When someone mentions the word ‘Thailand’ a number of images pop into ones head, tropical beaches, spicy curries, temples and elephants.
A trip to Thailand would not be complete without seeing their national animal, however in recent times there has been greater awareness surrounding the mistreatment of these majestic creatures. Sadly there are aspects of tourism that create cruel, inhumane behaviours and elephants are very often the victim of these practices in Thailand.
Never, yes that’s right NEVER ride an elephant.
Have you ever asked yourself how an elephant ends up in a town or sometimes a city in Thailand taking tourists for rides? Before you even contemplate riding an elephant you should ask this question because the answer is truly heartbreaking.
Asian elephants live in herds made up of a matriarch (the oldest, largest most experienced female elephant), female relatives and their offspring. Once a male elephant reaches puberty they leave the herd and live a solitary life other than when they mate. The elephants that end up in the tourism trade get taken from their herd at a very young age (usually around three months old) for the sole purpose of holiday makers. It’s not just riding, some elephants are forced to perform tricks, paint pictures and play football for the spectators. The process of obtaining an elephant is not as straight forward as just taking the young elephant because the herd is very protective. The majority of the time both parents are killed to gain the youngster and the cruelty does not stop there. The young elephant is then placed in a cage and the process of breaking its spirit begins. The spirit has to be broken for the young elephant to forget its herd and natural instincts. Can you imagine if this occurred within the human race? There would be outrage on a global scale, well this is happening to elephants right now. I won’t go into any further detail here but if you want to read more click here for this in-depth article by One Green Planet on the cruel practice.
I bet that’s changed your mind.
Just in case you need any further persuasion this article by Roger Lohanan talks about the elephant situation in Thailand and this article by the National Geographic discusses the role of the Mahouts and elephants in captivity.
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
Thankfully there are many organisations and people within Thailand that are making a difference by providing animals with a safe environment and educating the public to rethink their choices. One such organisation is Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT).
Our Experience at WFFT
Like many people who visit Thailand I wanted my family to experience an ‘elephant’ activity but I didn’t want to contribute to an unethical business. It took a lot of research on the internet to find genuine sanctuaries as many claim to be but the reviews (many from volunteers) stated otherwise. Eventually I found Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand and the reviews were overwhelming positive.
We chose to book a full day tour with return transfers from our hotel. It is not a cheap activity but I felt that every baht spent was worthwhile as this is a genuine charity helping over 600 animals (not just elephants). It is worth noting that the sanctuary limits the number of visitors per day so book early to avoid disappointment.
When we arrived they welcomed us with free tea, coffee or filtered water. Our guide then drove us to the Wildlife Rescue Centre and we started on a walk through the park. At every stage our guide was informative with details about all the animals, their names and background stories and answered all our questions.
The Wildlife Rescue Centre has over 600 animals and most of them has a sad story regarding their arrival at WFFT. The centre provides such great medical care and it is evident that every possible avenue is explored to get them back into the wild. Sadly it is not possible for all the animals to be released but it’s comforting to know that they are in a safe environment without exploitation.
Here’s a few of the many animals we saw:
Asian Sun Bears
and lots of monkeys
Yes these monkeys are in large wired cages but it is for their own protection until they can be released back into the wild. Some of them had been raised in peoples houses and appartments around the world so they do not have the instincts or skills to survive on their own in the wild. Every animal at WFFT has the opportunity to be rehabilitated and released back to freedom unless of course their ailments are irreversible.
As we were doing the full day tour a buffet lunch was included and the food was delicious. Drinks other than water were not included but they have a bar where you can purchase alcoholic or soft drinks.
An Afternoon with the Elephants
The afternoon focused on learning about the elephants at the centre. The centre had recently implemented a change where you are no longer able to walk with the elephants. This is for the safety of visitors and for the well being of the elephants. You have to remember that most of these elephants have been through horrendous experiences and their welfare takes priority.
Having said that you do get to interact with these beautiful animals by feeding them fruit and washing them with a hose and brush.
Did it meet my expectations?
It was a truly humbling experience. The centre far exceeded mine and my families expectations and we thoroughly enjoyed our day here. I am glad I chose to support this centre as the work they do is crucial for the survival of these animals. I hope that one day I can return and volunteer my time at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand but in the meantime I will be making online donations to this great cause.