My husband and I spent one of our last days in Thailand with two rescued elephants in an ethical tour sanctuary in the mountains of Chiang Mai. We washed and cut up their food, fed them, took a hike with them and let them forage in their natural habitat as well as bathe them in the river. After our day with our two rescues, Mae Ploy and Matteo, we also got to tour the rest of the sanctuary which is home to over 80 rescue elephants.
Our guide knew each one by name and knows every story of how they came to be at the sanctuary. “After a while, you will be able to tell that each elephant looks different.” The stories were all deeply sad…most elephants were rescued from either tourism or logging and a few from the circus. Handlers abused them both physically and emotionally so they can use them as riding elephants, elephant “beggars” selling some small trinket on a busy night street or elephants that can paint.
Many elephants become blind due to handlers that sling shot rocks into their eyes to get them to perform tricks. In their natural habitats elephants need to feed all day as well as cover their skin in mud or bathe in the river to keep cool. Working elephants do not get to do this as they are scheduled for back to back performances or rides and cannot get tourists dirty. They often become malnourished or develop skin disease. When this happens, handlers sell the elephants to a sanctuary for a steep price as they know the sanctuary will pay to rescue the elephant.
This was such a surreal experience for us and we hope that everyone does little bit of research on animal tourism before signing up for one to ensure that it is an ethical tour. This particular sanctuary offers many different experiences…for those that want to spend more than a day there, you can choose a package that allows you to stay for up to a week as a volunteer. There is a documentary that has been made which features the ethical tour sanctuary we went on called Love and Bananas. I haven’t had the heart to watch it yet because I know I will cry like a baby…but I hope you do.