ElephantsWorld: Elephant Sanctuary

 
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A Day at ElephantsWorld: Elephant Sanctuary

Kanchanaburi, Thailand


A mahout on an elephant's back

A mahout on an elephant's back

In Thailand, the Elephant (Thai: chang) is the official national animal and has been celebrated for their strength, durability and longevity for thousands of years. In the Thai Society, elephants are culturally significant and sacred. They are depicted in many art works in royal palaces, temples, and in wall-drawings. From 1855-1916, the official flag was red with a white elephant in the center. During the time of Alexander the Great, elephants were used to fight in war (similarly to horses), and now they are used for manual labor, entertainment, and tourism. Wild Thai elephants can be found in the tropical forests in western and northern Thailand. Because of habitat loss, elephant poaching, slaughtering and abuse, they are currently endangered and facing extinction. Luckily, ethical elephant sanctuaries exist in Thailand and are slowly shifting the idea and practice of elephant tourism, for the better.

ElephantsWorld in Kanchanaburi, Thailand is a non-profit organization founded in 2008 and is a sanctuary for sick, old, disabled, abused and rescued elephants. It is one of the few humane institutions for seeing and interacting with elephants. ElephantsWorld’s website states: “What most people do not know, is that riding on the back of an elephant in a ‘trekking camp’ is a very heavy burden for this huge animal. Their neck and trunk are very strong, but the back of an elephant is built for a maximum load of 100 kg. The seat only, weighs about 50 kg, plus passengers… but this is not the only problem, sometimes the elephants have to work for 10 hours a day or even more. Some camps are also only providing a very basic diet or too little food for the elephants. For some of them, this is literally leading to exhaustion.”

I spent a day at the sanctuary with my classmates, washing and preparing the elephant’s food, as well as feeding and bathing the elephants. The drive to the sanctuary was about two hours from Bangkok. I slept most of the way, so I can’t tell you if it was very scenic or not. But if you are visiting Thailand for the first time, almost anything passing your window-gaze has bound to interest you a bit. Once we drove closer to the sanctuary grounds, we were welcomed with a breathtaking scenic view of wide open land with large, pointed mountain peaks. This view woke me up from my sleepiness really fast. As we pulled into the sanctuary grounds, I became overjoyed. I was not sure what to expect, except to see and possibly pet elephants, and that was enough to keep me entertained.

 

The very first thing our group did was feed the elephants from a raised platform. Only a few metal poles kept us apart from the free-roaming and hungry elephants. We were able to feed them bananas and watermelon that was provided for us. I held out my hand only a couple feet away from the elephant’s head. She lifted her trunk to my hand, grabbed the fruit, and popped it into her mouth. It was a great first thing to see upon arriving; the elephants were not tied-up nor restricted from moving as they pleased. Behind them, were the huge mountain peaks and miles of open land. The elephants must have felt so incredibly happy and free. The second thing on our list for the day was to sort good from bad watermelon, and wash the feed. There, we were also given a brief lesson on what elephants eat: sugarcane, tree bark, grass, watermelon, melon, mangoes, bananas, and more. They eat a lot! Elephants eat on average 150 kg of food (some up to 300 kg), and cost about ฿1,000 (US$28) per day to feed properly. Surprisingly, washing and sorting their feed did not last too long and was pretty fun to do. I think that I was just very appreciative to be at the sanctuary. I really enjoyed dedicating my time and energy for the wonderful animals, and for a good cause.

Afterwards, we went to the river to watch the elephants play and wash in the company of their mahout. A mahout is an elephant rider, trainer, and keeper. According to Elephant’s Jungle Sanctuary, “Mahouts must learn to control their elephant to ensure the safety of themselves, the elephant, and other humans and elephants around them. Mahouts traditionally employ a few different tools, besides training their elephant to obey over 40 verbal commands, to control their elephant. Mahouts’ use of the bullhook is as ancient as their relationship with the elephant. This traditional tool serves to touch pressure points in order to direct the elephant. While it can be used excessively and inappropriately (at some low-quality elephant camps, for example), it is not typically used with the intention to cause harm.” At ElephantsWorld, some mahouts have been paired with their elephant for more than a decade, able to form close bonds with each other. Some of the elephants have even formed close friendships with other elephants during their time at the sanctuary. At the sanctuary, there were also a few baby elephants with their mothers. We were informed that elephants are very sensitive animals. They tend to be affected greatly and stressed out by loud noises, a lot of energy, and lots of commotion. Imagine their work as loggers, or in zoos, circuses, and tourist parks; they can become physically and mentally ill and struggle with behavioral dysfunction - especially if they are underfed, abused, and neglected due to their costly maintenance - which is common. Elephants are emotional and remarkably intellectual, and show their tenderness and love through their actions. At the river, the baby and mahout crossed the river, leaving the mother and her mahout on the other side. Next thing that I hear is a high-pitched call from the mother to the baby. Suddenly, the baby calls back, lower in pitch, and charges back into the water straight to his mother. Once he reached the side of the river that his mother was on, another elephant friend came over, and the mom and friend sandwiched the baby between them, all three of them moving in unison, wagging their little elephant tails happy as ever. When we went to watch the elephants around the mud pool, they would play with the mud, splash it on themselves, play with each other, and scratch themselves on trees. It was humorous to watch their behavior, and I found it, similar to humans, that they want to relax and have fun too!

