On Tuesday 24th April 2018, we had booked to go to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary to spend half of the day with some rescued elephants.
Thailand has a long history with elephants. It’s their national animal and images of them are something you’ll see throughout Thailand from their flags, Chang beer (Chang means elephant and it’s the beer’s logo too), t-shirts and statues in the street and on temples.
Elephants have also had a huge part to play in Thailand’s working history since the late 1500s. Due to their huge size and strength, the Thai’s (similar to other countries such as India) used elephants to fight against their enemies such as the Burmese and Malays to protect Siam (the former name of Thailand) in battles. Thailand also has a long history of logging which used elephants to do the job machinery does today and this is where many of the elephants came from in the elephant sanctuaries. Logging was banned in 1989 which put a lot of workers and their elephants out of work. Obviously the logging work was never good for the elephants and so logging being banned definitely was good from that point of view but this led to the mahouts (elephant trainers) needing to find a new industry for themselves.
Tourism became the new way for mahouts to make money and so elephants were made to carry tourists through jungles and rivers and perform tricks like kicking a ball or playing drums in front of crowds. Through repeated punishment, the mahouts can train their elephants to do whatever they like and after becoming compliant from years working in the logging industry (I’d be compliant too if I had a sharp rod being hit into my head all the time) they were able to adapt the elephants to their new line of work relatively easily. It goes without saying that this was still not good for the elephants and really wasn’t any form of improvement for them. As well as elephant riding, there is also the King’s Club Elephant Polo Tournament held in Bangkok where teams come from around the world to ride the elephants in a game of polo for the enjoyment of spectactors.
Thankfully, eco tourism is increasing and the awareness of the damage these activities do and the treatment to make an elephant act in such a way has been more widely publicised. I myself, on my first visit to Cambodia had wanted to ride an elephant. I’m glad I didn’t but it just shows that it’s easy to close your eyes to what is in front of you. If you think about it, which so many of us including myself those years ago don’t, of course those elephants wouldn’t have wanted me to ride them and would have been beaten or mistreated to go against their nature and conform in such a way. When I see people riding elephants now it makes me really sad but it’s definitely less common which I’m pleased about. Nowadays, the hostels we stayed at don’t advertise riding an elephant like they once would have and now offer a chance to visit elephants in a sanctuary where it is specifically advertised that riding will not occur.
Elephants are an endangered species but there is an increase of elephants in national parks in recent years which shows that, although there are still faults with this new version of ‘eco elephant tourism’, it’s a step in the right direction for the well-being of elephants in Thailand.
Despite this, it’s still important to research your sanctuary before you go. Some sanctuary’s aren’t as legitimate as others and will still mistreat the elephants or will have captured the elephants specifically for opening the sanctuary (as it can be quite the money maker). Without becoming some form of covert spy to monitor all of the elephant sanctuaries like a fly on the wall it’s impossible to know 100% if the sanctuary you chose is above board. We scoured the internet and read pages and pages of TripAdvisor reviews and blogs to make sure we were going to as reputable a sanctuary as we could. Of all of our research, the two that stood out the most were the Elephant Nature Park and the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. The Elephant Nature Park is the original rescue centre for the protection and saving of working elephants but it’s a lot more expensive to go to and we read that it often involves advanced booking so this wasn’t really an option for us. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is newer but very large with nine locations in Chiang Mai and two in Phuket in southern Thailand. It was only established in 2014 with three elephants and now has 94 elephants in 11 locations. From their website we were told that the elephants were all former logging elephants and have either been rescued or donated by their mahouts.At 6am we were picked up and driven into the Chiang Mai countryside to Camp Number 8. The campsite is away from the roads, across a river and over a hill where you then reach a quiet clearing with lots of trees and a few huts. As we entered the clearing we saw some elephants in the trees eating leaves and sticks and generally just doing whatever elephants like to do. Our ranger’s for the day made a few noises which indicated to the elephants that food would be on its way and they slowly started coming out of the woods.
We were told that the camp had six elephants. Four of the elephants were female and one of them was pregnant which was exciting for the sanctuary. Elephants stay pregnant for two years and she was around half way through her pregnancy which was mad as she already looked huge! The oldest elephant was 75 years old and she was very chilled in the group. There were also two males who were the youngest elephants at 5 and 6 years old and so we were warned that they could get a bit boisterous and energetic when it came to their food and so we should be more careful around them. It was nice to have the elephants as the focus and us being told to be careful due to them behaving however they wanted and it gave me hope that they were being well treated.
