Land of elephants
I am not particularly an elephant fan, but I have a couple of elephant figures decorating my bookshelves back home. I enjoyed the thrill of being close to these giants during the African safari and makes me really sad to see them in chains here is Southeast Asia. I heard a lot about what is ethical and what’s not in the ‘elephant tourism’ business, but I still find it really hard to decide which center or sanctuary offers a truly ethical program. I assume, that less and less people arrive to Thailand with the idea of going for an elephant ride, and the need for having a relaxed and playful time with these amazing creatures is rising. The available options respond to this need, but just because of putting ‘no riding’ on their flyers, none of the previous elephant riding camps become acceptable.
Personal experience and recommendations matter a lot to me, so I talked to many who visited elephant sanctuaries and screened a lot of reviews as well. I prefered to go to a place, where somehow I can contribute to the greater good, the wellbeing of more elephants as well. I decided to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Obviously all, what I share here is subjective, based on my personal experience or the stories told by the staff of the Sanctuary. So if you plan to visit an elephant sanctuary, consider the ethical nature of such programs and listen to your heart.
They say, that the founder of this sanctuary aims to save the elephants from the riding camps and the agricultural/industrial work to provide a free and happy life for them, while supporting the local community as well. Most of the elephants have their local owners, so the sanctuary doesn’t own them. They pay to the owners to let the sanctuary take care of the elephants and let the tourists play with them, instead of making them work.
The elephants eat a lot, almost 200 kg per day. This is not a cost for the farmers anymore, on the contrary, they grow the fruits and crops for the animals and the sanctuary buys them, providing more income to the local community.
You can meet mainly female elephants in the sanctuary – at least in camp 7 there was only one young male – as they are more gentle and can be trained without abusing them, while the males are wild, aggressive, unpredictable and hard to train.
I went for a full day program, but there are several options including half day and two das programs as well. The camps are in the jungle, about 1-1,5 hours drive from the center of Chiang Mai. After arriving we get a short orientation, change clothes to wear the traditional shirts of their owners, who belong to the Karen hill-tribe (they say elephants recognise these shirts) and prepare for the first round of feeding the elephants. Yes, the first round, that will be followed by many others, as these creatures really eat a lot. We learn the instruction bon-bon (or bom-bom), that translates ‘food’ for the elephants.
The first meal is an enormous amount of banana, that is taken by their trunks, or we can put them directly in their mouths. They actually think big: you’d give the fruits one by one, but they actually collect at least 5-6 with their trunk to put them in their mouth, unpeeled.
Baby elephants need to be fed a bit differently – I specifically asked to go to a place, where there are babies – you have to peel the banana for them. The peel may be taken by the mom of the baby – up to her. The baby elephants also eat a lot and are super enthusiastic about the food. I was not always sure, that the baby elephant running towards me after hearing bon-bon can actually stop before hitting me, with the banana in my hands.
After lunch we prepare some ‘medicine’ for the elephants. Their digestion is not perfect, so they need some extra fiber. We smash and mix some banana, turmeric, cooked rice and raw rice, and form little balls from the mass. We feed them with these balls, placing them directly in their mouth. Of course they’ll have more meal, don’t worry.
This followed by the mud bath and bathing in the river, that is I guess more fun for the humans than for the elephants. Not all of them are actually up to going into the mud pool, nor to the river. But I liked, that nobody forced them to do it, so only three elephants went into the mud pool and three had played with us in the water. I understand that mud bathing and bathing is part of their natural behaviour, but maybe in a slightly different setup. Though one of the baby elephants enjoyed it for sure – making the full group adore her even more. They are really aware of the humans around them, none of them pushed any of us or got close to step on the feet of a human.
The bathing time is followed by another meal, then the group tries to get rid if the mud from our hair/clothes, takes a shower, buys some gifts with elephant patterns and leaves back to town.
What I liked
Every elephant had its caretaker around, but none of them had sticks, lash or hooks with them. There was no physical sign of hurting or abusing them in any ways. I also liked, that the elephants were not forced to participate in any activities, and in general I had the feeling that they care about them and treat them gently, with love.
I can understand having instruction for taking food. But one of the elephants was trained to give a kiss after hearing ‘tsup-tsup’ – that is clearly not part of their natural behaviour. Most of the elephants living here are rescued from riding camps, where they were abused and trained, so they might have learned a thing or two there. But when I asked how does the sanctuary train the elephants (the babies born there or saved before trained in the camps) not to hurt humans, or how to take the food, or to give a kiss, the answer for me was not clear. I also have to admit, that our guide did not speak perfect English – so this can be a language issue. I just hope, that they treat the animals all the time with the same tenderness as they do when we see them.
What the money is used for
The sanctuary spends most of its income on elephant food and veterinary service, and also has a fund, so that in the future they can actually buy and own the rescued animals safeguarding their lifelong happiness and wellbeing. The sanctuary has 9 camps around Chiang Mai, with at least 3 elephants in all of them.
- Location: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Camp 7
- Elephants: 6
- Tourists: cca. 30.
- Time spent with elephants: cca. 4-5 hours
- Half day program: 1700 THB
- Full day program: 2400 THB