The best part of the day was when we got to go into the river with brushes and bowls and bathe the elephants. I was not worried about the mud, or the cold water, or even the fact that one of the elephants took a dump in the water! I was just so excited to bathe them. We were able to get close to the elephants, to touch their rough, hairy skin. The elephants were so behaved and stayed in the same place, for the most part. They were probably thinking in their big elephant heads, “when can I wash human?” At one point, one of the elephants saw how much fun we were having while splashing each other with water, that she lifted her trunk and shower-sprayed water into the air at us.

Bathing the elephants was one of the last events of the day - and the most enjoyable one for me. I was drenched with river water, a bit cold, but as happy as ever. My trip to ElephantsWorld was such a memorable one. I helped out a great organization, got to play with elephants, and made memories that will last me a lifetime. Not many people can say that they bathed and played with free-roaming elephants. Any reasonable person will enjoy it more than riding on an elephant’s back, partaking in animal cruelty and funding the abuse. I will recommend this ethical non-profit organization, ElepantsWorld, to anyone and everyone.

“Today, many tourists flock to the Kingdom in hopes of seeing and riding these animals; unknown to them, they are fueling a cruel practice. In order to be ridden, elephants, including those that logged the jungles, must first go through a process known as Phajaan (“the crush”), in which they are tortured until broken into submission” (The Culture Trip).

Here are the names of some other ethical animal sanctuaries/tourism in Thailand:

Elephant Nature Park, Wildlife Friends Foundation, The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, Elephant Hills, Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Phang Nga Elephant Park, and many more

News Update: Elephants may also be facing a new threat of extinction: humans consuming elephant meat. Throughout Thailand, Elephants are often poached for entertainment and tourism, and for the ivory in their tusks. According to New York Daily News on January 26, 2018, it was reported that wild elephants have been slaughtered in a national park in western Thailand for their trunks and sex organs. “Consuming elephant meat is not common in Thailand, but some Asian cultures believe consuming animals' reproductive organs can boost sexual prowess.”

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The first thing our group did was feed the elephants from a raised platform. Only a few metal poles kept us apart from the free-roaming and hungry elephants. It was a great first thing to see upon arriving; the elephants were not tied-up nor restricted from moving as they pleased. Behind them, were the huge mountain peaks and miles of open land. The elephants must have felt so incredibly happy. The second thing on our list for the day was to sort and wash the elephant’s watermelon feed. There, we were also given a brief lesson on what elephants eat. This did not last too long, and washing and sorting watermelon was surprisingly fun to do. I think that I was just very appreciative to be at the sanctuary and enjoyed dedicating my time and energy for animals and for a good cause.

Afterwards, we went to the river to watch the elephants “play” in the company of their mahout. A mahout is an elephant rider, trainer, and keeper. At ElephantsWorld, some mahouts have been paired with their elephant for more than a decade. Some of the elephants have even formed close friendships with each other during their time at the sanctuary, and there were also a few baby elephants with their mothers. We were informed that elephants are very sensitive animals. They are emotional, and show their tenderness and love through their actions. When watching the elephants around the mud pool, they would play with the mud, splash it on themselves, play with each other, scratch themselves on trees. It was humorous to watch their behavior, and I found that, similar to humans, that they want to relax and have fun too.

The best part of the day was when we got to go into the river with brushes and bowls and bathe the elephants. I was not worried about the mud, or the cold water, or even the fact that one of the elephants took a dump in the water! I was just so excited to bathe them. We were able to get close to the elephants, to touch their rough, hairy skin. The elephants were so behaved and stayed in the same place, for the most part. They were probably thinking in their big elephant heads, “when can I wash human?” Ha! At one point, one of the elephants saw how much fun we were having while splashing each other with water, that she lifted her trunk and sprayed water into the air for us.

Bathing the elephants was one of the last events of the day - and the most enjoyable one for me. I was drenched with river water, a bit cold, but as happy as ever. My trip to ElephantsWorld was such a memorable one. I helped out a great organization, got to play with elephants, and made memories that will last me a lifetime. Not many people can say that they bathed and played with free-roaming elephants. Any reasonable person will enjoy it more than riding on an elephant’s back, partaking in animal cruelty. I will recommend this non-profit organization to anyone and everyone.

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