The coronavirus crisis is having a devastating impact on Thailand's elephants. The tourism shutdown has meant sanctuaries and camps throughout Thailand have had to close. But these businesses still need to care for and feed their animals while they receive no visitors and no income. BBC News reported on the situation in late March.
The Samui Elephant Sanctuary together with Lek Chailert and the Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai (via Save Elephant Foundation) have also been working to support other elephant camps and owners impacted by the crisis. As well as continuing to care for their own animals. It's an ongoing challenge to keep the animals fed and healthy and your support is desperately needed at this difficult time.
HOW TO HELP
Your generosity and support is greatly appreciated. Donations can be made as follows...
Samui Elephant Sanctuary;
Elephant Nature Park / Save Elephant Foundation;
You can also help by supporting the campaign to ask the Government of Thailand to provide financial support for elephants in dire need across Thailand;
An Afternoon at Samui Elephant Sanctuary
March 2018: An afternoon visit to the Samui Elephant Sanctuary on Koh Samui, the first ethical elephant sanctuary on the island, and my first visit to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. I was looking forward to it. I didn’t have too much of an expectation, but I was curious to learn what this ethical business was all about. From my visit, and research, this is what I now know.
Unethical Elephant Tourism [Background]
Riding elephants is still one of the most popular tourist activities in Asia. Unfortunately, there’s still an ignorance or lack of awareness about how badly elephants are treated in this industry. We sadly witnessed an example earlier on our trip.
To ensure they become safe around humans, baby elephants are separated from their mothers from a young age and subjected to a cruel breaking in process. They’re kept in tiny pens (known as the “crush box”) with their legs tied and beaten with bullhooks. The psychological effect means that the fear of being beaten will ensure they ‘behave’ around tourists. As they grow older they often have no interaction with other elephants. It’s a sad and unhappy life for these poor creatures.
If you can stomach it, this video, made by Animal Activist Alliance (AAA Thailand), shows some of the abuse elephants are subjected to in the logging and tourism industries.
Thankfully, more and more elephants are now being rescued from this hardship and given better lives in ethical elephant sanctuaries. The Samui Elephant Sanctuary on Koh Samui, is the first ethical elephant sanctuary to be established on the island.
Samui Elephant Sanctuary (SES)
An Ethical Elephant Sanctuary on Koh Samui
The Samui Elephant Sanctuary was founded by Wittaya Sala-Ngam who had worked with elephants on Koh Samui for many years. He was tired of witnessing the hardship of these overworked and ill-cared for animals and wanted to help improve their lives. Wittaya was inspired and supported by Lek Chailert (please watch this), a world-renowned elephant conservationist, and founder of the Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. SES opened to the public in early 2018.
Welcome to the Sanctuary
Arriving at the calm and peaceful jungle setting of Samui Elephant Sanctuary, you’re welcomed into a Thai style pavilion where you’re shown an introductory video on the history of the sanctuary and the work they do. You’re also taught the safety rules of the place. The rules are there not only for your protection but for the well being of the elephants too. Rules include; Never get in between two elephants; Don’t stand in front of an elephant; Don’t turn your back on the elephants; Never put your hand in an elephant’s mouth; Do not tease the elephants. All good to know. But I won’t pretend that I wasn’t feeling a little anxious about meeting them!
From there you’re led to the feeding station where a huge pile of watermelon awaits, as well as five hungry elephants. Elephants can eat up to 10% of their body weight in food every day. That’s 300kg for a 3-tonne elephant. That’s a lot of watermelons! You’re also politely asked to wash your hands before feeding the elephants. Naturally, they’re not too keen on the taste of mosquito repellant or sun lotion!
At this point, you’re separated from the animals by a metal fence. This gives you a chance to become familiar with the elephants as you feed them and become more comfortable around them. Likewise, I guess it gives them a chance to get to know you too.
It’s an enjoyable time, where guests can lose their initial reservations and find out what it’s like to get up close to these huge animals for the first time.
Meet the Family
During the feeding, you’re introduced to the family. When I visited there were five elephants at the sanctuary… three grandmothers (Cartoon, Kham San & Sri Nin) and two babies (Nong Pech & Moloair). Cartoon and Kham San have become good friends, and Sri Nin has adopted the two children.
Each elephant has their own story to tell. Each from different backgrounds in the logging or tourism industry. But they share a common story of mistreatment.
