Support elephant camps and sanctuaries that put the welfare of their animals first, advises Julie Miller.
Elephants and Thailand are closely intertwined – pachyderms have helped shape the Kingdom of Thailand, are part of its history and culture, and are an important element of its tourism industry.
After logging was banned in Thailand in the late ‘80s, most of Thailand’s population of captive elephants [*NB – technically, Asian elephants are wild animals, hence any elephant living under human care is considered ‘captive’ rather ‘domesticated] found new employment in the tourism industry, carrying people through the jungles on organised treks or performing in ‘shows’ displaying their incredible intelligence and trainability.
In recent years, however, animal welfare research has highlighted that many of the activities once considered acceptable in the name of entertainment are, in fact, demeaning and cruel to the animals. A baby elephant dancing and performing on cue may be cute, but the reality is, this little creature has been taken away from its mother prematurely, may have been trained via cruel methods and is actually performing unnatural acts, all for monetary gain.
With tour companies such as Intrepid Travel leading the charge, there is now a shift away from supporting elephant camps offering trekking and animal shows; instead, tourists are increasingly being offered opportunities to interact with the elephants on a more intimate level, becoming involved in the daily care of the animal and learning about the special relationship between the elephant and its mahout.
So if you’re keen on having a meaningful, enjoyable and gentle interaction with an elephant on your next holiday in Thailand, consider visiting one of these ethical sanctuaries:
1. Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, Chiang Rai: Located at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, this camp provides a home and employment for over 30 former street elephants, mahouts and their families. Activities for guests at the resort include the daily care of the elephants, helping to bathe the elephants in the river, learning to ‘drive’ the elephants like a real mahout and ‘Walking with Giants’, a forest trek with elephants, accompanied by a resident veterinarian or biologist. See www.goldentriangle.anantara.com
2. Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai: This lovely acreage on the outskirts of Chiang Mai provides sanctuary for over 30 elephants, many of them victims of abuse and mistreatment. Here, visitors can watch elephants being elephants, interacting in their herd, playing with each other, and bathing in the river. There is a day guest program that includes feed and bath time, plus the park has a wonderful volunteer program for those wanting a longer, more intimate experience and don’t mind a bit or hard work! See www.elephantnaturepark.org
3. Elephant Haven, Kanchanaburi: Under the tutelage of Lek Chailert from Elephant Nature Park, this brand new facility at Sai Yok, 130 kilometres west of Bangkok, has taken the chains off six elephants from a local trekking camp, with the plan eventually to rehabilitate another 49 from the camp. Visitors and volunteers are welcome at this fledgling sanctuary, see elephantnaturepark.org.
4. Elephant Hills, Khao Sok: This luxury tented rainforest camp on the fringe of Khao Sok National Park in Thailand’s south offers an interactive experience with its resident herd of 12 Asian Elephants, with guests participating in bathing and feeding the elephants. Two and three-day jungle safaris are available, including accommodation, meals and elephant activities. See elephanthills.com
5. Phang Nga Elephant Park, Phang Nga: This is the newest elephant park in Phang Nga, attracting tourists from Phuket and Khao Lak. Family-run, this small business started their sanctuary so their small herd of domesticated elephants could be provided with the highest quality of life, with visitors encouraged to interact one-on-one with the elephants. There are half and full day packages available which include looking after ‘your’ elephant for the day and a Thai cooking class. See www.phangngaelephantpark.com
*Photography by Julie Miller.