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A mission to rescue elephants

Lunch time at the Elephant Nature Park

As our convoy of tourist buses climbs the winding road to Thailand's Elephant Nature Park, tourists clamber to press their camera lenses against the bus windows as they catch their first glimpse of the animals.

Only as our bus slows, to allow a mahout to guide one of these enormous creatures along the road, does it become clear the man riding the elephant is holding in his hand a large stick with a sharp pointed spike.

For Lek Chailert, the founder of the Elephant Nature Park, 60km from Chiang Mai, the use of the hooks and spikes she fiercely opposes just a few kilometres from the sanctuary she has created, is infuriating.

Her strong views on the treatment of elephants used for tourism have drawn the attention of international travel companies, encouraging them to change their policies on animal-related tours.

After meeting activists like Lek, Intrepid Travel, which operates 32 tours around Thailand, has phased out elephant rides from its itineraries and, this year, cancelled them altogether.

The move was echoed by UK giant STA Travel, which has also scrapped visits to the attractions.

Though many of the elephants used in tourism have been rescued from working in industries such as logging, Intrepid Travel founder Geoff Manchester says some elephants were being poached to satisfy the demand for tourist rides and entertainment.

"Some venues seem to be trying to outdo each other with novelty offerings that clearly give little regard to the elephants' welfare.

"An elephant falling off a tightrope would be catastrophic for the elephant," he says. "We took a stance over two years ago and began to phase out venues of concern."

Intrepid Travel, through its charity arm, has also funded a study into the treatment of elephants in the tourist industry.

The research, led by World Animal Protection wildlife and veterinary advisor Jan Schmidt-Burbach, revealed that only 5 per cent of the 118 Thailand wildlife entertainment venues he visited were considered "commendable" in the way they treated animals, largely elephants.

One of those making the shortlist was Lek's Elephant Nature Park.

The park is home to 39 rescued elephants - some of which came within an inch of their lives after being mistreated as working animals.

While each arrives with their own heartbreaking story, one of the most talked-about is blind elephant Jokia.

Made to pull heavy logs uphill while heavily pregnant, the then-39-year-old elephant lost her baby during labour.

After she refused to work after her baby's death, Jokia was struck in the eyes with stones by angry mahouts who commanded she continue working.

Jokia was permanently blinded but, luckily, Lek was able to rescue her for her sanctuary in 1999.

Jokia now roams at the Elephant Nature Park with a protective herd which surrounds her almost everywhere she goes.

Tourists revel in the chance to get close to the animals, funding the upkeep of elephants at the park by paying a fee to stay the week or for a day's entry.

Within minutes of our day tour, we're taken straight into elephant feeding time. Trunks reach out to touch the hands of tourists, seeking watermelons, pineapples and whole pumpkins - which they crush with ease.

Staff members draw on their encyclopaedic knowledge to give us the fascinating and heart-wrenching back-stories for each animal we pass.

The mahouts manoeuvre in the background, steering elephants and politely warning the occasional tourist whose camera edges that little bit too close.

Lek says her mahouts are carefully chosen so her elephants are able to recover from their past traumas.

On their first day at work, the staff - some previously employed in the logging trade or training street elephants - are searched for spikes and hooks.

For some staff, who have been trained to see this equipment as necessary in controlling the enormous elephants, it's a big ask, but one Lek insists upon.

"The mahouts say, one day I might be killed by an elephant . . . I see the elephants, I look at their eyes; their eyes tell you so much; I can always tell (how they feel)," Lek says.

After an onsite lunch, the tourists are invited to give the elephants some much-needed relief from the heat.

Using buckets, the tourists drench the elephants and each other for bath time in the river.

The day is not without a strong message, however, and tourists watch a video about the mistreatment of the animals around Thailand.

Lek concedes getting tourists to take animal welfare seriously is a long process, as is changing the mindset of the mahouts who surround her.

"I work here every day and I see elephant riding and see them being beaten; I want to go there and tell them to stop but I have to try to be nice.

"The only way is for me to make myself calm and I can't do as my heart tells me, I have to try and speak to them and try to find some positive (way) to get to them," she says.

"I want to educate them and I would like to see more tourists think with respect for the animals."

As we head back down the winding road to Chiang Mai, the camera flashes have dimmed and there is no longer a gathering at the windows of the tour bus.

It would appear Lek's message is gradually getting through.


The Elephant Nature Park is near Chiang Mai, about 60km from the city centre.

Intrepid Travel offers three-day tours including a visit to the park from $380 per person for a twin share or $535 for a single room. or 1300 797 010.

Tourists can volunteer at the park for a donation of 12,000 Thai baht ($400) per adult or 6000 baht ($200) per child.


Natalie Brown was a guest of Intrepid Travel.