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This Is Northern New South Wales

Please don’t ride the elephants


If you walk into my house, you would be forgiven for thinking I‘m a crazy elephant woman, as there are few shelves or walls that do not hold at least one tribute to these beautiful creatures. Imagine my excitement when I received notice that my daughter and I had been accepted to live with and work for 35 elephants for 7 days. I had scoured the internet for an eco tourism elephant adventure for her 21st birthday present but I found only one sanctuary that did not ride the elephants, which was important to me as I’ve always felt it cruel for any animal to have to carry me. Elephant Nature Park, north of Chiang Mai, Thailand is a sanctuary for previously abused and injured animals.

On arrival, 30 international volunteers of all ages were given the park tour, shown our simple but comfortable shared rooms and told that each day consisted of two job choices from the list of preparing food, cleaning pens, making mud (fun) washing elephants in the river, small building projects, planting and hard labour field work. Within minutes of our arrival we met our first elephants, and it was slightly disconcerting standing with no barriers next to the enormous Jokia, a beautiful blind 50 year old who most likely lost her sight due to human cruelty.  Many Thai elephants worked in logging before it was banned in 1989 and many were forced to work all day with no food or water. When elephants resist, they can be subject to cruel and abusive human behavior.  We learned this from a National Geographic film made about ENP and the tragedy of the Asian elephants.

There are now less than 2500 elephants left in the Thailand jungles.  Although the wild ones are protected, many are captured and sold. Once captured, they have no rights; elephants are treated as livestock. All “domesticated” elephants, the loggers, the trekkers, the circus stars, go through a shocking, torturous process called ‘pajan’ where as a baby, they are beaten with nail embedded sticks, sharp hooks torn into their ears and eyes, starved and deprived water for up to a week until their spirit is broken or they die. This ancient tradition is accepted in the mahout (elephant carer) culture, and even the very young get in on the action when a father hands over the stick.  It is rarely questioned, as with many traditions.

To see the graceful elephants interact with each other in their family groups, showing complex emotions and obvious intellect walk freely through the day at ENP, left me with conflicting emotions. I am thrilled that there are places trying to make a difference, helping elephants in need, but there are not enough. The torturous practice of breaking the spirit, and teaching an elephant to paint by beating it relentlessly until it “performs” the correct brush strokes are continuing today, and the more we as tourists, ride elephants, pay for trekking and buy elephant paintings the torture will continue. But of course like so many tragedies, there is a “Catch 22”. If tourism dollars stop, the elephants will starve. Eco tourism like is one way to make a difference and education is another.  My gratitude for the experience of hanging out with the herd is endless as it was truly life changing. I would recommend it to all. If you find yourself close to these beauties, look into their eyes and get to know them, but please, please don’t ride the elephants.

Story – Kaz Toupin
Photos – Caileigh Toupin

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