Unfortunately the exploitation of animals for tourism purposes is still rife in many parts of the world. Elephants are one of the main victims with elephant riding continuing to be a popular holiday activity in some parts of Asia. I’m not going to lie, four or five years ago I remember writing a travel bucket list and ‘ride an elephant’ was scribbled on it. Of course the idea of sitting on top of one of the worlds greatest mammals while they walk through luscious leafy jungle sounds amazing, until you know the dark truth about the industry and what it means for the future of these incredible beings.

Asian elephants are endangered with an estimated number of only 2000 remaining in the wild. Naturally, wild elephants are territorial and potentially very dangerous and for this reason the process of taming them is brutal. After the elephants are illegally captured, they undergo a savage process known as ‘phajaan’ or ‘the crush’ which basically means to completely break the elephant’s spirit. It is mostly young elephants who are captured as they’re easier to break. The process involves confining the elephant to a tiny dark space and beating it into submission. 

Conserve Natural Forests (CNF) is an NGO organisation based in the outskirts of Pai in northern Thailand. Since 2014 CNF has been working to protect and conserve Asian elephants and endangered bird species. They also dedicate themselves to preserve other wildlife and the natural ecosystems which make up the 49,000 square metre plot of land.

CNF buy and rescue captive elephants from mahouts and with the help of their rehabilitation program, help them to ‘relearn’ how to be wild. When they are ready, the elephants are releleased into a national park which is protected by the Thai royal family. CNF hope that with their help and with the help of similar organisations, the number of wild Asian elephants will steadily increase. Some may argue that this is still elephant tourism and although it technically is, it is educational and promotes sustainable and elephant-friendly tourism.To get to where the elephants live we had to wade through the river. Most of it was really shallow but some parts had little dips that made the water go up to your thigh. The water was cool and refreshing in the humid Pai air. 

After crossing the water we walked towards the elephants, armed with pots of squash. CNF is a relatively new organisation and because they provide a rehabilitation program there’s only ever a few elephants there at any time. During our visit we were lucky to meet a small elephant family- a mother named Mai Moon and her daughter (I can’t remember her name, sorry!) Both mother and daughter were heavily pregnant, 22 months in fact! Elephants are usually pregnant for 18-22 months so they were expecting to welcome the calves to the world any time soon. They are magnificent beings full-stop but to see the calves moving around in their stomachs was incredible. We brushed our hands over their stomachs and feeling the calves moving under their skin is something I’ll never forget.

If you ever wondered how to make friends with an elephant, the answer is FEED THEM! They eat a whopping 200kg of food every day and they were chomping away the whole time. Standing close to them while they were chomping sounded like we were stood in a cave. There was a big echo-like sound every time the squash crunched. Mai Moon kept trying to steal her daughter’s food with her trunk which was very funny to watch. You could really see their bond and how they interact with each other.It was time to cross back over to the hut where we thought our time with the elephants was over. But no, after a few minutes the pair of them appeared from the trees and slowly trudged across. They came right up to the deck and we were given more squash and a tonne of bananas to feed them. We spent hours with them, it was amazing.
As given in their name, the ethos behind CNF is to build a sustainable future to conserve nature. They’re on a mission to plant one million trees and since 2014 they’ve planted over 20,000 trees in twelve locations across Thailand. To help achieve their goal everyone who visits is asked to plant a tree. We were given a big spade and with a few big arms swings, lots of sweat and some help from one of the coordinators (it was quite hard to dig the dirt!) we each planted a bamboo plant.

We had an amazing afternoon with Mai Moon and her daughter. I recommend visiting CNF to anyone who’s in northern Thailand and wants an ethical elephant experience. By going to CNF and similar organisations, you support the rehabilitation of captured elephants into the wild – where they belong.


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