Elephant Nature Park
|Location||Chiang Mai, Thailand|
|Land area||250 acres (100 ha)|
Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants in Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai Province, Northern Thailand, approximately 60 kilometres (37 mi) from Chiang Mai City, co-founded by Sangduen "Lek" (Thai for "Small") Chailert. In 2013 Erawan Elephant Retirement Park opened in western Thailand as an offshoot. By 2016 there were branch elephant parks in Surin and in Cambodia, and there were plans to open a fifth park in Phuket. By then the work was coordinated by the Save the Elephant Foundation.
The parks provide sanctuary for rescued elephants and operate under a business model in which tourists pay to visit and help care for the animals, and can stay for extended periods.
Lek Chailert started working on elephant conservation in 1996. Teak logging, in which many elephants were used, had been banned in Thailand in 1989, and those elephants had been abandoned or sold for use in the tourist industry or for begging in cities. Elephants are also left maimed after poachers take their ivory.
In the late 1990s the government of Thailand was working to promote ecotourism in Chiang Mai Province; tourism brought in 350 million dollars in 1997 and was the province's biggest source of revenue; the ecotourism plans were controversial with indigenous people there.
By 1998, an organization called Green Tours run by Adam Flinn had founded Elephant Nature Park, a tourist site and reserve for rescued elephants in a valley about an hour north of Chiang Mai, with Chailert, who owned some of the land and leased some from the Thai government. At that time the park featured a daily elephant show where elephants performed tricks like balancing on one leg and playing football, and included elephant rides. She maintained a more isolated section up one of the surrounding mountains for especially damaged animals that she called "Elephant Heaven." The park had 34 rescued elephants. Her goal was to eventually end the performances and run it purely as a reserve.
By 2002 Chailert was well known for campaigning against elephant crushing and around that time a documentary about the treatment of elephants in Thailand featuring Chailert's work was released; in response, PETA called for a boycott of Thailand until conditions there changed.
By 2005 the boycott campaign had made Chailert an embarrassment to the Thai government and had led to death threats and to Friends of the Asian Elephant, a government-funded organization that had done work to improve conditions for elephants, ending its funding for Chailert's work. Chailert was listed in a special 2005 post-tsunami issue of the Asian edition of Time magazine as one of "Asia's heroes". By 2005 17 of the elephants Chailert had rescued were adults, and she had also opened a travel agency in Chiang Mai. By this time the park no longer offered performances and had shifted to a business model in which visitors could come help care for the elephants.
In 2010 the park had 33 elephants and visitors could come for up to 28 days, paying $400/week.
In 2011, Elephant Aid International assessed the care of elephants in the park and found abundant foot disease, long periods of chaining on concrete floors, low mahout morale, and dominance as the form of elephant management used by mahouts. It also noted problems with the elephants' diet, sanitation, exercise, and stress levels, and disapproved of tourists having direct contact with the elephants.
In 2013 Erawan Elephant Retirement Park opened in western Thailand on 50 hectares of land beside the River Kwai an hour from Kanchanaburri, as an extension of the original park and using the same business model; it opened with five elephants, one of which died in the first year. In 2014 there were 37 elephants at Elephant Nature Park.
As of 2016, Chailert had rescued a total of 200 distressed elephants since she started in 1996 and there were branch elephant parks in Surin and in Cambodia, and there were plans to open a fifth park in Phuket. That work is coordinated by the Save the Elephant Foundation, run by the same people.
Devoted in her efforts, Chailert has proven an inspirational force. From her humble beginnings to her award-winning conservation efforts, notable accomplishments include being recognized as the Ford Foundation's “Hero of the Planet” (2001), one of Time Magazine's Heroes of Asia (2005), one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation (2010), and more recently, honoured with the Responsible Thailand Awards for Animal Welfare (2018). Advocating not only for the plight of the Asian elephant, but all animals in general, Chailert has accommodated over 400 dogs, cats, birds and water buffaloes at the Park. In addition, she has managed to convince several independent camps to improve the lives of elephants and forbid tourists from riding them through her Saddle Off! outreach program.  As her mission resonates throughout the world, it's hard to quantify the impact of her efforts to educate the public who might otherwise support exploitative and cruel practices, such as riding, but there's no doubt it's had an effect.
Mahout feeding an elephant
- Lillian Cunningham for The Washington Post via the Oakland Press. Nov 11, 2013. At one with the elephants at a Thailand sanctuary
- Kane, John. "Day Nine – Elephant Nature Park". Thai-Di-ary . January 26, 2013.
- Garcia, Luisa. "Meet Thailand's elephant whisperer". CBS News. Retrieved 10 June 2016.
- Michael Gebicki for The Sun-Herald (Sydney, Australia). (Nov. 29, 1998). Elephant lady's jumbo job
- Hile, Jennifer (17 October 2002). "Reporter's Notebook: Elephants Heal at Thai "Heaven"". National Geographic. Retrieved 2006-02-06.
- Inter Press Service 9 Nov. 1998. Development Thailand: Locals Say Ecotourism is Destruction
- Douglas H. Chadwick for National Geographic. October 1, 2005. Thailand's urban Giants
- Jennifer Hile for National Geographic Today October 16, 2002 Activists Denounce Thailand's Elephant "Crushing" Ritual
- King, Robert. The Elephant Whisperer. The Ecologist 35.9 (Nov/Dec 2005): 48–54.
- Zabriskie, Phil (2005-10-03). "Asia's Heroes 2005, Sangduen "Lek" Chailert Thailand's Elephant Woman". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2006-02-06.
- Danielle Lancaster for the Sunday Herald Sun [Melbourne, Victoria, Australia] 25 Apr. 25, 2010. Elephant walk Thailand Jumbo-sized adventure.
- Carol Buckley, Elephant Aid International. May 1, 2011 Letter to Elephant Nature Park
- Margie Maccoll for the Herald Sun (Melbourne). September 25, 2014 Volunteer at the Erawan Elephant Retirement Park is Southwestern Thailand
- Julia Jacobo for ABC News. May 24, 2016 in Thailand Falls Asleep 'Every Time' Caretaker Sings Her a Lullaby
- Save the Elephant Foundation
- "Our Founder". Save Elephant Foundation. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
- "Elephants Are Tortured and Trafficked to Entertain Tourists in Thailand". Time. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
- "Ms. Lek Chailert, Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai), winner of Responsible Thailand Awards 2018, Animal Welfare category". TAT Newsroom. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
- "Home – Dog Project – Elephant Nature Park". Retrieved 2019-02-06.
- "Sharing Space at Elephant Nature Park". Elephant Nature Park. 2014-04-01. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
- CNN, Text by Kate Springer Video by Amanda Sealy and Beau Molloy (2017-11-21). "The sanctuary saving Thailand's disappearing elephants". CNN Travel. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
- "Visit & Volunteer – Elephant Nature Park Booking System". www.elephantnaturepark.org. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
- Marshall, Claire (2017-07-06). "Elephant tourism is 'fuelling cruelty'". Retrieved 2019-02-06.
- "The Cruel Captive Elephant Industry | Animals Used for Entertainment | Issues". PETA Asia. Retrieved 2019-02-06.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Elephant Nature Park.|
- Official website
- segments from Vanishing Giants, documentary film by Jennifer Hile via National Geographic. October 2005.