Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

Yesterday we spent the morning at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, home to Madee and Kannika (and as of today a new addition who is blind and one more on the way soon who is unfortunately too sick to travel). Madee and Kannika arrived in August, both rescued from the same camp. Madee is 60 with a slightly dodgy leg (and scars on her body likely from being shot) and Kannika is 32 and both have spent their lives working in the logging industry or in camps used for the tourism and entertainment industry.

Our tour started with a short video about how elephants are treated in order to get them to appear in shows or be used for elephant treks. It’s a technique called ‘elephant crushing’ which as the name suggests means they are broken down and tamed by being put in a cage and tied up by ropes in order to break their spirits. They are subject to a range of techniques all designed to make them scared and obey a human’s orders including beating, being stabbed in the ear and subject to food and drink deprivation to make them submissive. The video was so upsetting and that was only the ‘light’ version but anymore and I’d have been crying. We also watching an entertaining safety briefing video from Lou from Neighbours explaining how to approach the elephants so as not to scare them (and get hurt in the process). After that it was time to get our wellies on (which the sanctuary provided) and go meet the elephants.

It was feeding time so we fed them bananas, pineapples, watermelons and cucumbers and they just couldn’t get enough of them. One huge bucket of fruit each, and it was like a moth to a flame. Kannika especially would stock pile multiple items of fruit under her trunk, so that even she couldn’t actually carry them all. Then she’d literally hoover them up in one single gulp! The elephants could eat all day but after the fruit had gone we went for a walk with them following behind us and coming up to say hello if they saw we had a banana in our hands.

The sanctuary take them on different routes every day but it’s clear that there are some that have become their favourite. It’s the same with the watering holes where they go to cool off – they both got in gingerly like me getting into a cold pool but once they were in they both loved it. I’ve never seen elephants so chilled and relaxed as they were floating around the pool as we watched. Then they came out again to spray themselves (and each other) in mud, all while we sat close by (but not too close or we too would have had a mud bath!). Then it was time for a gorgeous veggie lunch whilst watching the elephants get back into the water.

All of our interaction was completely natural – the elephants are so friendly and loved spending time with us without any use of chains or commands. You can see the close bond they have with each other, with the mahouts and the rest of the team. They’re really sociable animals and they love the company of other elephants and humans alike – the elephants were simply having fun and choosing to share it with us.

But it has got me thinking about the tourism industry which in Phuket (and a lot of Thailand) relies heavily on animals for entertainment. Today as we drove up to the Big Buddha (which has amazing views of the island) we saw baby elephants in pens and many elephants camps with their elephants in chains – one in particular struck me as she was all alone at the front, feet chained together and her trunk swinging listlessly from side to side with her head down. I’m not an expert at elephant body language but having seen happy elephants yesterday I could tell that this was not one.

I’m ashamed to say that I had no idea until visiting the sanctuary how badly animals get treated in order to be ‘tame’ enough for our entertainment. I’m guilty of indulging in these things and enjoying them; last time I was in Thailand I had an elephant ride and went to Tiger kingdom (where you get to cuddle baby tigers – it’s so cute but they must sedate them in order to make it safe). But now I know the reality I will be much more careful about where I spend my time and money to make sure that animals are being treated ethically and with their best interests at heart. It’s going to be a hard sell out here as elephants and other animals are a huge chunk of the tourism industry and many of the elephant camps are obviously very much opposed to the sanctuary because it’s taking business (and money in a lucrative industry) away from them. But with seven weeks of being open this sanctuary has three well looked after elephants in its care and with similar places in Chiang Mai and Phnom Penh hopefully over time and with greater awareness for us tourists conservation will become higher on the agenda than entertainment.

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