Some Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand are the real deal. Some are not. Ivana Greslikova provides crucial information so that you can volunteer with the right places.
By Ivana Greslikova
Calm eyes, firm posture, gentle movements and serene wisdom in their gaze. They are biggest land mammals on the earth and yet, how vulnerable they can become. So much attention they have and yet, there is so much care they still need.
Once you touch their pleasantly rough skin, you want to embrace them. The more time you spend with them and observe them, the more you understand why there are so many people who protect them and rescue them from those humans who misuse these incredibly intelligent, joyful but shy animal beings.
In 2013 over 27 million tourists crossed the Thai border. In 2013 Bangkok was reported as the most visited city in the world. The statistics look great from the business point of view. Tourist agencies have been growing at light speed over the last few years in Thailand. They compete fiercely with each other to offer the best deal and to attract foreigners with the most popular national highlights: massages, beaches and elephant rides.
Sources agree there are around 3500 Asian elephants left in Thailand. More than half of them are in captivity and used for business purposes. In the last century there were about 100,000 of them.
The situation of elephant extinction is more than alarming.
When choosing an elephant camp for your holiday, you can run into an organization that will pretend to captivate elephants at their facility to save them from extinction. They will not even hide the most terrible methods to tame them and on the top of that they will assure you that the ways they treat the animals are normal and even necessary!
Understand the exploitation
The majority of tourists are not knowledgeable about the distressing exploitation that happens to the elephants they enjoy rides on, and they often don’t question how an elephant plays soccer, paints a canvas, plays a musical instrument or pushes insanely heavy logs in the elephant shows.
It’s possible to train elephants to play soccer in 3-4 days. Now imagine how much severe training and torture an elephant has to live through to learn new tasks fast, to be obedient to the mahout (a person who trains and rides an elephant) and to not ‘disappoint’ him in bringing in thousands of tourists.
When you pay for your ticket to an elephant park, nobody will tell you how they have broken the spirit of the elephant just to make him/her submissive so you can ride through a forest and take a selfie on the elephant’s back.
Nobody will tell you that the animal was probably stolen from his family when he was just 2-3 years old, that his parents were killed while trying to protect their baby, and he was given anesthetics so he would not defend himself. Nobody will mention that later on they tied him to the trees from both sides, chained his feet and hit him with a takaw (bullhook used for commanding the animals).
Nobody will tell you that the elephant you are riding has been subjected to severe sleep deprivation and starvation just to become a slave to his owner. Nobody will point at the blind eyes these animals have from the sharp lights on the street or in the circus. Sadly, this is the truth.
To see the conditions the captivated elephants live, have a look at these touching photos from Bren Lewin.
How to do the right thing for the elephants:
- Ignore elephant riding tours.
- Do not support begging elephants on the streets by buying food for them or paying to take pictures with them.
- Volunteer at the places where they treat elephants well or where they need more hands to build a home for rescued ones
- Spread the word about points 1,2,3 and 4.
We have been in Thailand for almost eleven months and we have succeeded in doing the first three steps. Now it’s time to work on number 4 and mainly on the 5, i.e. to inform others.
How we met rescued elephants
When we were staying in Udon Thani, we regularly saw and heard an elephant begging on the street, literally behind our guesthouse. We met him on one of the craziest and busiest roads that we had a hard time crossing ourselves. He was walking apathetically among the bright lights of cars and honking motorbikes. He moved or stopped only when his mahout hit him with a stick or kicked his ear.
At that time, a friend of ours, photographer Greg Goodman, put us in touch with the co-founder, Antoinette van de Water, of Bring The Elephant Home.
The foundation focuses on a holistic picture of elephant welfare as well as education, restores their natural habitat, promotes eco-tourism and works on prevention and solving human-elephant conflicts. She was looking for volunteers who would be willing to spend three days in the forest and support their eco-tourism initiative that involved co-operation with three international schools from Bangkok.
Bring the Elephant Home
The foundation is working hard to establish a community based education center in a human/elephant conflict area in Kanchanaburi, a province in Western Thailand, with the help of local village communities who are already participating vigorously with this organization’s projects.
Help the Gentle Giants
Although feeding and bathing elephants at sanctuaries and parks creates memorable experiences, you can do much more to make their lives more pleasant and safe. While volunteering and documenting the project of BTEH, we witnessed how many things need to be done to make the elephants’ lives comfortable and how everything in nature is connected.
This is one of the crucial things to protect a forest from fire in the dry season. A firebreak is a 4 m wide vegetation gap, a border in the forest that you create by clearing it of weeds, branches and dry grass. Then, in case a fire bursts out, it stops or slows down at this border so the people from the villages have time to reach the forest and extinguish the fire.
This activity demands good physical condition and some protection, too. All of us wore gloves and a facemask. To make the firebreak we used hoes, rakes, brooms, spades, bamboo sticks and an air blower pipe. It was hard yet effective work.
Building Rock Check Dams
Dry season is tough, and not only for us people. When the rivers dry, the places where elephants come to refresh and drink disappear. To help them to cope with the heat and dryness, we made two dams. We created a wall about half meter wide on the river, made of a metal fence, into which we put stones and rocks.
Making Salt Lick Ponds
The quality of the deciduous bamboo forest, the natural habitat of elephants, is dropping. Thus, the important nutrition the animals need is being reduced, too. By making salt lick ponds, you supply the elephants with necessary minerals. We made two of them by digging deposits where we mixed salt and other minerals with soil.
We did not water the mass so that the minerals could stay on the surface longer and also, so that the soil doesn’t absorb them too deeply. This lets elephants be able to reach them more easily.
Helping with Seed Germination
Another issue that goes hand in hand with frequent fires and deforestation is the enormous shortage of greenery. Elephants are pure vegetarians and eat over two hundreds of different species of plants and trees. Luckily there are special organizations and local communities who take action and plant new trees regularly.
Who to Contact
Ivana and Gianni are visual storytellers, travel writers, photographers and video-makers, who set off on a long-term journey in 2013. You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram and on their website.