Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is this year’s proud winner of the ‘Responsible Thailand’ award in the category of Animal Welfare for its work rescuing and rehabilitating elephants in Thailand and providing a sanctuary to hundreds of other animals in need. The award was presented last week by His Excellency Mr. Weerasak Kosurat, Minister of Tourism and Sports at World Travel Market in London.
For two decades, the founder of Elephant Park, Sangduen Lek Chailert (Lek) has dedicated her life to improving the welfare of elephants in the region, often in the face of strong resistance to change. Lek’s work rescuing elephants and advocating for their ethical treatment has become the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary film, Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story, which premiered in the US in April this year and is currently being screened in the UK.
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Lek has received many acknowledgments for her work, including being honoured as one of TIME Magazine’s ‘Heroes of Asia’ in 2005, and one of six ‘Women Heroes of Global Conservation’ in 2010 by then-US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
The wild elephant population in Thailand is reported to be between 1,500-3,000 with some on-the-ground estimates as low as 1,000. At the beginning of the 20th century, over 100,000 elephants are estimated to have roamed free in Thailand. The rapid demise in wild elephant numbers due to loss of habitat and poaching has put the survival of this keystone species at risk.
The plight of the Asian elephant has received significant media attention in recent times and the question of what qualifies as ‘ethical elephant tourism’ has come under scrutiny. Many visitors to Thailand are unaware of the suffering caused to elephants by being ridden and performing in shows. A recent report revealed that 40% of tourists from the top 10 countries visiting Thailand were planning to do an elephant ride, which translates to a demand for around 12.8 million elephant rides in the country.
Elephant riding can lead to serious injuries and doesn’t allow elephants adequate time to eat and drink. This activity also leads to high levels of stress and has been known to cause miscarriages in pregnant elephants ridden to the point of exhaustion.
Other performances offered by elephant camps include dancing, painting, playing football, balancing acts – all of them unnatural and demeaning behaviour. To get elephants to perform these tricks, a long and painful training process using harsh punishment is employed. As a result, elephants exploited in this way commonly develop stereotypical behaviour, such as swaying back and forth and bobbing their heads in repetitious cycles.
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Elephant Nature Park serves as a model to elephant camps by showing that an ethical alternative to these harmful activities is possible. ENP provides the knowledge and resources to help elephant owners make the shift from traditional elephant tourism activities to their ‘Saddle Off’ model based on respect and compassion. Lek recently established the affiliate, Asian Elephant Projects, to facilitate this transition.
Visitors to Elephant Nature Park have the unique experience of observing elephants in an environment where they are respected, allowed to form herds, and interact naturally without fear of punishment. The well-being of the elephants is paramount, and the income provided by visitors supports the ongoing mission to improve the lives of elephants throughout Asia through the Save Elephant Foundation.
The ‘Responsible Thailand’ Awards are run by Wanderlust Travel Media on behalf of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and are intended to bring attention to and encourage Thailand’s dedication to the conservation of its natural and cultural resources, as well as support sustainable tourism development with consideration to the impact on our planet.
For more information visit: elephantnaturepark.org, saveelephant.org, asianelephantprojects.com
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