The Importance of Ethical Elephant Habitats
One of the biggest tourist draws in Thailand are the elephants. Elephant rides are as cheap as $1 for a half hour, but the abuse of these tourist-trap animals is horrendous. Elephants are whipped and confined to concrete rooms for 20 hours a day – conditions even worse for hotel “pet” elephants. Elephants used for logging camps are also seriously abused, often ripped from their families and overworked to death.
If you are planning on visiting Thailand, please, please do not take a cheap elephant ride or tip a “dancing” elephant’s owner on a street corner. (Elephants sway their heads as a sign of emotional distress, not “dancing.”) Elephants are SO SMART and gentle, and seeing them treated so poorly is heartbreaking.
There are, however, some ethical elephant habitats that focus on rehabilitating the abused elephants and providing them with a comfortable, happy life. Most are in the north near Chiang Mai, which we unfortunately did not make it to this trip. If you’re in the south near Phuket, however, Phang Nga Elephant Park is the place for you.
Their elephant fam is 22 big gals (with two guys) large; not as grand as the 70-elephant utopias up north, but they’re getting there.
The day’s agenda is epic and amazing. First, we were able to meet Tamwar, the one-year-old baby elephant who was the first to be born in the park. He had to stay behind the fence of his pen because he’s essentially a giant puppy who doesn’t realize he weighs a literal ton. Cutest. Thing. Ever.
Next, a pair of humans is introduced to one elephant that you’ll care for and be with for the day. Doug and I were paired with a 20-year old elephant named Aoy (pronounced “Oi”) and her mahut, Uan. Each elephant has a lifetime human mahut, or caretaker, who lives in the habitat and dedicates his life to caring for his elephant. Some mahuts have wives and children, all living amongst the ellies. Elephants only get four hours of sleep each night, so the mahuts only sleep for four hours. When the elephants eat, the mahuts eat. Talk about spirit animals.
We began by taking a trail ride with Aoy and Uan. We sat “bare neck” on Aoy which is the most comfortable way for elephants to support humans – no benches! She followed Uan’s voice up a hill to a clearing where we fed her BUCKETS of bananas. Girl can EAT.
It’s said that elephants and their mahuts have similar behavioral tendencies which we found totally true and hilarious. Aoy and Uan were both very young and cheeky, playing tricks on other elephants and humans to get their way. It was awesome.
Next, it was bath time. We went with Aoy into the giant elephant pool in the habitat and were given a bucket of water and brushes to bathe her. Most of the water *somehow* ended up on me instead of Aoy, so. She sprayed other elephants with water and this whole segment was maybe the most fun thing I’ve done in my entire life.
Learning about the elephants’ friendships and tendencies was amazing. They’re so like us it’s actually nuts. They’re hilarious, too – when one elephant bellows, EVERY OTHER ELEPHANT bellows back creating this totally bizarre chorus. They’re also almost all afraid of the three cats that roam the park. Cats. The size of half of their foot.
A trip to Thailand is fully incomplete, I think, without an ~ethical~ elephant day. When planning a trip, DEFINITELY plan for one full day with these beauties and make sure you budget for it. Hanging with Aoy and Uan was an unforgettable experience, and has made me want to visit sanctuaries like Phang Nga WHENEVER I CAN.