It’s amazing how come far and wide to wonder at them for their majesty. It’s also amazing how we come far and wide to abuse them for their majesty.
This past summer I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to volunteer with Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand for two weeks. I volunteered at their dog shelter for one week and their Journey to Freedom program the following week. These two weeks taught me a lot about human cruelty as well as the great disrespect and disconnect that so many have with our natural world. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. Journey to Freedom was an absolutely transformative experience. Months later I am still so inspired to share and help protect elephants and their habitat.
A two-hour drive outside of Chiang Mai, I found myself in a small Karen village surrounded by rolling hills and forest. I was going to be camping with 14 other strangers for the next week. I was excited, nervous but ready to work and learn. The first day we walked with the elephants in their natural habitat and learnt about why the forest is so important to the people and the elephants. Mae Yui, Mae Boi, Mae Boon Si and Arawan call this forest home. Rescued from terrible, abusive logging companies for teak wood or rescued from the selfish, exploitive tourism industry, the entire herd has had to endure and survive more than I will ever understand. The rest of the week the team and I were cutting grass for the herd, planting coffee beans and visiting the local school to talk about the importance of protecting elephants.
My experience did not involve riding, bathing or stuffing them with sugary fruit so they stand still for my photos. I had the privilege to just watch elephants be elephants.
When I was younger, one of the top things on my bucket list was to ride an elephant. I can’t even tell you why I wanted to, I just knew I did. The truth is, elephant riding is the epitome of irresponsible travel. It’s still wrong even if the experience is advertised as ‘you take care of the elephants and also ride them!’ Elephants are meant to be wild. They are meant to be free. We are not meant to ride them. The breaking process is horrible and morally wrong. If you love wild animals, you should look at them in their natural habitat.
There are countless ways to avoid participating in the abuse the elephants experience. But we don’t have all day and I’m sure you don’t want to read all of it so here are just five.
- Educate yourself. The worst thing is trying to defend yourself when you don’t know what you’re talking about. Here is just one of many articles you can find online: If You Love Elephants, Don’t Ever Ride Them | The Dodo
- Don’t purchase ivory. Poaching is (obviously) one of the major reasons why elephants are endangered. Why people even bother to purchase ivory is something that I will never fully understand but regardless the ivory trade is very real and illegal. Check out this documentary to learn more! The Ivory Game Trailer | Netflix
- Don’t ride them! There are so many other ways to experience elephants without having to lazily ride them up a hill or along a trail. Walk yourself and travel with the elephants, not on them.
- Don’t purchase furniture made with teak wood! This exploitive industry is not good for the animals or the rest of the environment. If you’re “for the environment” you’ll know what and where your furniture is coming from and who is being used and abused to make it.
- Talk about it! This is the best and simplest way to do something for elephants in your day-to-day life. When done in a tactful, classy way talking about elephants and animal rights can make a huge difference. Don’t shy away from talking about important things that matter to you! If you hear of a friend who’s planning on going to Thailand, ask them about what their plans are, see if elephants are apart of their trip. If so, encourage them to not ride elephants and do their research on companies before they go. Elephant Nature Park is a great option if they go to Chiang Mai!
My experience was made possible thanks to ACS’ International Experiences Grant. I am incredibly thankful for the experience and my university’s continued support of experiential learning.