Winter mornings in the Golden Triangle are very cool and the sun has to break through a blanket of mist before warming the jungle. Most elephants cared for by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) spend their nights in the forest, awaiting the return of their mahout and hopefully a sweet treat for breakfast, before joining the camp for some light duties and getting to meet the resort guests.
It is a captive existence but a world away from the days when elephants were used as muscle for logging these forests.
GTAEF operates on the edges of Chiang Rai, where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand come together. There is a generous amount of forest here to provide a natural setting for the elephants, an excellent supply of fresh water for bathing and playtime, plus a five star resort that provides the essential income for their welfare. Guests who stay at the Anantara Golden Triangle not only stay in a unique piece of Northern Thailand but they get to know the 20 or more residents at the elephant camp.
There are no daily performances for crowds at this camp, no hourly elephant treks to book on and no elephant paintings to buy. This camp is where you can learn to drive your own elephant as the mahouts do, sitting on their shoulders as you walk through the jungle or take a bath in the river. Contact with the elephants is mostly at ground level, with a heavy focus on education and learning to understand how to cooperate with the animals, not to dominate them.
GTAEF represents the very best that an elephant camp can be. Traditional elephant handling in Thailand has not changed for centuries, so bringing modern veterinary practices and ethical priorities has been a challenge when setting up the camp. In the Golden Triangle, the welfare of the elephants is paramount.
John Roberts is the founder of GTAEF and describes the beginnings of this camp, “When we started there were elephants begging on the street in need of work to support themselves, so it made sense for us to spend our limited resources to provide a place for them.”
Logging was banned in Thailand in 1989 and thousands of elephants were suddenly unemployed. Tourism filled the void in the decades that followed and now over 100 elephant camps exist around the country. Most of them fall far short of the standards set by GTAEF.
John goes on to explain the changing situation for Thai elephants, “Nowadays there is almost too much work for any given elephant in the unregulated tourism industry so it makes sense for us to use our resources and knowledge to help improve the welfare available in those trekking camps.”
GTAEF reaches out to other trekking camps to offer training for mahouts, vets and camp owners, while also seeking to protect wild populations. Now that the demand for elephants in tourism has risen so much there has been a resurgence of capturing from the wild.
Demand for elephants in tourism is not the single greatest pressure facing wild populations in South-East Asia. Loss of habitat and conflict with humans remains the most serious threat. Thailand has less than 1,000 Asian elephants remaining in the wild, but only a century ago that figure was in excess of 100,000. Working elephants are not encouraged to have babies so the overall population continues to decrease.
An elephant calf snuggles up to its mother | Ewen Bell
Attempts to return captive elephants to the wild are at the forefront of elephant conservation in Thailand. With nearly 3,000 animals working in tourism based trekking camps or illegal logging, it’s not hard to appreciate that most of these animals would be happier in the forest.
A government project to begin release elephants back into the wild has shown great success, demonstrating that elephants who have been captive their entire lives still possess innate skills for foraging and socialising. The program carefully assesses the physical and social suitability of each candidate before release and then monitors their progress.
Park officers head into the forests to track the wild herds, observing their adaptation and overall health. They also work to protect the elephants from humans, keeping poachers away from elephants and keeping the elephants away from villages. Suitable habitats for releasing programs are not easy to find, as not all forests provide ample food for elephants in the dry season. If a herd damages rice fields outside a forest some farmers may defend their livelihood with lethal means.
Opportunities to see elephants in the wild are becoming more popular with travellers in Thailand, but demand for “elephant trekking” is still big business. With a handful of exceptions, most Thai elephant camps or self-described “sanctuaries” fail to meet the basic requirements of international animal welfare groups.
In the worst cases the elephants are worked for very long hours, receive very poor dietary and veterinary care, and are forced to perform unnatural tasks which place them under severe stress. Even the simple act of riding an elephant, for example, can potentially fall outside the acceptable guidelines.
Elephants are incredibly strong in many respects, when it comes to dragging down a tree or pushing through a thick jungle, but their evolutionary path never anticipated carrying weight in the middle of their backs. A skinny mahout riding on their shoulders is not regarded as stressful, but anything more than 150kg on the arch of their back is causing great strain to the animal. One human on a bamboo cage is about the limit if you want to respect your pachyderm.
If you believe that returning them to the wild is the only truly humane way to treat an elephant, then even those tour companies which visit elephant camps but skip the obligatory ride around the lake fall short of favour. Large scale tourism, however, is essential at present to fund some of the most important elephant welfare programs including as the government run Thailand Elephant Conservation Center (TECC).
About an hour south of Chiang Mai the TECC plays a critical role in South-East Asia as a focus for elephant tourism and emergency care for injured elephants. Over 300 animals have been treated at this facility since it opened in 1993 under the direction of Soraida Salwala and with patronage from the royal family. The most famous elephants rescued by TECC are Mosha and Motala who have each received prosthetic limbs after falling victim to land mines.
Mosha was a baby when she arrived while Motala is now 50 years old. Both these elephants, and many others, owe their very lives to the kindness of the TECC and its supporters.
Much of the income for the elephant hospital comes from tourism, in the form of daily shows and elephant rides. The TECC scores highly for their care and treatment of elephants and also runs a mahout training program where travellers can spend a few days making friends with one of the residents. Tourism has been essential in helping former working elephants transition out of the logging industry, but in recent years the demand for elephant trekking and its potential profit has put a lot of pressure on both the wellbeing of captive elephants and the preservation of wild populations.
Lek Chailert founded the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in 1996 to provide a more humane model for tourists to engage with elephants. Like the TECC and GTAEF, visitors can experience deeply rewarding intimacy with the elephants with activities such as bathing or walking. Lek holds much stronger views on riding elephants and the training that is required to tame the beasts. A compliant adult elephant is one that has been trained from a young age, and Lek argues that most training regimes are nothing short of torture.
Elephants at the ENP are rescued from working lifestyles, given a better environment and their mahouts given retraining. In the absence of forcing elephants to perform unnatural tasks the mahouts can establish a more respectful relationship with the animals, so they’re off to a good start from day one.
An elephant waiting for a sweet treat from its mahout | Ewen Bell
When you visit a typical elephant camp in Thailand you do not see the years of training that preceded your experience, or the degree to which that training was kind or cruel. It is impossible for a traveller to truly know the life their elephant has endured. If the elephant has been rescued from working in logging then your tourist dollars may help improve its life. If the elephant has been poached from the wild and sold to a trekking camp then you’re now part of the problem.
Elephant camps are unregulated in Thailand which places the burden of ethics on the traveller. Knowing the truth about animal welfare when visiting a camp is almost impossible, with exceptionally few achieving the all clear with welfare advocates. A recent study by the University of Oxford demonstrated the discord between welfare rankings of elephant camps and Tripadvisor ratings from travellers. The customer experience is profoundly different to that of the elephants.
The more you learn about the elephants the deeper your respect runs, and the more you want to see them lead a natural life. I’ve visited many elephant projects in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar in the past decade and there are some I can’t wait to return to, but some I never want to see again.
Presently there are 3,000 animals in Thailand who need a better income and more respect. Visiting a camp that emphasises bathing instead of trekking, and habitat instead of performances, is beneficial to those animals. In a perfect world there would be no captive elephants and travellers would go on a jungle safari to see them in the wild. Until that day I am grateful for the work of people such as John, Lek and Soraida as they seek to engage tourists and camp operators towards more humane treatment of these remarkably beautiful creatures.
A pair of rescued elephant pals | Ewen Bell