Sanctuary for mistreated Thai elephants offers window to visitors

Visitor Andrea Worden helps senior resident Mae Khum Pun bathe at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand.

In February my sister, Andrea, travelled to Thailand for business, taking a day at the end of her trip to spend a day with the residents at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), a non profit sanctuary for abused, injured and neglected elephants (and dogs). She chose the park because it allows elephants to live as elephants. The organization eschews the practices of so called "elephant camps" where elephants are taught tricks and give visitors rides. Here's Andrea's account of her experience:

Founded in 1995 by the diminutive Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, who has received numerous awards for her work, ENP’s mission is to rehabilitate and nurture rescued elephants and to educate Thais and the world about the plight of Thailand’s elephants. At the start of the 20th century, there were an estimated 100,000 elephants in Thailand; today the number of elephants is less than 4,000. There are currently 35 elephant residents at ENP --32 females and three males--who roam freely in their self-selected family groups, though their mahouts (handlers or caretakers) keep a watchful eye on them when visitors are around. Lek (with the help of donors) buys elephants who have suffered abuse or neglect in connection with the logging industry, street begging, and the tourist industry.

I signed up for the one-day visit (titled “Learning Elephant”), which costs about USD$80 and begins with a morning pickup at your hotel in Chiang Mai for the one-and-a-half hour drive to the park. Once the van was full and we were on the main highway heading north out of the city, our guide, a delightful young woman named “Bee,” explained what was in store and who we were about to meet. She told us the stories of a few of the elephants (or “eles” as they are affectionately called), like Jokia, who is in her 50s, and blind. The family that originally owned Jokia had to sell her off when logging was banned in Thailand in 1989. She was the family’s source of income, and when she became unemployed, the family could no longer afford to feed her (eles need up to 200 pounds or more of food a day.) As punishment for some sort of “misbehavior,” a subsequent owner blinded Jokia in both eyes. After Jokia arrived at the park, one of the oldest of the “old ladies” befriended her and is now her constant companion.

Bee explained that the elephants who interact with the visitors, including Jokia, are generally gentle and calm, but that they can also be unpredictable. Bee warned us that during feeding time we had to feed the eles continuously, otherwise they become unhappy. The eles, who are vegetarians, spend 16-18 hours a day eating. Bee told us we’d get a safety briefing when we arrived at the park, but during our drive she stressed that we should always stand to the side of an elephant’s trunk and not to stand directly in front of or behind an elephant. “The main thing to remember is this,” Bee added. “When I run, you run.”

About an hour into the drive, after we had turned off the main road, we began to see some elephant camps and an occasional lone elephant chained to a tree. As we proceeded along the back road, we were treated to breathtaking vistas of lush rainforest and mountains. I knew we were close when I saw a few elephants roaming around on their own in a large field dotted with trees. When we pulled into ENP, after taking in the beauty of the park and the elephants in the distance, I was next struck by the vast number of dogs lazing about everywhere, and then by the enormous quantities of bananas, pumpkins, squash, melons, and pineapples stacked up in the storehouse. The dogs, over 100 of them, are also rescues, some of them found the park on their own.

Shortly after we arrived, it was the elephants’ morning feeding time. Bee told us to place the veggies and fruit in the slight dip at the end of the elephant’s trunk, and the elephant would handle it from there. Our group fed two of the “old ladies” who were slower eaters -- one of whom had no teeth. Each elephant has a personalized basket with food the individual elephant likes and is able to eat. (There are some picky eaters in the group.) The slower eaters eat separately from the others; otherwise food in their basket would be swiped by the speedier elephants. One of the eles we fed was the elder stateswoman (as she is described on the ENP website) Mae Khum Pun (also spelled Mae Khan Paan), who is in her late 70s, and who arrived at the park fragile and emaciated after being worked illegally for logging, and then at a nearby trekking camp. After placing a bunch of bananas on the curve close to the end of her trunk, she wrapped the tip of her trunk around the bananas and curled her trunk to place them in her mouth. At some point during feeding time, I held on to a melon a bit too long, concerned that she didn’t have a solid grip on it, and felt the latent power of the more than 40,000 muscles in her trunk as it began to curl around my hand.

After a delicious vegetarian lunch (for the humans), our group accompanied Mae Khum Pun down to the river for a bath, an activity that water-loving elephants greatly enjoy. The water level was low, so we were able to help her bathe. Bee handed each of us a bucket, which we used to help get Mae Khum Pun’s sides and upper legs wet. Every now and then Mae Khum Pun would inhale some water into her trunk and shoot it up onto her back, splashing all of us in the process, as if she were challenging us to a water fight.

The next few hours was spent observing the elephants as they scratched, rolled around in a mud pit, scratched again, and ate more food given to them by their individual mahouts. There were some photo opps, as well.

The afternoon ended with a screening of the 2005 National Geographic documentary “Vanishing Giants,” which features Lek and her work, followed by another opportunity to feed some of the elephants. As our group packed up our belongings to prepare to head back to Chiang Mai, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who was envious of those who were staying behind to spend the night, or the next several nights at the park. Next time.

To learn more about the different ways to visit the park (including a week-long volunteer stay), and how you can help, check out ENP’s website at and the Elephant Nature Foundation’s website at

-Andrea Worden