Somewhere along the line, Thailand’s noble beasts became beasts of burden, less revered icons of a magnificent past than chained-up symbols of tourism gone wrong or living tools retrieving felled timber until they can retrieve no more.
But the wellbeing of elephants is receiving more – and better – attention nowadays. From using “beehive fences” to keep elephants away from villages, where they almost assuredly will face conflict, to empowering mahouts to improve their interaction with their gentle giants, Thai elephant programmes have come a long way in a short time.
Now, in Phuket, a pioneering project is leading the push for ethical elephant tourism.
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary offers refuge for old, sick and overworked elephants on 12 hectares of landadjacent to Khao Phra Thaew National Park, near Bangtao.
The sanctuary was founded as a three-way partnership between elephant experts, including Montri Todtane, a former owner of an elephant camp in Phuket; Sangdeaun “Lek” Chailert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation and the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai; and Louise Rogerson, founder of EARS Asia. Much like the nature park in Chiang Mai, at the Phuket sanctuary, elephants are encouraged to freely exhibit natural behavior and are guided by voice commands.
The sanctuary’s half-day programme, called “A Morning with the Elephants”, gives guests the opportunity to see the animals up close. Roam the grounds as the elephants forage, bathe in freshwater lagoons, socialise and simply enjoy being elephants.
Visitors are invited to feed the elephants watermelons, bananas and pineapples, and also to take a seat at the Tree Top Reception and Observation Platform, where they can enjoy a panoramic view of the landscape and relax in the shade while watching the elephants explore the grounds. Meanwhile, experts are on-hand to discuss the plight of working elephants, their rescues and their distinct way of life. Sounds like a rewarding travel experience.
Reservations and inquiries can be made at phuketelephantsanctuary.org/booking.