Travellers to South-East Asia are well within their rights to question the ethics of visiting an elephant camp, “sanctuary” or “conservation centre”. After all, regular reports detail the barbaric methods used to break an elephant’s spirit and force it to perform demeaning tricks, play football and ferry tourists around on its back. Fortunately, there are a growing number of ethical camps in South-East Asia that eschew these cruel practices and instead allow the elephants to live their lives in safety and peace.
The latest notable opening is in a country that was once known as the Land of a Million Elephants, but is now home to only around 500 wild pachyderms. MandaLao, which opened last September in Luang Prabang, Laos, is a new eco-tourism startup offering more meaningful elephant encounters.
Situated along the Nam Khan River, the sanctuary is home to seven elephants, aged between two to 60, who once worked together at a logging camp. Under the guidance of Prasop Tipprasert, a co-founder of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, it aims to help tourists foster deeper and more benevolent connections with the animals.
For starters, visitors are not introduced to the elephants until they have been taught how to read the individual animal’s moods by the guides and mahouts. They can then help to feed them, bathe them or head out for a jungle trek alongside the herd.
The centre is also looking to launch an elephant reintroduction programme at Nam Phouy National Biodiversity Conservation Area, around 150km south-east of Luang Prabang. This is one of the last remaining spots in Laos where you can see wild elephants. The sanctuary’s youngest elephant, Kit, who is 20 months old, is currently in “school to be wild”, a training regime whose goal is to reintroduce him into the park when he is eight or nine years old – the age that a young male elephant in the wild would naturally separate from his mother. As part of the project, MandaLao also plans on taking guests down to the park to glimpse the wild elephants.
Elephant Valley Project, Cambodia
Situated on 3,000km2 of protected forest, this remote reservation in Cambodia’s far eastern Mondulkiri province is currently home to 10 rescued elephants. Day visits or longer volunteer options are available. Website
Elephant Freedom Project, Colombo
Located in Kegalle, about 80km from Colombo, this natural sanctuary rescues elephants from the logging and tourism industries. Visitors can volunteer to help care for the gentle giants. Website
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
“More like a retirement home for elephants,” says Russell Wither, an Englishman who sold up at home to care for the four pachyderms here. Website
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
Founded by Khun Lek, the “Mother Theresa” of Thailand’s pachyderm protection campaign, this park offers a chance for tourists to bathe, feed and interact with its resident elephants. Website
Best Foot Forward
“You can tell she’s happy by the way she flaps her ears and swishes her tail,” says Dr Cruetong Kayan, Mosha’s vet. And the elephant, who celebrates her 12th birthday next month, sure looks cheerful. Her chestnut brown eyes sparkle playfully, and she appears to be smiling as she gets her prosthetic leg fitted.
But Mosha’s life hasn’t always been so pleasant. Before she came to the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampang, south-east of Chiang Mai, she was a prisoner at a logging camp in Myanmar. As a calf, she was kept in chains while her mother hauled heavy logs along the riverbanks in dense jungle heat.
The Thai-Myanmar border is a conflict zone; one day in 2006, Mosha trod on a landmine. It blew off her front leg, almost to the knee. Her caretaker rushed her across the border to Thailand and onto a truck, which carried her on the four-hour journey to the elephant hospital. There, a team of veterinary doctors and surgeons battled – successfully – to save her life.
Mosha had been in recovery at the hospital for two years when orthopaedic surgeon Dr Therdchai Jivacate met her for the first time. A philanthropist and part-time inventor, Dr Therdchai applied his 40 years’ experience making artificial limbs for humans to create the world’s very first prosthesis for an elephant.
Mosha’s new leg was a revelation. “Before, her spine was hunched from the effort of supporting herself on three legs,” says Dr Kayan. “Now she moves comfortably. You can see how cheerful she is – friendly, energetic, always active, just like a child.”
This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.