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We’ve spent over a month in Phuket now, and one of our absolute highlights has been the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. I’ve been twice now; David and I took his sister Julie for our first visit (an afternoon tour) and then Carlanna and I went for my second trip (a morning tour).
Elephant tourism in Thailand is HUGE. Unfortunately, most of it is very exploitive. On our drive up to the Big Buddha in Phuket, there were many elephants on the side of the road for tourism – including riding – and baby elephants tied up. In any animal encounter like this, the handler “crushes” the wild animal so they will tolerate being around its biggest predator – humans.
Unfortunately, there are so many tourists who come to Thailand and support unethical elephant tourism.
Lek Chailert founded both the Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park. Lek is a prominent advocate for elephant welfare in Thailand, and Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai is the premier ethical elephant tourism facility in Thailand.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is modeled after Lek’s work:
“The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is a joint partnership between Mr. Montri Todtane, a previous Phuket elephant camp owner and world-renowned elephant rescuer and conservationist Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation.”
These organizations promote tourism without riding or bathing. The riding may seem obvious, but why not bathing? Captive elephants often associate human touch with pain and punishment. Bathing, or just living their happy lives in general, is supposed to be a stress-free experience. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary strives to keep the animals stress free by limiting the human encounters to positive experiences like being fed.
At the time of our visit, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary had eight elephants living in the park. One of the things I loved about the tour was that the guide knew so much about these animals; their names, ages, where they worked, how much the park paid for them.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to buy elephants to rescue them. It’s easier for the owners to put the elephants down, so rescue organizations have to offer money. Owners do not sell able-bodied elephants, as they are too valuable in tourism or logging. The elephants at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary often have injuries and are unable to work anymore. They all bear marks from mistreatment – sunburns that have discolored their skin, jagged ears from the bullhooks, or areas that were rubbed raw from saddles. Several of the elephants are blind.
The eight elephants at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary live on 25 acres of land. There’s tons of room for more elephants, but the park has to raise the funds to purchase more elephants.
The elephants have pens that they go into at night, but during the day the elephants roam fairly unrestricted throughout the park. They have favorite places – like waterholes – where they often hang out. Each elephant has a mahout, a handler, that hangs out with the elephant every day, all day. These mahouts make sure the elephants don’t get into trouble and are healthy. They do not carry whips or bullhooks.
We did the afternoon session with Julie and the morning session with Carlanna. Both sessions were pretty much the same, just the order of activities was different (although I think it would depend on the elephants’ behavior anyway). However, the biggest benefit of the morning session was the timing for the food. Both sessions serve a buffet meal at the end. The morning session is perfectly timed for lunch – around noon – but the afternoon session’s buffet is served at 4 pm. I’d much rather pay less and have no buffet in the afternoon session.
The elephant feeding was the first thing we did in the morning session and the last thing in the afternoon session. Two or three elephants come up to the station and, keeping our distance, we feed the elephants fresh produce.
There are several freshwater features in the park, and each time we got to see an elephant take a dip, fully submerging or rolling around in the water, and of course, splashing around with their trunks.
Most of the elephants we saw were just out in nature, grazing on the local vegetation.
There is a large pool in the facility for the elephants to swim. This was an interesting way for us to interact with them. Their trunks came up out of the water, looking for food, and it was often the best time to touch the elephants, as their trunks sniffed and felt around.
We were pretty impressed by the food offered at the park. When we first arrived, there was a selection of drinks and snacks available. At the end of the tour was a vegetarian buffet, which was very good. I enjoyed the pad thai and banana samosas.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary provides rubber boats and socks to wear, plus umbrellas for rain or sunshine, and bug spray.
You will not get insanely close to the elephants, or hug and cuddle with them. It’s more like a safari, you stay about 6 meters away for the photo opportunities.
In the upcoming months, we will be spotting Asian elephants in the wild in Sri Lanka while on safari. I’m excited to get to see these animals again!