When I was a little girl, my encounters with elephants were pretty tame; it was either at the local zoo, or when the Shrine Circus came to town. I probably cared more about Dumbo, the flying baby elephant, than these wrinkly lumbering creatures.
Half a century later, I found myself making snacks and feeding these meek yet mighty elephants in their own kingdom.
In Thailand, the Asian elephant is a cultural icon and the white elephant a sacred symbol of royal power. Elephants played an enormous role on this continent for thousands of years. They were used for carriage mounts in war and in ceremony, heavy transportation and logging, and later, in entertainment and tourism. These majestic wild animals are gentle and intelligent, but in order to control them, they had to be broken. Training meant chaining, and in captivity, they were often misused and mistreated.
We quickly learn that this country has embraced the protection and care of their endangered elephant, and that tourist encounters should be ethical and educational.
We are staying in the ancient city of Chiang Mai, once a capital of the former Kingdom of Siam, about 700 km north of Bangkok. We see signs of the revered elephant everywhere, on flags and carved into the temples and tombs (stupas) of kings. Abundant vegetation in this northern tropical forest provided a natural habitat for Thailand’s national animal.
But after a century of logging and deforestation, the population of elephants dropped from 100,000 in the early 1900s to less than 4,000 in 2007. The Thai elephant was declared an endangered species in 1986, and logging was banned in the late 1980s to preserve remaining forests.
With logging outlawed, owners of working elephants could not free them because they would not survive in the wild, and would trample through villages in search of food. So they turned to tourism to offset hefty food bills. And from here grew a movement to create retirement parks and sanctuaries to save young and old elephants from their still-chained existence in riding camps.
Forget about riding an elephant in Thailand
Our tour guide and driver knew many places north of Chiang Mai that offered ethical encounters with elephants, where you could care for an elephant for half a day, a full day, or two days. There were retirement parks, rescue centres, elephant care centres and sanctuaries. We chose to go to a smaller rescue centre, which has enough land to care for four elephants, a baby that was orphaned, and three others given by owners who couldn’t afford to feed them anymore.
I was both excited and nervous about interacting with the world’s largest and strongest animal. My only encounter with a wild elephant was at a private game reserve in South Africa. We were parked near a mother elephant and her calf, watching them eating tree leaves.
The African elephant is larger than her Asian cousin, and stands 13 ft. tall and weighs 5000 kg. (15,000 lbs). But even with her 7 ft. trunk, she could not reach the leaves at the top. So she wraps her 400 lb trunk around the base of this tree and uproots it, with about as much effort as it takes us to pull up a carrot out of the dirt.
At the elephant rescue centre, we change into the clothes provided and begin to make a nutritious snack of banana, rice, citrus, squash and salt rolled into balls. We carry our trays up and over a footbridge to the park where the elephants lived untethered. From the height of the bridge over the pond, I see two standing together under the shade of a tree. One looks like a baby, and could be the orphan. Elephants are social beasts and use their highly sensitive trunk to touch and soothe each other. It seems so cruel to chain them apart.
This rescue centre, we learn, has daily tour groups that are few in number and small in size. Each elephant has its own caregiver, or keeper, called a mahout, and they form a trusting bond. In addition to adequate food, shade and water, these elephants are regularly groomed and seen by a veternarian. Each tourist is paired with a mahout and his elephant.
My mahout goes in search of his elephant, calling out her name. She hurries out of the bush, much like a horse dashes up to the fence when called. She knows that food, attention, and perhaps a bath await.
When my elephant raises her trunk over the wooden fence, I timidly pat her thick wrinkly skin. Surprisingly, an elephant’s skin is so sensitive it can feel a fly land on it. She seemed to be nudging me to feed her, waving her trunk at me, and I could picture the wild African elephant’s long trunk snapping that tree like a twig.
My elephant’s keeper shows me how to feed the sugar cane and banana bark we sliced earlier, and pop a ball into her little open mouth when she lifts her trunk at his command. I’m afraid I missed more than a few times leaving her to pick it up and put into her mouth with the delicate grip on the tip of her nose.
At a word from the mahout, the elephant lifts his trunk and opens his mouth for my husband to pop in a ball. After feeding him the pre-sliced sugar cane and banana trunks, it was time to bathe with him.
My elephant showed no interest in bathing, turning back when his mahout led him towards the pond, and I was pleased to see that the owners do not force the animals. It’s clear each elephant has its own personality, and the mahout and elephant learn to communicate with each other, just as a parent learns to decipher the nuanced cry of his own child.
Our half day program ends with a delicious Thai buffet lunch and tea. I drop some money into the donation box before we change our clothes and head back to the city. It was an unforgettable experience and one that opened our eyes to the need for more sustainable elephant parks and ethical elephant tourism. We, as tourists, can help by only visiting ride-free camps or sanctuaries.
If interacting with elephants is on your bucket list, check out this Responsible Travel list of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Asia and Africa.