Among the pamphlet rack, it was the bold red lettering ‘NO RIDING’ stamped on the front of the brochure that caught my attention. Curious, I did a brief search on Google.
I will blame my desire for a joy ride from a naive childhood memory; a black and white photo of me grinning atop an elephant at the Montreal Expo 67, Safari Pavilion. Like others, I was ignorant of the implications of this popular activity.
Demand breeds supply, and there is a dark side to elephant tourism. The brutal truth is that baby elephants are captured at an early age, taken from their mother and “trained” using the century-old Thai Phajaan method to “break the spirit” of the animals. Followed by years of cruelty and abuse, while forced to work in the tourism industry.
Today, more than half of Thailands elephant population lives in captivity, many of them in tourist camps. Additionally, elephant bodies are not designed to withstand heavy loads on their backs. And lastly, since 1986, the Asian elephants have been listed as an endangered species.
I found these sufficient reasons to adopt the ‘NO RIDING’ policy.
For our own ethical experience, we signed up with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, home to rescued elephants from labor-intensive or abusive posts. In their new surroundings, the magnificent creatures are free to roam, eat, and play to their hearts’ content in an accepting environment.
A half-day program goes like this:
Picked up at our hotel, we headed approximately one hour outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, driving through a rolling landscape of forested hills and agricultural fields before arriving at the peaceful refuge.On arrival, we changed into Thai Karen tops; traditional clothing from the local hill-tribes. Elephants have excellent memories, and the familiar colourful shirts are easily recognised by them.
We were given a brief introduction on how to interact with the large mammals, what to expect, and the role of the sanctuary.Elephants have enormous appetites and can spend 14 to 18 hours eating. So our first task was feeding them bananas, and corn stalks.
After our safari encounter with an elephant in musth at the Kruger National Park, both Gord and I were apprehensive about interacting with the large beasts.Tentatively we approached a massive mama and quickly realised how wise, and intelligent she was, swiftly snatching the vegetarian offerings from our hands with her agile trunk.Next, time to mud up!
The playful animals enjoyed rolling around and cooling off in the slush pit. As a double whammy, we had a mud spa too!Caked in smudge, we wandered to the sandy bottomed river for more ooey-gooey fun.Afterwards, we changed into our clean clothes followed by an authentic Thai lunch before heading back.
Chances are, if you’re at all visiting Southeast Asia, you’ll consider an encounter with the majestic elephants. Educate yourself, do your own research, due diligence and select well for a thoroughly memorable time with these gentle giants.
“They say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is,
you never forget an elephant.”
~ Bill Murray