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Published: December 4th 2011
Visitors to Thailand will often encounter elephants at tourist attractions, either for riding or some other form of entertainment. But what happens to these elephants when they become too old or sick to undertake the tasks demanded of them? To uncover this answer, I undertook a rattling third-class train ride to Kanchanaburi in Western Thailand. The journey is supposed to be completed in two and a half hours, but on this fine Thursday afternoon, it was almost double that time.
The following morning, I travelled to Elephant’s World
. Established in 2008, this project is the inspiration of Dr. Samart Prasitphol, a veterinarian and livestock officer of the Kanchanaburi Province who sought to provide a refuge for unwanted and neglected elephants who may wander the streets of Thailand with their mahouts begging for food and money. Other elephants are brought here due to injury, such as Malee unfortunate encounter with a car, which caused her to not only lose sight of one eye, but she also suffered permanent damage to an ankle.
The rule at Elephant’s World is: “We work for the elephants, the elephants are not working for us.” Thus, the welfare of the elephant’s is always put first, and
this is evident to anyone on the visitor’s program, or in my case, an overnight stay. Most of the first day was filled with tasks involving the feeding of elephants. An elephant can eat up to 10% of its body weight per day, so sourcing sufficient food is a constant effort within Elephant’s World, and thus one would be required to feed the elephants with what seemed like endless quantities of fruit. One quite laborious task involved preparing sticky rice cakes for the elephant, which was a mass of sticky rice and pumpkin boiled and formed into glutinous balls. Moulding them was quite a disgusting task, but the elephants eagerly devoured them.
Visitors learn numerous facts about the elephants. One which was previously unknown to me was that elephants can only comfortably carry 100 kilograms on its back, but can withstand five times that burden on their neck. Thus, elephant rides involving large riding platforms carrying several people at a time are stressful for an elephant in many ways.
The undoubted highlight of any visit to Elephant’s World is the washing and scrubbing session in the Kwai River. My elephant was called Kammoon and I was informed that
she “moves sharply”, which should have warned me of what was awaiting me. Kammoon’s mahout stood behind me on the elephant’s back, and clutching a scrubbing brush in my hand, we entered the cooling Kwai waters. The mahout shouted “Mulong” which the instruction to dive, and when Kammoon dove under the water, he lurched sharply to the left, so holding onto the beast became of paramount importance. Thankfully, every dive was not deep enough for either the mahout nor myself to be completely submerged. Every time Kammoon rose from the river, streams of water rushed down his rough skin and I proceeded to scrub his head with the brush. Bathing and scrubbing was something that these elephants seemed to enjoy. For a period of ten minutes it was a repeated pattern of diving, holding on, resurfacing and scrubbing.
“Mulong!” again cried the mahout, and the playful Kammoon sunk beneath the Kwai River, lurching sharply to the left and dislodging me from my seat a little more than the previous dunkings. How much I had shifted soon became apparent, for when Kammoon rose again from the waters, my backside slid dramatically towards the elephant’s left, and my desperate attempt to
not shift further was futile as I ungracefully fell into the River with a far smaller splash than those of the elephants.
A few moments later I resurfaced to the realisation that though elephants appear large on land, they seem enormous when floating beside them in a river. I speedily swam away from Kammoon towards the riverbank still with the scrubbing brush in my right hand. I kept watching Kammoon as I moved away, and upon reaching a comfortable distance from her, I cheered with delight. I turned to continue my journey to discover that my direct path to the riverbank was blocked by a defecating elephant, its faeces causing large plopping sounds in the water nearby, so I wisely changed tact. I again turned to monitor the elephants and noticed that Kammoon and two other elephants were also heading to shore, so I quickly scampered from the river before they came too close.
After drying myself, there was another elephant feeding session at Elephant’s World main complex, and then came time for the elephants to retire to the jungle for the evening. All present were given the opportunity to ride an elephant, but upon sitting on the
one assigned to me, the ride felt very uncertain, as if I could tumble from the elephant at any moment. Falling into water from an elephant does not pose the serious consequences that from falling onto land from an elephant does, so I chose to complete the journey to the jungle on foot instead.
That evening, I mingled with four volunteers from The Netherlands who are residing here from between one and four weeks. A project such as Elephant’s World relies heavily on volunteers and donations. It was gratifying to know that the price for a month’s volunteering was only three hundred dollars, including full board. Volunteers here are not seen as a money-making venture, but instead, were welcomed for their expertise and assistance. After an enjoyable evening of a card-based game with the visitors, volunteers and mahouts, the eventful and exciting day was at an end. I retired to one of the cabins on offer, a simply built wood affair with the bonus of a brown frog residing in the attached bathroom.
The following morning we escorted the elephants back to the camp, where I befriended a four-year old elephant called John whose trunk kept exploring the
right side of my face and my hat, blowing air on me and smearing huge marks of dark dirt in the process. Another day at Elephant’ World ensued but instead of partaking in the day’s food gathering and preparation activities, I instead chose to relax for most of the time admiring the water buffaloes, cats, dogs and cows that also resided here.
There was one activity that I was keen to repeat, and that was elephant washing and bathing. So once more I entered the Kwai River, but this time on the more placed Somboon, and I stayed upright for the entire twenty minutes. Sitting astride an elephant for a scrubbing and washing session in a river must be one of the great travel experiences. Whilst waiting for my transport back to Kanchanaburi , I was fortunate to meet Elephant World’s founder, Dr. Samart. We discussed the Sanctuary and his plans for the future, including the goal of tripling the number of unwanted and injured elephants in its care. If Elephant’s World is able to realise this dream, it will make even greater strides in providing a safe and secure haven for one of Thailand’s most treasured animals.
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