COVID-19 has been devastating for Thailand’s elephant population. Some have already suffered the pain of elephant riding camps, but in the last 18 months, many have been abandoned by keepers. But not all is lost. Mark Stratton finds out how ethical elephant sanctuaries are trying to help.
Looking into Butterfly’s dark eyes, I’m met with a doleful gaze. She’s either figuring out what I have brought her to eat or, maybe, it’s wariness over what my species has done to her kind.
On Phuket Island, in southern Thailand, I’m alongside this gentle 50-year-old female Asian elephant with Louise Rogerson, a former fashion designer from England who gave up haute couture to follow a passion for elephants. With her partner, Russell, and Thai businessman, Wallop Luengdhama, they opened Tree Tops Elephant Reserve in 2019—just before COVID-19 unleashed a welfare crisis upon Thailand’s beleaguered pachyderms.
Butterfly’s mahout (elephant keeper) passes me sweet ladyfinger bananas to offer to her as her condition is assessed. I feel her trunk’s damp tip on my palm as she dextrously scoops up each banana. It’s amuse-bouche for her large expectant mouth.
“When we rescued her in April from a riding camp in Phang-Na, she was the worst cruelty case I’d seen,” says Louise. “She was petrified, emaciated, with black lice all over, and rotting teeth.”
Butterfly has spent her whole life traded between logging and riding camps. At her last venture, pre-COVID-19, her riding camp was receiving 2,000 Chinese tourists daily.
With the support of sponsors, Tree Tops purchased her. And for the first time in her life, she does not have to work. Her mahouts are now watchful guardians, no longer compelled to brutalize her with bullhooks to force her to comply for tourism. She has the company of nine other rescued elephants on the 30-acre site. She can wallow in their muddy pool for as long as she likes.
“She’s free to be an elephant again,” says Louise.
COVID-19 has proved devastating for Thailand’s diminishing elephant population. Just 3,000 wild ones remain in dwindling forests that once supported over 100,000 of them in the early 20th century. But most affected currently are the 4,000 captive elephants used for logging, tourism, and circus performances.
“COVID-19 brought elephant tourism to a halt. They face starvation, and some owners have to turned to using them for the illegal logging industry or chaining them up 24/7 during the pandemic.”
Diana Munoz from Gentle Giants
Life for these captives before the pandemic was already bleak. What tourists do not see is the breaking of their spirit via a process known as ‘pajan’ during which young elephants are tied, beaten, and stabbed, within a restrictive wooden crush.
If you’ve ever experienced the abhorrent spectacle of an elephant painting for entertainment, be sure the attendant mahout will be stabbing it with a hidden nail.
Now, a Catch-22 scenario has emerged. With no tourists, hundreds of riding camps have closed across Thailand. This may sound positive news, yet with elephants requiring up to 300 kilograms of food daily, and no money coming in, reports are emerging all over Thailand of neglect and starvation.
“COVID-19 brought elephant tourism to a halt,” says Diana Munoz, who heads a non-profit called Gentle Giants. “They face starvation, and some owners have to turned to using them for the illegal logging industry or chaining them up 24/7 during the pandemic.”
Via sponsorship, Gentle Giants currently offers relief to 127 elephants, by paying for their in-situ upkeep and supporting mahouts’ wages in return for better treatment.
Eventually, elephant tourism will resume, and the ethics of their treatment will be determined by consumer choice. An ethical sanctuary should offer no touching, riding, or bathing, and certainly no chains.
If solitary babies are part of the attraction, they may have been illegally wrested from the wild or mothers. World Animal Protection designates only 11 Thai elephant attractions as ethical—mostly de-facto retirement homes for senior citizens that have been abused for decades. Two are listed on Phuket Island, both of which I visit.
At Tree Tops, Louise and I follow her 10 female elephants at a discreet distance, while they go as they please within the fenced enclosure. They’ve received no income from visits during the pandemic and struggle on by petitioning for donations and sponsorship. It costs USD$30 per day to supplement the foraging diet of each elephant.
“Phuket Elephant Sanctuary exudes peace and freedom, not just for the elephants, but the mahouts too, who possess a special bond with them. One mahout says his elephant is like an older aunt to him.”
I’m touched by the ease of their lifestyle now. I meet the matriarchal Nam Sook, 60 years of labor behind her, her wrinkled skin like oak bark. And I’m moved by the loving bond developed between Nam Gaew and boisterous youngster, Fah Sai, born in 2010, an orphan baby formerly taught to twirl hoops and play the harmonica to titillate tourists.
“They’re inseparable,” says Louise. “When we first arrived, they would call to each other at night”. Nam Gaew dutifully follows Fah Sai into the waterhole to watch over her adopted youngster, who is larruping mud over her body. Watching on are mahouts employed by Tree Tops to keep a removed eye on the elephants, but never to raise a bullhook to them again. Tree Tops supports their income and has allowed them to transition towards more ethical practice.
An hour-or-so away, Phuket Elephant Sanctuary was the island’s first ethical operation. Its 32 acres host 12 retired elephants bordering Khao Phra Thaeo National Park’s primary rainforest. It shares the same ethos, says Vincent Gerards who greets me, of letting elephants be elephants.
He reports they’ve lost 98 per cent of their revenue since COVID-19 and have resorted to innovative fundraising schemes like inviting worldwide supporters to purchase USD$30 ‘happy meals’—nutritional rice-balls to supplement the elephants’ diet.
The sanctuary is owned by Montri Todtane, a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, who become disillusioned about elephant welfare at his former riding camp and switched to an ethical tourism model back in 2016.
On arrival, I’m initially surprised that visitors may offer fruit to the elephants, which seems to go against a non-interventionism ethos.
“This is a way for visitors to see them up close and only four of our elephants choose to interact this way,” says Vincent.
One is 44-year-old Sri Nual, rescued from a riding camp that closed during the pandemic. This rotund partly blind female avariciously consumes 15 baskets of fruit, her trunk remaining outstretched when the oranges run out.
The sanctuary exudes peace and freedom, not just for the elephants, but the mahouts too, who possess a special bond with them. One mahout says his elephant is like an older aunt to him.
He watches over Cattleya, a sturdy 45-year-old female, brought here in 2018. She floats in the waterhole, trunk raised like a periscope, rumbling with pleasure, opportunistically snatching at bamboo grasses for impromptu snacks.
“She was weak when we rescued her, having spent her whole life in logging camps. Her owner offered her because he was concerned about her health,” says Vincent.
He says they have the potential to resettle 25 elephants—a start, for sure, towards reforming Thailand’s darkest tourist attraction, where travelers, with just a little research, can play a part in helping banish elephant cruelty forever.
Read World Animal Protection’s guide: How to be an elephant-friendly tourist