Riding, interacting or just seeing an elephant is high up on many tourists bucket-lists when they head to Southeast Asia and who can be surprised? These incredible animals feed in to the public imagination in so many ways and a chance to be close to them is seen as a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The tourism industry has responded and this form of entertainment is easy to find. Almost every hotel, volunteering company or local travel agency has photos of elephants and the different options available to travellers. From exploring Angkor Wat perched 10 feet up on the back of them to watching them play football or stand on two legs there are many ways in which elephants have been trained to entertain us.
Whilst this can look innocent what goes on to get these animals to this stage is horrific. Babies are often taken from their mothers way before they should be, chained and beaten until their spirit is “broken” and they’ll obey their trainers to avoid more pain. They’ll then be kept in small areas or cages, which for such inquisitive animals, is terribly frustrating. Many will then have to work for hours on end in the hot sun without being properly cared for and suffer spinal damage from carrying too many people and infections from the open sores after being caned. An elephant living in these conditions is expected to live 20-30 years less than one in the wild, which is obviously an unacceptable price to pay for entertaining tourists.
So when our hotel in Koh Samui told us about a new, ethical sanctuary nearby, I was sceptical. However, after doing some research on Samui Elephant Sanctuary it was clear that their work is different. They rescue elephants, often at a great cost, from the entertainment style venues listed above and allow them to live their lives in the closest way possible to how they would in the wild. Their work has been inspired by some of the renowned elephant conservationists and they are under an umbrella of Save the Elephant Foundation which works across Thailand.
To help fund this, and raise awareness, they offer educational tours to people that allow them to feed, walk and observe the elephants doing what elephants do.
When we arrived our guide Jane gave us a 20 minute introduction to the background of the sanctuary (it had only been open for three months), the problems with elephant tourism and a detailed briefing on how to interact with them safely. We were then given information about the rescued elephants, which includes three ‘grandmas’ and two babies the older elephants look after.
Obviously the most exciting bit was what came next with the guests feeding the elephants and following them throughout their enclosure culminating with watching them have a swim and a mud bath as the sun set. It was pretty spectacular and certainly a privilege to be able to interact with them in such a way. Knowing that the money spent was going to such a good cause made it all the more worthwhile.
I was also fortunate to meet Ryan who works at Save the Elephant. He has been instrumental in setting up this site in Koh Samui and explained that whilst he was providing expertise, training and assistance now the plan is for him to step back in the coming months and only visit in future to do inspections, rather than run the programmes. This sanctuary will be run by local Thai people who will benefit from saving these incredible creatures and make a sustainable income from this ethical form of tourism. From his point of view the only downside at the moment was that the ten acre centre couldn’t fit any more elephants and they would need to expand if they wanted to help more.
Samui Elephant Sanctuary was an incredible place to visit for its elephant experience alone but to get a better understanding of how local people are benefiting and campaigning to end the darker side of this form of tourism was particularly inspiring. A fantastic example of tourism benefiting the tourist and the place they are visiting.