The national symbol of Thailand is the ‘chang’, known in the English speaking world as the elephant. Asian elephants are an endangered species; there are around 3000 domesticated elephants in Thailand and around the same number in the wild. However, these wild elephants live in heavily forested areas and are therefore very rarely spotted.
My last day in Kanchanaburi was the highlight of my entire month in Thailand. The group split between two activities. The first of these was a ‘Safari’ – a zoo where you were able to see lions, tigers and their cubs. Whilst the photographs of people holding fluffy tiger cubs were undoubtedly cute, they were somewhat dampened for me by the fact that those cubs would eventually join their mother chained to a stone and dosed up on sedatives in the next enclosure.
The alternative was a day trip to Elephant’s World, an elephant sanctuary costing 2000 THB (approximately £40). This was probably the most expensive activity I did in Thailand, but it was also the most incredible. The owners of domesticated elephants are called ‘mahouts’. The work of the sanctuary is to care for retired working elephants, often rescued from cruel and gruelling conditions. In the past, working elephants were used in the logging industry, but once this practice was banned, many mahouts chose to make money from tourism. Many of the elephants we saw in the sanctuary bore obvious signs of either previous abuse or severe health problems, primarily with their backs . It seems absurd to you and I that elephants were ever used for begging on city streets, where cars might plough into them, but they were. Whilst one might assume that a career in tourism is far kinder to the elephant than logging or begging, or indeed being taunted as part of a circus act, the owners of the sanctuary explained to us the dangers of many tourist elephant camps.
Elephants, of course, are enormous, and very strong. However, they are physiologically designed to carry weight at the top of their front legs and neck. They are robust enough to carry perhaps 100kg on this area for an hour or so at a time, hence why their mahouts often ride them bareback sitting in this position. However, visit the majority of the elephant camps in Thailand and you will be offered an elephant ride, in a carriage that weights 50 kilograms itself, placed on the animal’s back – not to mention the three other people who are on there with you. It takes little imagination to figure out how so many of the elephants at the sanctuary were not just in pain, but also old and decrepit long before their time.
The sanctuary cared for approximately 20 beautiful elephants of varying age and background. Our day began with the preparation of their ‘mid-morning snack’. We were each given the name of an elephant – mine was Mali – and told to check the food chart for their preferences. Mali appeared to be one of the pickier eaters, opting for bananas and watermelon. Now, she may have been fussy, but she was certainly not skimping. We prepped the fruit ourselves, washing it down, scrubbing off the dirt and any chemicals that it may have been treated with.
I don’t think I shut my mouth for the entire feeding session. I felt nothing but pure childish excitement at being able to simply hold out a bunch of bananas and have an enormous elephant’s trunk politely relieve me of them. The mahouts explained that the elephants much through about 5% of their body weight every day. For a 2.7 Mt adult female, that’s about 130 kilograms!
Our next task involved whipping up another Michelin starred meal for the most elderly elephants, two or three of which had lost their teeth. For this we over-cooked two enormous vats of rice and water, and then added in mashed up fruit to form a huge goopy pan of mixture. We let this cool, grabbed a handful, shaped it into a ball and rolled it in flour to make soft no-chew food balls for our gummy friends. Sticking your hand into the wizened mouth of a sixty-year old elephant in order to fill it with some very questionable sushi is not something you do every day.
The final activity of the day was undoubtedly the icing on the cake for all of us. We had been told to pack our swimming stuff, but we had no idea why. Perhaps we would be offered a dip in the river to cool us off after a long day? Although none of us would have refused this in the thirty degree heat, the reality was one thousand times better. All twenty something elephants were overdue a bath – and we were invited.
We must have spent over an hour in the water, where the elephants were clearly enjoying themselves, trumpeting and spraying their mahouts playfully. I could not believe how up close and personal we got, and it was an honour to be allowed in such proximity to these creatures. Char’s head took such a hit from the ear of an excitable elephant that her sunglasses fell off her head – something that we did not notice until we replayed back our videos later that day. A small miracle came when the owner rang us the following day to report that she had located the sunglasses, almost wholly unharmed despite sharing a bathtub with almost thirty tonnes of hefty elephant.
The sanctuary is able to carry out its work primarily from charitable donations – much of the budget goes simply on buying enough food for them all to survive. Any surplus is then spent on rescuing new elephants. As we left the sanctuary, we asked about a solitary elephant who had stood alone on the shore of the lake whilst we had been in the water. She did not seem to interact with any of the mahouts or other elephants. The owner explained that she was the newest addition to the sanctuary and had barely been there a year. She had not yet made any friends within the group, unlike two of the others who literally did everything together. Disturbed by the way she was rocking her head back and forth repeatedly, we enquired about her past. The mahouts told us that she had witnessed her baby being swept down a fast river away from her and had been unable to save it. Her physical grief was truly chilling, and a reminder to us that humans are not the only creatures capable of feeling so very deeply.