Visitors to Thailand often take rides on elephants, buy elephant painting or watch shows where elephants perform tricks, not knowing the huge price that is paid by this majestic animal. At Phuket Elephant Sanctuary these gentle, enormous beasts are rescued from a life of torture and abuse.
Currently there are around 7,750 elephants in Thailand with 4,000 in the wild. That means that over 3,500 are used in logging and to perform tricks. But people may not realise that to get these intelligent animals to perform these tricks and do work, their spirit must be broken using torture.
Despite its appearance, an elephant's skin is as sensitive as a human's and they control elephants to paint or do tricks using nails and picks dug deep into their flesh. Their 5 kilo brains make them highly intelligent and easy to train. They explain that when an elephant looks like it is painting by swaying its trunk back and forth, it is actually in distress and someone is digging a nail into its ear-the most sensitive part of the elephant.
One of the founders of the sanctuary Montri Todtane actually himself worked at one of these shows but grew to understand that elephants are similar to humans.
I'm embarrassed to admit that on my first visit to Thailand 20 years ago I rode an elephant. I asked the man leading us around if the elephant found humans too heavy and about the pick he was using to control the elephant's direction. He told me that the elephant's skin was tough and that we were like an "ant" riding on its back.
Now a much greater awareness of elephant welfare is spreading (although there is a dwindling but still present demand for elephant riding). At Phuket Elephant Sanctuary they use the money from their sanctuary tours to purchase elephants for rescue. People can report elephants that they see in distress and PES make a decision on which elephant is in the worst condition.
They focus on older female elephants with eye and leg injuries as the males are more prized as they can breed until they die and have tusks that make them valuable so can cost three times as much as a female elephant. A recent rescue took 2 months of planning. Some rescues take several years to engineer as the owner must be willing to sell the elephant. Sadly some rescues pass away shortly after their rescue. Elephant Richy lived for 8 months at the sanctuary before succumbing to her injuries.
One of PES's elephants Sai Tong was chained to a tree in the hot Koh Lanta sun all day where people had to pay for food to feed her. Asian elephants need shade for most of the day and humid conditions and she was skinny to the bones and shaking with distress. Richy was giving tourists rides until she was 70 years old while she had a broken hind leg and twisted ankle at her right front leg as well as scars from the tight chains around her legs. Some elephants are surrendered by their owners - Cattleya’s owner contacted one of PES's mahouts Benz, concerned about her health and treatment by those he had rented her out to.
The elephants at PES roam free across the sanctuary's 30 acre jungle site with their mahouts who care for them. They're all given new names and new mahouts (trainers) that helps them forget their previous lives.
The first stop in the PES half day tour is watching an educational video which can be confrontingly awful. They show some of the conditions that the elephants were found in as well as how to interact with an elephant safely.
There are some rules for elephants: don’t stand behind or touch their back, don’t stand next to it as their peripheral vision is poor. Do not approach an elephant-let them come to you and if you don't have food don't tease them and don't touch their trunk.
There are a few ways elephants show that they are happy. Like a dog, if their tail is wagging and their ears are flapping and eyes are relaxed that is a good sign. If their eyes are wide open they are anxious.
After the video we feed 39 year old elephant Tongli - they eat for 16 hours a day and sleep for just 3-4 hours. It costs roughly $2,000AUD a month for food and medicine for one elephant for one month. After the feeding we follow them into the jungle where we watch them roam free at a distance.
Gaew Ta (which means "Darling" in Thai) is a peaceful blind elephant who worked in both the logging industry and giving elephant rides. Blindness is common with elephants, mostly caused by them piling dirt on their backs to keep themselves cool. There's no splashing in the water with the elephants and obviously no riding, it's just letting the elephants be in their natural habitat.
After the tour we adjourn for lunch. On offer is a tasty vegetarian and vegan lunch provided for all guests with plenty of salads and Thai curries, noodles and rice as well as dessert. We eat in the main treehouse and watch the elephants roam free eating, bathing and ambling slowly across the grounds with their trusted mahouts by their side.
Elephants form relationships with each other. Madee (which means "new beginnings" in Thai) is a 69 year old elephant who was rescued from a life working in logging and had a gunshot wound. Madee has failing health and has to stay in the hydrotherapy pool to help her stand up.
Kannika and Madee in the hydrotherapy pool
However she has a best friend in Kannika a younger 39 year old elephant who looks after her. Even though Kannika is younger and healthier and can easily go into the jungle, the two are inseparable and she stays by Madee's side protecting her.
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever visited an elephant sanctuary?
NQN was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand but all opinions remain her own.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
100, Moo 2,, Paklok, Thalang, 83110, Thailand
Open 7 days 9:30am–1pm, 1:30–5pm
Phone: +66 88 752 3853