What to do in Phuket – Ethical Elephant Sanctuary?
Our trip to Phuket was planned to be a relaxing one, one that doubled up as a birthday trip for Grace. So it was–we mainly hung around, used the facilities and swam at Avani+ Maikhao and its sister resorts. The two girls are water babies like many other children, so the water was enough to keep them entertained. Another highlight of the Phuket trip would be our visit to an ethical elephant sanctuary in Phuket.
Sadly, while I went deeper into research for this article, I cannot recommend the sanctuary we went to. Read on to find out why.
Ethical Elephant Sanctuary?
How ethical is it?
There are many elephant sanctuaries in Phuket and some market themselves as an ethical elephant sanctuary, like the one that my family went to. However, I had a looming question while we walked around the sanctuary. The question is also the title of this The Guardian’s article: “How ethical is the elephant ‘sanctuary’ you’re visiting?”
That’s why I came back and researched further on what constitutes an ethical sanctuary. The excerpts below were taken from two articles. My heart sank after reading it. I was duped. Having learnt that elephant riding is hurtful for the elephants, I steered clear of it, but the industry has evolved. I had inevitably contributed to animal cruelty.
What is not ethical?
“Never go to a park that advertises shows, unnatural behaviour, tricks or painting – and please, never ride an elephant. … real sanctuaries will limit contact with the elephants, with visitors observing them from a distance the majority of the time.
She warns travellers to avoid anywhere offering riding or allowing bathing sessions with elephants: “In some places this means a lot of people every hour with the elephants in the water – it’s not natural for an elephant to be in the water all day with lots of people climbing all over them.”Maria Mossman, founder of non-profit group Action for Elephants UK said in theguardian.com
I still find it hard to believe that the sanctuary we went to was not an ethical one. Now I understand why some people don’t believe they have been scammed even when facts were laid out. I spoke to the female tour guide in private and found her affable. She spoke good English and just joined the sanctuary a few months ago. She sounded sincere and genuine in wanting to continue the good work in their sanctuary. She showed us around the sanctuary and mentioned their “ethical” practices in a really convincing way. Their “ethical” practices include
- not forcing force elephants down from the forest terrain (natural habitat where they are free to roam) to join in the session if they don’t want to be in the company of people.
- Or not tying the elephants with chains but setting up a huge living space with fences to keep them safely enclosed for night sleep, in case of danger or missing cases for these rescued elephants (who might not survive in the wild).
Were all these half-truths a fluff to blind us from the truth?
- They probably really didn’t force the two elephants who didn’t come down from the forest that day (were there even two elephants in the first place). BUT what if all elephants decided not to come down for the bathing session with humans? Would they have cancelled the program, or…?
- The elephants even though not chained up, might still be “crushed” into obedience (read the following excerpt).
Whether taken from the wild or bred in captivity, all elephants used for close tourist contact such as bathing have undergone a traumatic training method known as the ‘crush’.
This involves separating young elephant calves from their mother, keeping them in isolation, depriving them of food and water, and in many cases beating them repeatedly until they are broken and can be controlled by fear.
When tourists support bathing venues, they support this cruelty behind the scenes and help the industry thrive. Venues offering these experiences are also falsely masquerading themselves as ‘sanctuaries’, ‘rescue centres’ and as ‘ethical’, duping well-meaning tourists.www.worldanimalprotection.org/news/tourists-choosing-elephant-bathing-over-elephant-riding-unaware-cruelty-involved
What is ethical?
True ethical places that serve to rescue or protect the elephants work on an observation-only model and do not allow visitors to have direct contact with the elephants. I didn’t think much of feeding and petting sessions with elephants because you can find these with horses and other animals in Singapore too.
The sanctuary we went to
Based on the checklist above, the elephant sanctuary we went to might not exactly be ethical. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of human contact with the elephants. They have two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
During the tour, we fed and touched the elephants. The guide told us the name, age, temperament, and history of each elephant. This added a humane touch to the whole experience. The guide advised our family to go to the gentler and older ones because of our children.
Thereafter, we put mud on the elephants because mud acts as a sunscreen and cooling relief for the elephants. After that, it’s bathing the elephants in a freshwater pool and under a big shower structure which looks like a car wash without the rotating brushes. Roaming photographers were there to capture moments of the tour visit. A Thai buffet was provided at the end of the session (ours was a bit early though, almost a brunch).
The dining area, toilets, and private showers were generally clean and there was hot water for shower too. In hindsight, the place is really a well-thought-out tourist attraction.
During the tour, our guide shared some claims which made the sanctuary sounds more legit. The claims were true of real ethical sanctuaries as mentioned in worldanimalprotection.org:
For most elephants already trained for the (tourism) industry, it is not possible to release them back into the wild. Thus, an elephant-friendly place is their best option whereby tour groups are still conducted to subsidise the costly upkeep of an elephant and provide jobs for the local people such as elephant keepers, known as mahouts.
Mahout is an elephant rider, trainer, or keeper. Mahouts and their families stay in the same compound as the elephants to take care of the animals. Traditionally, the role of a mahout is passed down through the generations. A mahout usually owned his elephant and worked only with one throughout its life.
Today, the picture is very different. Like the issues facing elephants in Thailand, the issues facing mahouts have changed drastically with the evolution of the tourism industry. Many mahouts are members of indigenous groups or immigrants from Myanmar, working more as low-status day labourers rather than as traditional mahouts, and the lifelong bond between keeper and creature is becoming a thing of the past.Source: horizonguides.com/guides/elephants-in-asia-ethically-014/what-is-a-mahout
Elephant Friendly Places
Here’s a website that shortlisted the elephant sanctuaries you can consider and avoid in Phuket.
Thus I wouldn’t recommend the elephant sanctuary I went to but Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in the list. You can also book it on Klook. It works on an observation model and tourists are only allowed to interact with the elephants at feeding time. According to their website, they have a long and tall canopy walkway – one of its kind in Phuket – for visitors to observe elephants from above and at a safe and respectful distance. This provides the elephants with maximum freedom to naturally roam, forage, bathe and socialize in the jungle below.
Support the rescue efforts and elephant care with your tourism dollars while learning more about the elephants in their natural habitat. There are parks impersonating them, so be on the lookout!
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We can do our part by being informed and making our choice wisely! Spread the word and help in whatever small ways we can.
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