Today was a special day 🙂 I got to feed and pet a baby elephant, ride on an elephant’s back, and watch elephants make beautiful paintings. I was grinning from ear to ear the entire day. Elephants are such amazing, beautiful, smart creatures.
THAI ELEPHANT CONSERVATION CENTER
Our special elephant day was at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), a government owned elephant care center south of Chiang Mai. TECC supports elephant care and conservation across Thailand. They operate an onsite hospital and mobile clinic that treats sick and needy elephants all over the country free of charge. They work to raise elephant care standards across Thailand through education and public awareness. And they operate a sanctuary where retired, crippled, blind or dangerous elephants can live peacefully. TECC uses the profits from allowing tourism at their center to provide better lives for elephants.
FEEDING A BABY ELEPHANT
This was my favorite experience. Who knew baby elephants were so furry? This sweet little guy had a thick pelt of fur across his back and head. He was quite young, still nursing, and just learning how to feel around with his trunk to grasp food. He kept dropping the big bananas but if you broke them up he would grab little pieces from your hand. Such a cutie. My heart was melting!
RIDING AN ELEPHANT
David and I took a 30 minute elephant ride through the forest and across a lake. It was quite a unique experience riding in a carriage on the back of the elephant while the mahout (elephant trainer and care-giver) guided us. There was a lot of swaying and holding on to the carriage as the elephant hiked along a trail. Although I’m glad I had the experience, I won’t do it again. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I hadn’t really thought about the elephant’s experience until after the ride. We were assured by the mahout that each elephant only takes a few rides a day since TECC has many elephants and few tourists. And the rides really help the center raise money because they are expensive (by Thai standards – 500 baht or $15). But still, I can’t imagine having a carriage on it’s back is comfortable for the elephant. I wish I had just donated the 500 baht or used it to buy lots of bananas and bamboo leaves to feed the elephant. It’s a much more connected experience feeding the elephants than it is riding on their backs.
The elephants perform in a show 3x a day – they paint pictures, play music, turn off and on a spigot to take a drink of water, stack logs and do other feats that demonstrate how elephants were helpful for forest logging in the past. The show demonstrates how smart and trainable elephants are.
The show is very interesting but seeing it and considering the elephant’s experience gave me pause. The elephants perform 3x a day in a 45 minute show and they take ~3 (10, 30 or 60 minute) rides a day with a carriage on their back. That’s a lot of work doing things the elephant would rather not be doing. I think it would be just as interesting for visitors to observe the elephants in their natural state roaming the large expanse of land that TECC owns and the elephants would probably be a lot happier.
Although the day was absolutely magical and I adored every minute of it, after I took a step back and sank out of my euphoria, I realized some big areas of improvement for TECC. Although they are doing many great things: providing free elephant medical care and free mahout training and education; running a sanctuary for retired, injured, or dangerous elephants; and allowing the elephants to go into the forest, their natural habitat, from 3pm until 8am every day while the park is closed. They are also requiring a lot of work from the elephants. I think the experience at TECC could be vastly improved if they transitioned instead to allowing the elephants to roam more freely. Perhaps, with mahout supervision, visitors could still pet and feed the elephants, maybe even go on a little walk beside an elephant. But I think the show and elephant rides should go. Maybe these elephant’s lives are vastly improved from those who are still logging, but they are not what they should be, which is free. TECC should allow the elephants a better life by giving them more freedom.
SITTING ON A HIGHWAY
A common practice in Thailand is to sit out on the road and wait for the bus. I guess that sounds similar to anywhere in the US, where you wait at a bus stop. But in Thailand, at least rural Thailand where we were, there is no bus stop and there are no bus timetables, at least none that we could find. So, after being advised by TECC staff, we ventured out onto the side of the highway and sat down hoping to see a bus to flag down. We only waited 15 or so minutes! And made a sweet new song as we waited. BTW, buses are super cheap – TECC to Chiang Mai is a 1.5 hr ride and cost 40 baht per person ($1).