Hello everyone! I’m back and so excited to write about this recent goal I accomplished.
To be honest, I’ve had a hard time sitting down to write this post because I have so many thoughts on the topic and am not quite sure I’ve sorted through it all yet.
I went into this experience without doing much advanced research. I knew I would be visiting two sanctuaries: I was visiting one elephant sanctuary as part of a tour group in Thailand and a second, in Cambodia, where a friend of mine lives and works.
I naively assumed at the start of this journey that elephant sanctuaries are all pretty similar. I knew we would not be riding the elephants because, fortunately, reports on how damaging this is for elephants are being more widely circulated. I knew many elephants currently living in sanctuaries were rescued from unimaginable abusive situations or from illegal poaching activities. But really, apart from that very basic understanding, I did not know a lot about the sanctuaries or the industry as a whole.
I’ll give you my observations first and my opinions and questions second:
Elephant Sanctuary #1: Elephant Nature Park
This sanctuary is located in Northern Thailand, outside of Chang Mai. It is home, not only to elephants, but also to dogs, cats, and another rescued animals. It is a massive stretch of dusty land, carved out by a river, with covered wooden structures for the elephants and a lodge where volunteers can eat, sleep, and observe the animals.
Our group was only visiting this sanctuary for part of the day, so as soon as we arrived we began our tour by feeding two older elephants melons and bananas. The elephants were clearly experts in this pattern. We waited on a platform with baskets of treats. The elephants were guided toward us and, immediately upon arrival, threaded their trunks underneath the guard rails, waiting for one of us to place a piece of fruit in their grasps.
The elephants were gentle but ate all the fruit quickly. Once everyone had a turn to feed them and the baskets were empty, the elephants were led away.
Our guide walked us around the sanctuary, telling us about different elephants and their histories with humans. Many elephants had obvious physical injuries: broken legs, scars, blindness. It was shocking to see such graceful and gentle creatures with wounds like that. The psychological effects were clear, too: some elephants were clearly afraid of humans. They would sway side to side or get visibly agitated. The psychological trauma they have experienced is unimaginable: they were taken from their herds, chained up, starved, physically abused with hooks or sticks, forced to carry people or heavy loads, made to endure hours in overstimulating crowds… Our guide was clear in indicating which elephants don’t interact with volunteers or tourists for these reasons. They are just too traumatized and shouldn’t have to endure any additional human contact.
After lunch, we had the chance to help bathe some of the elephants. This felt a little strange to me. It was fun to play in the river, but also felt a little invasive. We were tossing buckets of water on the elephants while they stood there. They didn’t seem to mind it, though they were also pacified with more baskets of fruit. Ultimately, it was hot out, I’m sure the water felt nice, but it also felt like just another routine – be led to the river, stand there nicely while the tourists throw buckets of water at you, eat your fruit, don’t look agitated. It was hard to tell how the elephants actually felt about it.
Elephant Sanctuary #2: Elephant Valley Project
The Elephant Valley Project is located in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. The land is quite different from the Nature Park. Here, you are in a forest, hiking through dense stretches of trees, stumbling over roots and swatting away bugs. You cannot see the elephants from the lodge, and definitely cannot look out at any point and see all of them at once. It’s amazing, actually, you hardly see them when they are a few yards away from you in the trees. Despite their size, they move silently and with such grace. They roam in their chosen herds, eating and sleeping as they go.
What was most amazing to me were all the different sounds I heard at EVP. Elephants actually communicate to each other through deep hums – vibrations that travel through the group and vibrate the mass of tissue at the top of an elephant’s trunk. From where we stood, it sounded a bit like an engine rumbling; like a cat’s purr, but ten times as loud. Elephants are sensitive to these sounds and communicate frequently with each other in this way to locate each other, assure each other, ask each other questions… it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. They are so emotionally in tune with one another.
They are also brilliant creatures. Watching them in this natural habitat, I got to see them pull leaves off certain trees, but not others; or pull roots out of the ground and shake them or whack them against other trees to get the dirt off. They frequently ate a type of ginger root that they would pull from the ground, smack the dirt off of, then only eat the root- not the leaves. It smelled beautiful when they were done, and also demonstrated their complex understanding.
When it came time for bathing, the elephants were still led into the water, based on tourists’ viewing schedules, but tourists did not help bathe them. We watched from a distance as their mahouts scrubbed them and splashed them with water, the whole time giving commands in their local tongue.
Making Sense of It
I started comparing the sanctuaries as soon as I arrived at EVP: clearly the landscapes of the two sanctuaries were very different. The Nature Park was wide, open terrain. You could always see the elephants, and they were exposed to more direct sunlight. They also had few food options. They could only eat what the mahouts and volunteers brought for them – which was, in the cases I experienced, fruit. At EVP, our guide told us too much fruit is actually not good for elephants. It rots their teeth (which they get four sets of in their life) and is not a part of their natural diet, which should actually consist of mostly greens and roots.
On the topic of food, it’s also important to recognize the difference between the elephants who were hand fed food at Elephant Nature Park and the elephants at EVP who picked food on their own. Looking back, food is just another way of manipulating the elephants to get them to come to people, to stay still. Sure, it’s not a form of torture – the elephants are fed enough food, but it is still taking away some of their independence and choice.
I have to acknowledge all the different sounds I heard from the elephants while at EVP. That, for me, was the biggest difference – hearing them communicate so frequently with each other and in so many different ways. You could tell the elephants really connected with each other and trusted each other, after everything they have been through. They flapped their ears, swung their tails, and hummed to each other. Their trunks didn’t seem as heavy – they were never dragging them, but were always reaching for things.
