Elephant camps are the result of supply and demand from tourists, which has sadly increased by 30% in recent years, mostly with visitors from China. What it comes down to is a lack of awareness about how damaging these attractions are for the elephant’s wellbeing. The solution is more education and offering an alternative form of tourism without the harmful interactive elements like riding or bathing.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary founder Montri Todtane
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
Last month I was fortunate enough to visit one of these places. Bordering the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is one of the only ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. They’re working to change the elephant tourism industry in Phuket, hoping to inspire camp owners to follow the same path by showing them there are alternate ways to share elephants with tourists.
The sanctuary was opened in 2016 after Montri Todtane, a former camp owner, sent one of his elephants to retire the Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation center in Chiang Mai. Founder and conservationist Lek Chailert has been a driving force of change in the industry by inviting elephant riding camp owners to embrace change through her Save the Elephant Foundation’s ‘Saddle Off’ program. Inspired by Lek’s work, Montri decided to start his own sanctuary in Phuket under Lek’s guidance using her model.
Set on thirty acres of lush tropical jungle, the sanctuary is home to nine elephants, which they hope to grow to twenty-five, the number space can accommodate, over the next few years. For now, they only take in females, as males can be dangerous and difficult to manage, especially during their middle years. All the elephants at the sanctuary are older and have come from logging and tourism camps where they have worked all their lives. Most have injuries relating to their previous work, cataracts, and blindness from camera flashes and sore backs and legs from years spent carrying tourists and hauling logs. The sanctuary is a space where these elephants have found freedom and can live out their last years in retirement.
I was traveling with a group of friends so we opted for a private tour which takes a half day. You can opt for morning or afternoon, we chose the morning due to the sweltering heat with a pickup from our hotel at 8am, arriving at the park just after 9am. We were greeted by the team of volunteers who presented us with gumboots (there is some muddy walking on the tour) and showed us to a hut overlooking the park for morning tea. While we devoured our snacks we watched a film about the park and the do’s and don’ts of interacting with the elephants. It was pretty straight forward. Do stay with your guide, do watch the elephants at a respectful distance. If they come closer, take a step back. If they run at you, you run away as fast as you can. Solid advice.
The tour is an observation-only attraction, with one opportunity to get close by feeding them. After washing our hands, we were taken outside where the majestic Tong Kwaw awaited us behind a barrier (for our safety and her comfort) for her morning treats. We took turns feeding her fruit at a respectful distance and I was completely overcome. You can’t really grasp how big an elephant is until your standing face to face with one. It was one of the best travel experiences I have ever had. Tong Kwaw spent twenty years working in a riding camp, now her days are filled with baths, snacks, and chilling in the jungle.