Kham San has a large hole in her right ear, caused by her previous mahout (elephant keeper) as a means of control. Sri Nin used to work in the logging industry where she was blinded in her left eye. An injury caused by her previous mahout using a slingshot on her, as a punishment for not obeying him. As a result, she’s been left with a nervous disposition and can be easily startled. It’s therefore important to keep to her right side so she can see you.
Nong Pech was used in street begging, where her owner took her on streets all over Thailand to beg for food from tourists. It took her two years to recover from a terrible injury after falling down a drain. Moloair was cruelly trained from a very young age to perform in an elephant circus in the south of Thailand. During this time she was stabbed in her trunk by her mahout and now does not like her trunk to be touched. Nong Pech comforted the distressed Moloair when she arrived at the sanctuary and they became great friends.
A Special Bond
It was fascinating to learn of the special bonds that have formed between these animals since they’ve arrived at the safe haven of the sanctuary. Elephants display complex social and emotional behaviour, and are known for their close family ties. Special relationships between individual elephants can last a lifetime.
Update [March 2019]: Sri Nin, Nong Pech & Moloair have since moved to a new home at the Samui Elephant Haven which opened to guests in August 2018.
Walking with Giants
After feeding, you join the elephants inside the sanctuary where you can follow and get up close to the herd. There’s no set path, the elephants are free to wander as they like and guests are free to walk alongside them. You’re also given a bag of bananas so you can continue to satisfy these gentle giants large appetite. But beware, elephants have a keen sense of smell, so if you’re the only one with bananas left in your bag… they will find you!
As an ethical elephant sanctuary, SES does not allow riding or performances of any type. It’s also interesting to note, unlike some other sanctuaries, they don’t allow guests to join the elephants while they bathe. Elephants are very aware of their size and surroundings, and if people are in the water crowding them, they have to modify their behaviour to avoid accidentally harming them. At the Samui Elephant Sanctuary, their main priority is to treat the elephants with dignity and respect, and one of the key factors in achieving this is to allow the elephants natural behaviour.
Simply observing the elephants splashing and rolling around in thick mud is just as enjoyable. It’s fascinating to witness elephants just being elephants and provides some great photo and video opportunities.
The elephants are in charge now. You can follow and watch them go about their daily activities eating shrubs, bamboo leaves and bits of tree. It’s your chance to get up close and personal with these gentle giants. Their loving mahouts are always close at hand though, lending them, and you, reassurance.
There are two tours a day. A morning tour from 9am to 12noon and an afternoon tour from 2pm to 5pm. The cost of the tour is 3,000 baht per adult (70 GBP) and includes an excellent vegetarian buffet, transport to and from the sanctuary, water, tour guide and of course food for the elephants! Children enter for half price or for free dependant on age.
Samui Elephant Sanctuary Location
The Samui Elephant Sanctuary is set in peaceful forested land just south of Bophut around 1.5km from Fisherman’s Village. When you book a tour the sanctuary will arrange a time to pick you up from your accommodation. The owners ask that you book in advance and don’t just turn up in your own transport.
The Samui Elephant Sanctuary is run by passionate workers and volunteers. The elephants there are clearly cared for well, loved and respected. It’s a simple experience, but watching the elephants roam, play and interact freely and affectionately with each other, in the natural setting of the sanctuary was a personal and memorable one. Knowing that their hardship and mistreatment is a thing of the past warms the heart. These are happy elephants.
A visit to an elephant sanctuary while in Thailand should be on everyone’s travel list. And while on Koh Samui the Samui Elephant Sanctuary is a must.
If you are going to visit a sanctuary please do your research first. Check reviews and visitors photos online. Not all are ethical. There should be no riding, no bullhooks, no chains. The links below are a great starting point for finding your perfect elephant sanctuary in Thailand.
I will admit, I’ve ridden elephants in the past. On numerous occasions in Thailand, Vietnam and India. And I can’t deny it was an enjoyable experience. But that was almost two decades ago, when I was as ignorant then as unfortunately many people still are now. But through the work of Wittaya Sala-Ngam at the Samui Elephant Sanctuary and elephant conservationist Lek Chailert, that’s slowly changing. Their tireless efforts are raising awareness of elephant cruelty and transforming the industry.
Love & Bananas
Lek Chailert’s tireless work is now the focus of a critically acclaimed documentary Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story. Directed by actor/director Ashley Bell, the film documents a daring mission across Thailand to rescue a 70-year old captive blind Asian elephant and bring her to freedom.
Links & Resources
Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Save Elephant Foundation
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story
Unbound Project: Lek Chailert
planetrowoo.com is not responsible for the content of external websites
Top image: A mahout relaxes with his elephant companion