Care to ride an elephant? Give it a second thought. In Thailand, several dedicated sanctuaries are rescuing elephants from the tourism industry and offering them retirement. Makery visited one of them.
Phuket (Thailand), special report
Two-year-old baby elephant Katin loves watermelon. This afternoon, she wants no more rice balls, no more sugar cane, no more bananas… nothing but juicy watermelon placed in her trunk, without the rind, thank you. Separated from her mother at birth, Katin knew only a life of slavery during her first year working at the Great Buddha tourist site, before being rescued by Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (EJS) in Phuket.
Fino, born in 1945 and rescued in 2016, is less finicky. At snack time, the oldest elephant rescued by the sanctuary is quite happy to munch on any sweet treats. After laboring in the logging industry for several decades in Phetchabun province, before serving another ten years in a tourist trekking camp in Phuket, Fino, age 73, knows she is among the great ladies of the resident matriarchy.
EJS Phuket, opened in 2016, is one of the newer Thai sanctuaries for rescued and retired elephants. It also offers the EJS Care Project, a veterinary clinic that treats and rehabilitates older elephants. EJS, founded in 2014, now cares for about 75 elephants in 12 camps located in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, Phuket in the south and Pattaya near Bangkok.
While there currently exist more than a dozen elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, they are not all identical. In addition to short encounters and day visits, some offer volunteer stays from a few days to a few weeks in order to participate completely in the local community. The very first sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, created north of Chiang Mai in 1995 by the passionate Thai woman Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, is a pioneer of the movement. Her project has since extended to the Save Elephant Foundation, which includes various programs to raise awareness and help elephants (and dogs).
Mud bath or jungle walk
Situated near Patong, best known for being the biggest tourist resort town in Thailand, EJS Phuket is more oriented toward entertaining visitors: few rules, somewhat buffoonish bathing with the elephants and mahouts (trainers), free photos throughout the day. One might be tempted to think that these rescued elephants have gone from one form of tourism to another… Still, they also have their free time, the guides know them well, the mahouts are just as devoted, and the atmosphere is lighthearted.
Following a basic introduction to the sanctuary and the particularities of the species, we are invited to feed the elephants watermelon, bananas, sugar cane and other treats. The mixed rice balls seem a bit less in demand. Accompanied by their mahouts, gently patted under the trees, the elephants seem calm and used to being surrounded by the small crowd of humans. Most of them are the older ladies of the herd, observing us in return, sometimes with tears in their eyes.
While most of the visitors proceed to the communal elephant mud bath after lunch, a handful of individuals who opted for the privilege of a jungle walk follow two other elephants off into the bush, accompanied by their respective mahouts and a guide. It’s the most touching experience of my visit. For over an hour, we walk between Sai Thong, age 42, rescued from a trekking camp in 2014, and Lam Yai, age 56, who despite a broken leg from a logging accident some 20 years ago, continued to work up until her rescue by EJS in 2016. Once in the jungle, it’s the elephants who decide where to go, what to eat and how to behave… that is to say, like elephants in the jungle.
An exploited species
Asian elephants, the ones found in Thailand, weigh between 4 and 7 tons, eat about 200kg per day and spend at least 16 hours per day (in the wild) foraging in the jungle. Like humans, they can live up to 80 or 90 years old. Unlike horses, their backs are fragile. Like us, they have developed family and social lives, can feel complex emotions, are aware of themselves and of death. But unlike us, they are not free.
At the beginning of the 20th century, more than a hundred thousand elephants lived in Thailand. Today, there are only a few thousand left, most in captivity. Wild elephants, used to poachers, have become aggressive toward humans. Captive elephants have other problems.
Most of the elephants born before 1980 have worked in logging camps, forced to contribute the very deforestation that is destroying their natural habitat. Once the Thai logging industry declined, captive old and young elephants were (re)conditioned for the tourism industry: many carry people on their backs at trekking camps, while others do circus tricks or draw pictures…
All these unnatural activities are not performed without cruelty. As elephants are very intelligent, very dextrous and very strong, they are in high demand by the exploiters. But precisely because they have a developed intellect and imposing mass, they are especially difficult to train.
The traditional rite of initiation to this life of submission is called phajaan, which means “crush” in Thai. The objective is to “break the wild spirit” of a baby elephant, separated from its mother, isolated, chained and tortured—by beating it in its most sensitive spots, depriving it of food, water and sleep… for at least a week, or until the independent will of the animal is effectively crushed. As soon as it is freed from its chains, the elephant is deemed ready to work in the tourism industry.
It’s at this point that the young elephant is introduced to a mahout, most often for life. The preferred tool of the mahout is the ankusha, a stick with a sharp hook, the same instrument of torture that the elephant never forgets.
Leave the elephants alone
Following a life of submission under human domination, many of the rescued elephants in the sanctuaries still suffer from their injuries, fragile health or psychological trauma, which is often manifested by an exaggerated swaying of the head or other neurotic behavior. In addition to caring for the animals, sanctuaries for rescued and retired elephants are trying to replace conventional elephant tourism with responsible tourism that educates people about the elephants and their condition.
The problem is not just about ethics, but economics. Every tourist can make the choice to visit a sanctuary instead of a trekking camp. While these sanctuaries may differ in scale and approach, they all share the same goal: deliverance from a life of slavery, where all elephants have the right and the freedom to be elephants.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary website