Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Last September 2018, I was in Thailand. In Ko Samui, I discovered through the Internet that they had opened a sanctuary on the island, earlier in the year of 2018. I wanted to visit the Samui Elephant Sanctuary, which is the same as Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai where I have never been but heard a lot about it through documentaries.
Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Samui Elephant Sanctuary opened in January 2018 as to be the first sanctuary in Koh Samui. They started with 5 elephants, whose 2 babies and 3 old elephants then 5 more elephants joined the others to have 10 elephants in total. In this sanctuary, elephants have their own space with a swimming pool. They also can roam free.
This sanctuary was inspired by the work of Lek Chailert who is the founder of Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephant Foundation. This is the first sanctuary that adopts a « Saddle off » model. She also changed the mind of the owner of Samui Elephant Sanctuary who brought 10 elephants to Koh Samui in order to work. Indeed, she came to Samui to explain to him the importance not to keep his elephants working and he opened this little sanctuary, which is the first one in Koh Samui.
In 1989, the Government banned that job because of the disappearance of Teak Tree, and the elephant’s owners started to work in the tourism industry with trekking and carrying people on their back. Riding on elephant starts to be popular, 10 years ago in Thailand with an important part of tourists who wanted to have this experience. It became mass tourism with 80% of tourists who choose to ride against 20% of tourists who support sanctuaries, 10 years ago. Nowadays, the tendency has changed with 40% who keep riding an elephant, and 60% who support sanctuaries. In this industry, elephants work 8 hours a day and 7 days per week, a part of working hard, elephants are not well-treated by their owners called Mahouts. The owners use a billhook to control their elephant by using it in specific sensitive areas like ears. Because of this treatment, they have scars on their head, and also on their body.
At the Samui Elephant Sanctuary, all elephants come from different places in Thailand that started to work in the logging industry. They are, now, retired from a life of toil giving rides, performing in shows, and serving in the logging industry. By staying at this sanctuary, elephants that live there have seen their life changed by not having the obligation to keep working for the tourism industry. At the Samui Elephants Sanctuary, two same programs are offered for people who want to visit it, they can choose between the morning or the afternoon one that is based on learning about how must be our behaviour with elephants with the intention to observe them in their environment at the sanctuary, but also to understand how they live because wild elephants never do any of that kind of work.
In the wild, elephants never work, they never carry tourists on their back, and they never paint or play football. All of those activities are completely trained by humans for the pleasure of tourists that have no idea about what conditions they are living in and how they are treated. Many tour operators include in their route an activity with elephants because a lot of tourists want to experiment a ride on an elephant back.
Elephant tourism industry
Most of the tourists are not aware of the abuse of elephants in the tourism industry and most of them go to Thailand in the hope to ride on their back and taking a selfie with them. What is important to keep in mind is that all those elephants are wild ones that are in captivity and keep having their natural instincts and behaviour even if they are working with tourists. In the tourism industry, elephants are trained with fear, pain, and force.
Babies’ elephants are taken from their mother when they are one year old to suffer from a process called the Phajaan. This process is under control to a Mahout, who is the trainer of only one elephant. The aim of this process, which starts with babies’ elephants, is to break the elephant’s spirit by losing the will to live and this is when they are babies that are completely controllable. Shackled, beaten and starved, that is what they are treated by their Mahout. They also learn to fear the hooks that their trainer uses to control them and that it will be used for many years. They never forget this 6-days ritual process called Phajaan.
The final goal of this process is to train elephants to work with tourists by forcing them to ride tourists on their back. They are also frequently used in shows for dancing, playing musical instruments, painting or also playing football…
Trekking is the main activity in the elephant tourism industry, and for this activity, elephants start working very young. Knowing that their body is growing and developing, carrying tourists on their back will cause long term health problems. Indeed, elephants are working long hours carrying tourists without having food, water, and rest. This is important to remember that they are carrying a heavy chair on which tourists are sitting down, and this heavy chair is put on their spines that can damage their backs.
Each elephant is not only giving you a ride, but he is giving a ride to many other more tourists in a single day for one thing: only money!
And what is happening when they are not working?
When they are not working, elephants live with short chains on front and back legs restricting any movement.
Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is a concept started in 1992 with Lek Chailert, who is the founder.
She started to rescue elephants from that time with 83 elephants. The main park is situated in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, which is a rescue and rehabilitation centre. They receive elephants that come from this elephant tourism industry in order to live out the rest of their days in peace.