Asian elephants have been in northern Thailand for hundreds of years. Originally they were used for transportation, logging, farming, while also being major players in combat battles. Riding elephants used to be done in the army by someone who would play the drum throughout the battle. If the drum ceased playing, they were dead and it was signal to retreat or surrender. They were also killed for their ivory tusks. Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and are brown rather than grey. Their ears are smaller and their trunks have two holes instead of one.
Riding elephants became popularized for pleasure by the cinema, with many tourists coming to Thailand in the hopes of crossing “ride an elephant” off their bucket list. The mentality has changed recently with animal welfare groups bringing more attention to the poor conditions of the elephants in Thailand. Alayna was in southern Thailand four years ago and rode an elephant at that time (and then felt bad doing it because the elephant had chained ankles and was whipped in the head), and has noticed a huge shift in marketing. No longer are there places advertising “ride an elephant” but rather in big letters state “NO ELEPHANT RIDING”, with the words “elephant sanctuary” being put on every page. Many of those elephant riding places simply have changed their names and marketed themselves as sanctuaries, while few of them actually are. The true sanctuaries house elephants that have been mistreated by owners and are now living the life of mud baths and sugar cane. You have to do your research to determine which advertisements are legitimate, but in the end at least you are supporting happy elephants (hopefully).
We found an elephant sanctuary that lies in a National Park about two hours southwest of Chiang Mai. After a very long and bumpy ride in the back of a truck we arrived to find five elephants (ranging in age from 18 – ~50 years old) happily awaiting us to be hand fed a nice snack. We changed into the uniform (so that the elephants think the feeders are the same people every day) and started feeding them sugar cane. They grab it with their trunks, or if you are brave enough you can plop it right in their massive mouth.
After the snack we headed into the forest with the elephants for a little walk, and of course, for the elephants to find more to eat. They eat 18 hours a day, consuming between 100-200 kg of food. They are surprisingly agile for such large creatures and traverse the muddy slopes with ease. The larger human “elephants” of our tour group had much more difficulty with the hike.
Being a four ton animal, they have a lot of thermal mass, especially under the Thai sun. To protect their skin and keep them cool, they cover themselves in dirt or mud. We headed down to the mudpit-elephant spa and proceeded to rub mud onto their giant bodies. Behind the ears is a key spot and I think if they could purr, they would be doing so. Laying in the water, belly sticking up like a small island and the end of the trunk sticking up like a snorkel, we lathered on the muck.
Then it was time for a bath (for both the elephants and us). We headed to the waterfall and dipped into the freezing cold water to await the chain of elephants. They came slowly and when they arrived we all sprayed them with buckets of water to get the mud off. Some like it and will stay and roll around, others promptly go up to the main area to dry off and get more food. One got into the water and promptly let out 5 coconut sized balls of dung right where we were standing to peacefully float down the river (they create 50-60kg of dung per day).
I am sure it costs a lot to keep an elephant, but we paid a sizeable amount of money for a one day experience. There were roughly 20 tourists there. We think that most of these places (true sanctuary or not) are still making good money off of the tourist industry. It was a neat experience and the elephants seem to have pretty good lives all-in-all.
We are soon departing Asia, with a couple days in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before arriving in Australia. We’ve had three months in Asia and are ready to get back to the commonwealth. It’s been an amazing experience with so many adventures that it’s hard to even remember them all. What am I most excited for moving on? Toilet paper in the bathrooms. (Alayna)