Elephant Sanctuary

Teach them to be kind to animals, they will grow up also kind to people.

When we first started planning our trip to Thailand, I knew I wanted to include elephants in the trip.  Elephants are the national animal of Thailand and are famously part of the tourist experience.  To be honest I didn’t know much about elephants in tourism before the trip, but I’ve longed for any chance to get close to elephants simply because I love them.  I was a little repulsed by the idea of riding an elephant strapped to those blocky chairs, because I still feel guilty about riding a little goat-drawn cart in the Shanghai zoo as a kid.  So we decided to check out an elephant park that did not have riding.  That’s when we discovered the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand.

We spent an incredible day touring the WFFT elephant and wildlife sanctuary learning about elephants, monkeys, bears, and a huge variety of other animals that they’ve rescued from the tourist industry or indisposed pet-owners.  Being able to get up to close to the elephants was hands down one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.  It’s also quite terrifying when you feed them a piece of fruit and they grab it dexterously with their muscular trunk and you try not to think about the fact that you’re standing next to a 6000-pound animal.

Being there next to these magnificent animals I can understand why people want to ride them and to be close to them, but I’m sure if they knew what these elephants have to endure they would be horrified. Every elephant that is used to carry humans go through a cruel process called phajaan. It begins when a baby elephant is trapped and separated from its mother, then it is basically tortured for days to weeks until it completely gives up its will to live. An elephant that allows you to ride it is a broken elephant. An elephant is submissive to humans because it fears him. Though these animals have been working with humans for hundreds of years, the only beneficiary of this relationship is the human.

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Most of the elephants at the sanctuary have been rescued from various sects of the tourist industry because they are too old, too injured, or too weak to work anymore. Unfortunately because riding elephants and the phajaan are all completely legal in Thailand, it’s hard for wildlife rescues to buy these elephants until they are in a completely bad way. Some places will deny that carrying humans is bad for the elephants, but physical injuries and deformities caused by carrying humans everyday for 365 days a year were plain to see.

The elephants I’ve met all have badly scarred heads and ears from bullhooks, blindness due to trauma, deformed backs from carrying too much weight, and one elephant was just recovering from surgery after it had fallen due to a broken pelvis and leg from the strain of carrying tourists. Although it was heartbreaking to hear each animals story, it was heartening to see that they are all doing so well at the sanctuary, where they are given veterinary care, thoughtfully laid out enclosures with lots of acres to roam and water to bathe in. They are not required to carry anyone or perform, even the walks and bath that we get to give them are not mandatory if they did not feel like having them. They are allowed to simply be elephants.

They were able to buy this baby elephant together with her mother before she went through the phajaan.

Today, Asian elephants are endangered due to habitat shrinkage and poaching. The solution is NOT to breed them in captivity for elephant riding. These animals deserve to live freely in the wild because that is the best life they can have. Wildlife Friends Foundation also works tirelessly to fight the battle on the legal and conservation front to protect elephant habitats.

There is a way to be a tourist but NOT support the debilitating practice of elephant rides.  Sanctuaries like WFFT absolutely put the needs of the animals first.  A day trip at this foundation includes a walk with an elephant while feeding it its afternoon fruit snack and then giving it a bath, however if the elephant did not want to walk that day, then unfortunately for us there will be no walk.  The elephant is never forced to do anything it does not want to do.  We love our photos and are thankful for that opportunity, but I would not for a second think about getting a photo if I knew that animal was poached for that purpose and for making $ for its owner.  At WFFT, every cent from the tours is given back to the animals.  The money from the day tours were used to complete an elephant hospital on site which we saw.  A newly rescued elephant was just able to have surgery there to fix her broken pelvis from a fall.  The most important service places like WFFT provide for us is education.  I know most people would not support a cruel practice if they knew what was happening.  So, enjoy your Thailand elephant experience and create a demand for well-treated animals.  Learn more about WFFT and plan your next visit at: https://www.wfft.org/

Check out the video of my elephant park experience here.

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