The only thing we booked before we left the UK was the elephant sanctuary. We knew we wanted to go there because the company came recommended by a friend – we wanted to embrace the opportunity to make friends with an elephant, but we knew riding them was cruel. So we paid our money and booked our half day tickets.
I was excited!
I’m never going there again.
I don’t recommend it either.
My recommendation came on good authority. My mate volunteered at the same company’s sanctuary in Chiang Mai for several days, and she loved it. Her description of the elephants roaming around and being left largely up to their own devices, while she prepared their food and looked after them with a team of volunteers and staff, sounded excellent.
This was not my experience.
Our half day programme meant that the elephants we met had a routine, and to be honest, if I was them I would bloody hate it.
They’re brought out front when the tour group arrives so that they’re one of the first things you see. Then they’re taken back to the feeding area behind the trees to wait. We learnt a bit about elephants from the enthusiastic and entertaining host. A couple of volunteers prepared some food for them. Then we walked down a little path to the elephants to feed them.
While we weren’t riding them, we were allowed to touch them and feed them by hand. Which to be honest was a huge part of the motivation for booking this tour. But turned out to make for some quite uncomfortable moments for me.
There were too many people. I felt crowded, so goodness knows how the elephants felt. Some tourists were screaming – you know, in that delighted rollercoaster at the fairground way. And they were not told off. They were wrapping their arms around the oldest elephants trunk to take a picture with her. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met anyone who would be comfortable with two strangers hugging them simultaneously while squealing with delight and posing for a camera. Let alone an 81yo. So I can’t imagine that elephant felt like they were in a sanctuary.
We stuck with the one elephant, instead of touring them all. After people moved off and the crowd dissipated a little, I felt I’d actually built a bit of a rapport with this elephant. She was gentle. She liked to be fed two bananas at a time. And she would take them straight from your hand.
But her handler was still pulling on her ears and telling her to take the food when she stopped cooperating. She was performing the entire time.
We played in the mud with the elephants, and washed them off, and showered with them.
It was fun. It was an experience. But I wont be repeating it. It was entertainment, rather than a sanctuary. And maybe that is necessary in part for them to make enough money to rescue the elephants from an existence that is likely much worse. And to run what sounds like more of a sanctuary in Chiang Mai – they did say they’d rescued 111 elephants so far, and we only saw about 8 of them. However, the groups of tourists were too big, and the screaming was too much for me.
The screaming was in part due to the elephants spraying the girls with water. Something that the elephants handler encouraged the elephant to do multiple times, despite it being met with screams. While I understand that the tourists were having fun, I just don’t think it is appropriate to scream when there are several elephants in a small space with several people. Moreover, that elephant was performing, not finding sanctuary.
I feel genuinely guilty for going now. Partly because I picked that tour precisely for the interaction with the elephants – there is another company in Phuket that claims to be the only genuinely ethical elephant sanctuary, and they don’t allow you to touch the elephants. And I wanted to touch them. I didn’t want to just view them from a viewing platform like at a zoo.
More fool me.
You cannot interact with wild animals like that without it being for entertainment, and therefore wrong.
We were the morning group. Those elephants had to do that routine again in the afternoon. And I know they used the same elephants because they brought them out front again while the other group arrived and we were leaving.
We got a fantastic cooking demonstration at the end, and one of the best Thai meals I’ve had during my time here.
But I still feel bad for those elephants.
We met a girl further along in our travels who had been to a different sanctuary. She described her experience with glossy wide eyes and wonder. Her programme had been largely the same routine as ours. She believed the man hosting her half day itinerary was amazing and wonderful for dedicating his life to saving elephants. His speech had moved her to tears. She said he had compared elephants to horses, and said that it was unfair to criticise different cultures who use different animals to work the land based on their different needs, and what animals are available to them. I said, while it was a valid point in theory, in practice is takes a lot more force and violence to get an elephant to submit to a human, than it does to get a horse to comply. And that horses are largely bread in captivity for specific purposes and not stolen from their mothers in the wild. I said that, on the whole, horses are not attacked by humans with metal hooks until they comply, and killed if they do not acquiesce. I thought the comparison with horses and elephants was redundant. But maybe I am misinformed, or maybe some of his message was lost in translation.
Either way, I would not recommend visiting an elephant in Thailand – in a sanctuary or otherwise.
They should remain in the wild. Be observed from a respectful distance, quietly [without screaming]. And be allowed to live and roam freely.
It seems to me that sanctuaries are the new elephant rides. And while I understand the need to make a living, and that there is a need to take elephants out of a horrible situation and put them in an improved one, I am concerned that when they run out of elephants to ‘rescue’ from various other occupations, they will start to just get them from the wild for the ‘sanctuaries’ – we would be none the wiser. It’s cynical, but it is entirely possible.
There are a lot of elephant sanctuaries in Thailand now. And at £70 for a half day ticket, it is clearly big business. And I feel guilty for contributing to it.