Every time someone tells me he took a ride on an elephant, fed an orangutan or pet a tiger I go out of my mind. I find the use of animals for touristic purposes brutally hypocritical.
Whoever pretends they love animals should feel free to make an effort and visit them in their natural habitat: into the wild, that is. Including kids whom I believe should learn that the gorillas do not naturally live in cages on the outskirts of Vienna. Call me an extremist if you will but I will never take my children to the zoo, nor to areas like the Tiger Temple.
As per the elephants, though, it is rather difficult to have such a black and white point of view because their situation is indeed complicated. The numerous centers which offer elephants rides or shows live exclusively from this. If tourists didn’t go there anymore, the elephants would starve. If more tourists went to visit these areas, the owners would understand this is a good way to make money and would bring in more animals and so perpetuating the situation up to the point where elephants would be extinct.
295,000 elephants lost
At the beginning of last century, there were more than 300,000 elephants running free in Thailand’s tropical forests. According to specialists today there are only about 1,000 of them left in the wild and to this it adds another 3-4,000 captive elephants – privately owned, used for agriculture, logging, tourism or begging. The rest of Asia is no better and the numbers keep on decreasing on an alarming pace. What do you do with them? Do you exploit them or let them die? Neither said His MaJesty, King Bhumibol. You build a home for them and try to offer them back the dignity they lost along the way.
Everything for life
A forest of 120 hectares was transformed into a real city of the elephants, a city where people serve the animals and not the other way around. Thai Elephant Conservation (TECC) opened in 1993, under the patronage of the Royal Family, at that time being one of the most innovative initiatives in animal conservation in the world.
Kham Phor is 50 years old and an invalid. His shoulder is dislocated, plus he has a broken leg. Kham Phor cannot work anymore as per gaining the 250 kilos of daily food. Twenty years ago most probably he would have been cured with a bullet between the eyes. Now things are different. His owner spared him and made a phone to TECC. The elephant was brought to the center, and he will live here for the rest of his life. He won’t be beaten, won’t have to work hard, he will get food and medicine if necessary, plus he will have a personal caretaker. Actually, not one, but two. I will explain why.
The relationship between the elephant and the mahout is built in time and for a long time. The animal gets attached to the human as to an older brother (even if the age would recommend a reverse perspective) and suffers a great deal whenever the mahout is not besides him – either because he is on holiday, home sick or just quit the job. This is the reason why there are always two caretakers for each elephant, taking 12 hours shifts. In case one of the mahouts leaves for good, another person takes its place, and the adjustment and the relationship building are done with the help of the known caretaker. The oldest relationship mahout-elephant at TECC started in 1993 when Mr. Sawang began to look after the giant Jojo. I wonder how it feels to pet the same trunk every day for 18 years?
If you are interested you can join the mahout training program inside the center. On the first day, you will learn how to ask the elephant to get on his knees so you can climb on or down him and how to move forward. The next day you two take a walk together in the forest so you can learn how to ride the elephant. The third day you take him for his daily bath at the lake and the, soaked wet, you get your diploma. Unless you signed up for the 10 days program, which is a different story
The little giants
TECC is not just a place for the old elephants but also a nursery and kinder garden for the little ones if that’s a proper way to call a 90 kilograms baby. The births are among the happiest moments at the center and the good news travel fast. When, after a 22 months pregnancy, the beautiful Sing Khon gave birth, TECC organized a contest through which any Thai could propose a name for the baby. A woman from Pitsanulok won the contest; she suggested the little girl should be named Key Lang (the old name of the town of Lampang). And so it was. Key Lang stays with her mom until she is three, after that she will join the training program. This if she doesn’t turn to be a second Bai Tong.
Bai Tong (banana leaf) is not yet three years old and she is considered the prodigy of the center. The girl, born here at TECC, started school when she was, technically speaking, a baby, and today she leads the group of trucked-artists who run the show three times a day. Bai Tong know how to bow, turn logs and play the drums. This, I must admit, is a lot more than I could do at her age. She still has plenty of time to learn to play the xylophone and to paint.
The daily routine at TECC
9AM – the elephants come to the lake for the morning bath
10AM – the morning show
12.45PM – the second bath of the day
1PM – the second show
3.30 PM – the elephants go back to the forest to rest until the next day.
You have time until 3.30 to take a ride on one of the elephants, to visit the hospital and the nursery. The center has also a little dung paper factory which can be visited by tourists. If you want to sleep close to the elephants, you can rent a bungalow at Thai Chang resort or rent a mattress in the dormitory. Find out more about it on Thai Elephant Conservation Center website.