing logs and rocks at any humans that come near. These wild instincts means there is hope that these animals may be released into their natural habitat; I’m certainly interested to see what happens.

This was the most expensive part of our trip, but I felt like every penny was worth it. The experience we had, as well as knowing that every single penny went into the ENP, was exactly what we had hoped for – and like many of the volunteers there, we would like to return one day to see what further improvements have been made.

There is so much more I’d like to write about Thailand, but unfortunately, there just isn’t time. I’m currently completing my edits for my publisher, preparing for my Cambodia trip in January, and finishing up my freelance work before I head out to work with Singing Kites. I’m really excited about helping this charity, as I love their ethos of ‘a hand up, not a hand out’. I’m also looking forward to what the country and its people will show me.

I didn’t have my computer with me in Thailand but as Cambodia is a working holiday, I’ll be bringing it along, so I’ll be blogging about my time over there as often as I can. I hope to support the charity not just by physically being there, but by raising awareness of what they do.

I fly out on New Years Eve, landing on New Year’s Day in Phnom Penh – hopefully you’ll join me by helping to spread the word about the great work that’s going on over there?

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More on Thai food culture…

The food adventures continued as we moved around Thailand, with each area taking particular pride in its local dishes and specialities. And at all times, there was a clear fusion between Thai food and Thai life.

thai style picnic, hot springs

Boiling eggs in baskets at the hot springs

For instance, the owner of the homestay we chose in Suphan Buri took fruit to be blessed at the temple daily, and then put it out for her guests to bring them good luck – a very important element of Thai culture. The spirit houses were always bursting with food and drink for the ancestors, and there were edible holy fish fatted in the pond. We didn’t quite manage to decipher whether they would or would not be eaten.

When we stayed with a family in Chiang Mai, they were so hospitable that they took us to the San Khamphaeng hot springs on their day off, so we could boil eggs in the sulphurous water and make a picnic. We were the only westerners there and it was a real honour to sit with our feet in the springs alongside the locals. There were some rather odd-looking offerings also available and we weren’t even sure whether they were on sale for boiling – but we later found out they were definitely there as food (see beetle photo).

unusual foods Chiang mai

Beetle picnic, anyone? Delicious boiled, apparently.

Afterwards, our Chiang Mai hosts took us to a local restaurant famed for its Isaan-style food. We would never have found this on our own and we got to try new spicy fruit salads, sticky sun-dried meats, and delicious fresh fruit smoothies made with ice we could actually drink. (Most people don’t realise but the biggest cause of upset stomachs is from the ice in drinks made from tap water so just in case, avoid, avoid, avoid!)

One of the clearest examples of how lifestyle and belief influenced food was during our stay at the Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Taeng valley, Chiang Mai province. A wonderful conservation centre focused on rescuing and rehabilitating abused elephants – as well as over 400 dogs, a herd of water buffalo and some humpy-looking cattle – the flavoursome food they offered was completely vegetarian, reflecting the animal-centric ethos of the park. (I love tofu but didn’t realise it could be presented in so many ways!)

The park also welcomed us with an intriguing good luck ceremony, led by the local village shaman. The food, flower and candle offerings were placed on a small, decorative float and the ceremony consisted of all our bad luck being drawn out by the shaman’s song. This was deposited on the float, which was then sent away down the river. We were all given white blessed wristbands, just to make sure the luck stayed, with strict instruction on which wrist they were to be worn (left for female, right for male), how long they could be worn (between 3-7 days), as well as how to remove (untie, not cut – and then keep).

elephant conservation volunteering thailand

Not edible – but I had to post a pachyderm.

The Elephant Nature Park also bade us a lucky farewell with a traditional Khantoke dinner. I’d hoped to experience one of these while in the North of the country, but had trouble finding one in Chiang Mai that wasn’t solely catering for tourists. These dinners consist of small, low tables, where you sit with others on the floor and share food. The village presents the food, with traditional entertainment while you eat – such as local music, candle dances, and mask dances. The spirit is one of celebration and the aim is – you guessed it – to guarantee good luck from the spirits when you leave.

It didn’t matter where we travelled in Thailand, the quality of the food was impeccable and food was central to everyday life. Everyone liked to show off and share, and it was clear that you lived for food, rather than ate food to live. Food was ritualistic and an important event, not something to shovel down quickly.

Just try wolfing down the special BBQ served in Khanom without doing yourself an injury: the hot, domed griddle in the centre of the BBQ is kept fizzing with a wedge of meat fat, while the coals inside the dome keep the soup bubbling. You dip your fish, meat and seafood in raw egg and BBQ it while adding vegetables and noodles to the moat of soup around the outside. Move too fast and you find yourself cooking as you try to keep things turning, but too slow and the meat fat starts spitting. It’s all part of the experience and after our fifth (yes, we liked it!) attempt, I think we got the hang of it.

There were many more food adventures we could have engaged in, but we had to leave some for next time. We didn’t try any of the deep fried tarantulas or crickets, but we did have the rich boat noodles (flavoured with pigs blood) and the gloopy chicken rice soup for breakfast, which is definitely an acquired taste.

seafood street food in thailand

Just one of the many delicious street-food seafood BBQs

Our favourite meals in Thailand were barbecued squid with spicy lime sauce (Chiang Mai), sticky deep fried sun-dried beef (Isaan style), sticky rice with mango (Bangkok), spicy papaya and mango salads, Thai BBQ (Khanom), red snapper in Tamarind sauce (Suphan Buri), chargrilled swordfish (Chumpon) chicken laab (Koh Yao Noi), molasses and yellow bean cakes (Koh Yao Noi) and any of the lemongrass-based soups such as Tom Yum Goong.

But I think the best thing about the food in Thailand was the overall experience and seeing the pride people had in their dishes. I’ve cooked many Thai dishes since returning home, but without the buzz of hungry queues, the hum of traffic, the glorious sun and a person peering over the counter from behind a wok, curious to know whether you’re enjoying it, it just doesn’t taste the same.