Animal welfare is a genuine concern for most travelers in Thailand the treatment of captive elephants is something which should be on everyone’s mind. A number of elephant centres call themselves sanctuaries but there are currently no agreed standards and sometimes the word is added as a marketing ploy.
ABTA (the Association of British Travel Agents) recently issued a directive advising against all forms of contact including riding and bathing and only allowing feeding where there’s a barrier.
As I discover a few places adhere to these guidelines.
Elephants have been part of Thailand’s and culture for centuries and were used in warfare transport and until recently in the forestry industry. Due to environmental concerns the government banned all logging and suddenly thousands of animals along with their mahouts were out of work. Since they eat around 250kgs a day, at the cost of £1,000 a month, the only way of keeping them alive was through tourism.
I drive around three hours west from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi to visit Elephants World founded by a Thai vet and his wife. They started with three and now have 22 animals here. It’s a beautiful spacious, on the banks of the River Kwai and the care feels good. Feeding is allowed behind a barrier from specially constructed walkways and riding is definitely out. However I’m surprised to see that they allow tourists to join the elephants for their morning bath in the river although numbers are kept low.
Green Elephant Sanctuary Park
A flight south brings me to the island of Phuket where centres have been established for those tourists seeking a respite from sun and sand. It’s here where I hear terrible stories of animals being shackled by the side of the road offering rides in the midday sun. Thankfully Green Elephant Sanctuary Park doesn’t offer riding but it does cater for large groups.
There are 14 elephants including a baby born here. Feeding is allowed as is bathing. I’m concerned to see a handful of animals crowded by a crowd of 20 tourists in a tiny pool not least for and safety.
Phang Nga Elephant Park
Around two hours north is Phang Nga Elephant Park which now has just nine elephants. It’s on the edge of a stunning fertile forest and there seems to be a strong bond between the mahouts and their charges. I get to make balls to feed the elephants directly then walk alongside them up a rough track. Since groups are limited to 18 this is an opportunity to really get close and spend time with these majestic animals. When we get back I’m saddened to see that they also encourage bathing although with much smaller numbers than in Phuket.
Patara Elephant Farm
I fly to Chang Mai in the north which is home to the largest number of domestic elephants in the country. Less than an hour’s drive to the west is Patara Elephant Farm which focuses on breeding. They’ve had 44 babies born here and the latest is only four months old. Pat the Thai owner gives us a rundown about elephant and tells us about his Elephant Owner for a day programme. It all sounds fine until I learn that you not only get to wash your animal in the river but also learn how to ride on its neck and give spoken commands.