All this said, there were still similarities: Both still tie up the elephants at night so they don’t roam into dangerous situations or interfere with local homes. Both have a 1:1 ratio of mahouts to elephants. The elephant trainers follow or guide the elephants all day. Both sanctuaries rescue elephants and treat their physical wounds. (The injuries seemed much more pronounced and severe at the Elephant Nature Park.)
I also have to acknowledge some biases here, because I don’t think that I can say with confidence that EVP is a better sanctuary than Elephant Nature Park, even if it seems like that is what I’m implying. A few things I still need to consider:
- My friend works at EVP, so not only do I have a positive connotation of it, but I also got to learn more about their outreach projects and research simply because I had her as an additional resource.
- I visited EVP second. While at EVP, I started to feel guilty that we shouldn’t have fed the elephants in Thailand or washed them. Perhaps if I had visited EVP first, I would have known better what questions to ask at Elephant Nature Park. Maybe they were, in fact, being fed more greens and we just didn’t see it, for example.
- My other consideration on the above is that maybe the elephants at Nature Park were more injured than those in Cambodia. I truly believe Elephant Nature Park thinks they are doing what is absolutely best for their elephants. Maybe these elephants could not have so easily assimilated back to their natural life after how much they’ve been through, so they will always require help with eating and bathing. I can’t be sure. It could be the opposite and that the elephants at EVP were healthier because of their lifestyle. That they were just as wounded when they arrived, but recovered even faster when they are able to return to their natural habits. I would need to spend a lot more time observing them to know.
- I spent more time at EVP. I also volunteered there. Anytime you commit time and effort to something, you feel more strongly towards it, so I am likely applying bias from this, too.
A few other considerations I had in this experience that I don’t know how to classify yet:
- Differences in access to information. I certainly don’t believe that Elephant Nature Park was knowingly doing anything to mistreat their elephants. I don’t know enough on the subject to even really conclude that one sanctuary was truly better than the other. I can only report on what I saw and experienced. That said, it did seem like EVP has more access to information – they are a bit ahead of the curve – and are participating in ongoing research on the elephants. Without more time at the Nature Park, I couldn’t tell that they were. Access to information is everything.
- On that note, since I was at Elephant Nature Park, they have made an announcement to stop letting tourists wash the elephants. They issued a statement on their website! So news is getting around!
- Ultimately, these programs are driven by the travel industry. Whether or not tourists are willing to pay money to simply observe the elephants, not interact with them at all, will determine whether or not they will continue to progress and be successful. EVP explained to us that more and more Western tourists want to ensure the travel they are doing is moral and sustainable, but travel is still very new for a lot of Asian countries, so tourists there are still very interested in riding elephants and seeing their tricks. We need to continue to spread awareness and support organizations like both of these above to push the industry forward.
- On that note, there is definitely the question of whether or not some value is lost when you lose that interaction with the elephants. I’m not making a strong case here. I’m not sure my opinion on this yet. I loved getting to interact with the elephants in Thailand. I felt guilty about it once I got to Cambodia and saw how happy and comfortable the elephants there seemed, but I do wonder if there is a balance that can be reached. I’m not sure what that could look like.
- That brings me to the interesting role of the Mahout. Despite how little people interact with elephants at EVP, there are still the mahouts – the elephant trainers – that are with them the entire time. These mahouts do still bathe them and guide them towards scheduled tourist-viewing points. They still give them commands and they do ride on their shoulders (which supposedly does not cause the elephant any pain). It’s a beautiful relationship in many ways. In a lot of instances, the men have grown up with their elephants. They really know each other and trust each other. But it does still interrupt the elephant’s “natural” life? How does it affect tourists’ observation experience, if it is still punctuated by human commands?
- Community outreach programs and cultural impact. I studied anthropology in college and could not shake the question of how these sanctuaries impact – both positively and negatively – local culture and customs. With any travel destination in a developing country, you see the influx of tourists, who bring their ideas, language, money, and technology, that lead to huge shift in industry and, ultimately, a decrease in cultural nuances. Both sanctuaries say they try to disrupt local life as little as possible, but do try to employ locals and enhance their quality of life while possible. I didn’t have the time or resources or prior knowledge to really investigate this. In Mondulkiri, EVP offers language courses, they have local women prepare food for volunteers, and they still allow elephants to be used in local ceremonies, such as weddings. For most of Cambodian history, and continuing today, families owned an elephant that would be passed down through the generations to help with work. For families who can’t or do not want to care for their elephants anymore, EVP pays them with food or other resources for the elephant to stay at the sanctuary. This prevents families from feeling they need to sell the elephant into another industry and keeps the elephant close to their home.
- Information is coming from white, Western entrepreneurs, from what I can tell. Continuing on the thought above, I feel a bit uncomfortable about this. Again, both organizations aim to be less intrusive and as positive in their impact as possible, but I do worry that it still prolongs the age-old narrative that Western cultures are “more civilized.” I worry it validates some travelers’ thoughts that they come in to a new country to “save” them, rather than to learn from them. I didn’t see any instances of disrespect, but I am sensitive to this dynamic and hope that local communities will continue to be involved in decisions that impact their lives.
- On a larger scale, how should we feel about domesticated animals? To the point above, for a long time, elephants were passed down through a family to help with heavy labor, such as hauling logs. In most of these cases, the elephants were still well-treated. Difficult tasks were infrequent and the rest of the time, they were able to roam freely. As technology advances in these areas, this is becoming less necessary, but in places all over the world we still domesticate animals for our own use: camels for transportation, donkeys for hauling, dogs and horses for herding, etc. Where do we draw the line between what is acceptable and what is inhumane?
Wow. That was a lot of thoughts!
Has anyone else been to an elephant sanctuary? Have you investigated human-animal interactions, or seen the impact of these destinations on local culture? Curious to learn other peoples’ opinions and experiences on this complex topic!