We learnt about the difference between an Asian and African elephant with Asian elephants being smaller in size, having smaller ears but a bigger head. For Asian elephants, their heads are heart shaped and the females don’t have tusks whereas all African elephants have tusks. The two male elephants had tusks but not fully formed and we weren’t sure if this was due to growth or having been trimmed – we didn’t end up asking.We were all given water, introduced ourselves to one another (we were a group of around twenty) and then were given traditional clothing which was a colourful, stripy top that was a little like a poncho. This was comfy and I quite enjoyed wearing it and it ended up being really handy for wiping your hands as some of the bananas we fed the elephants were pretty squashed!
Once we were dressed, huge wheel barrows were brought to us full of bunches of bananas. We grabbed as many bananas as we could and spent the next hour feeding them to the six elephants. The elephants weren’t penned in and often wandered about to different people or even away from the group. When this happened the rangers just moved some food to where they were so that they could have a break from people and not miss out on the food and then they often wandered back again. It was incredible to see the elephants use their trunk to grab the food and put it in its mouth. We could even put the food directly into their mouths and I got licked by a very slimy tongue! Their trunks are incredibly powerful and at one point an elephant grabbed my wrist and I have never felt such a firm grasp, I guess they would have to be considering they used to lift up treesWe loved the elephants and it was great to get to feed them and be so close to them. They’re the most beautiful creatures and seemed very comfortable around everyone eating all of the bananas and sugar cane that they could!
After all the food had been eaten we changed into our swimwear and followed the elephants into the mud pool that was next to the river bank. The elephants had already been throwing dust over themselves to cool down whilst they had been eating which had been funny to watch as they often got one of us covered at the same time! In the mud they seemed to like it when we would grab huge clumps of mud and smooth it over their trunk and back as they would stay really still and calm to let you do it. Elephants cover themselves in mud to cool off and regulate their body temperature but also to protect themselves against parasites. You could tell they were having a good time as they started lying and rolling in the mud and one elephant splattered me and Niall with mud from it’s ears and trunk at one point too. It was really fun and great to see the elephants enjoying it too.
From the mud bath we headed to the water in a gentle part of the river that flowed by the sanctuary. The elephants seemed to love being in the water the most and they were great to watch as they had no spacial awareness and so would sometimes sit on one another. At one point an elephant was completely submerged in the water with just its trunk sticking out to breath and then another elephant sat on top of it and you could tell it had no idea it was sitting on a fellow elephant as the submerged elephant struggled to get itself free – it was very funny! Being in the water with the elephants was great and we got to splash the elephants with as much water as possible and help rub all of the mud off them. The more you splashed the elephants, the more relaxed they got in the water until they would lie down and wallow in the waist deep (for us) water. It was all run very well and I particularly liked how our guides made sure we always kept the pathway into the water clear so that the elephants could get out whenever they liked although they all seemed to be enjoying themselves too much to leave early as it was a hot day! We also liked that they took the pregnant elephant into the water early so that it could have sometime to splash about without being surrounded by lots of people and lots of elephants. It showed they were trying to keep the elephant calm and happy which was reassuring to see.As we all got out of the water it was funny to see the elephants immediately cover themselves in dirt again. They would break up the dry ground with their feet and then throw this over themselves to cool themselves down and protect themselves against the sun. We decided not to copy them and instead had a quick rinse and got dressed ready for our lunch. Lunch was a buffet and we all ate as much as we could particularly the watermelon to end our meal which we got to share with the elephants as they enjoyed the skins that we can’t eat (no waste!) We were surprised that the majority of people at the camp with us just sat around chatting after lunch instead of feeding the elephants the left over watermelon or just generally being around them. We made sure to soak up as much time with these incredible animals as we could and I’ll be honest, it was nice to have them all to ourselves but it still baffles me!Camp 8’s beautiful pregnant elephant enjoying a bit of space and peace from all us tourists!
The day couldn’t have gone better and I could spend every day being with those elephants and I wouldn’t get bored. It was unbelievable to be so close to them and they’re the most gentle, clumsy, beautiful animals I’ve ever been fortunate to be around. This is definitely something I would do again and I would recommend it to anyone going to Thailand. I wish I could do it all over again right now.
Sending love x