The small island of Phuket is a popular tourist destination in Thailand and home to countless trekking camps where holiday makers go to ride elephants. The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is shaking up the status quo as the first of its kind in Phuket, and hopes to make a big impact when it opens later this year. This month they rescued their first two elephants.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary (PES) is Phuket's first elephant sanctuary, created as a partnership between Mr. Montri Todtane, ex-owner of an elephant camp, and two NGOs, EARS Asia and Save Elephant Foundation (of the famous Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai).
Ordinarily, I am the first to say that the world doesn't need new sanctuaries, but PES is aiming to do something different. Being located within a popular tourist destination that is renowned for elephant tourism means that they have the chance to capture people that may not otherwise seek out eco-tourism or animal sanctuaries. Instead of 'preaching to the choir' and catering to those who already had the knowledge to visit a sanctuary, they can help change the hearts and minds of people who wanted to see elephants but didn't know about the conditions in trekking camps.
Madee and Kannika, 60 and 30 years old respectively, are two female elephants that have been working in logging and tourism all their lives. After being in the elephant business for decades, their owner Mr. Todtane feels there is a better way forward. This is another welcome sign of the slow but sure change in attitudes towards elephant welfare all over Thailand.
At 6am we reach the trekking camp as they are setting up for a long day's work. By 8am the elephants are fixed up with big metal frames put on their backs, ready to ride for the busloads of tourists that visit every single day of the year.
But this morning the routine is broken and Madee and Kannika are left alone, already knowing something is different. Kannika is the more nervous of the pair, and is loaded onto the first of the trucks. In my experience this can take a long time and be a very stressful experience for the elephants. These two haven't been on a truck for years but after a couple of attempts, they do get on the trucks without much of a fuss.
Many of the rescues I've been on around Asia are cross-country affairs, taking anywhere from 8 to 16 hours to reach their final destination. Phuket is a small place, and the truck journey takes less than an hour from the camp to to the land on which PES is located.
Although you wouldn't think it, getting the elephants off the trucks can be as hard as getting them on. Every elephant is different, and surprisingly Madee, who is the more relaxed of the two elephants, was more suspicious of the journey than Kannika. While Madee took a reluctant 5 minutes to eventually get off the truck, Kannika proceeded to wander straight off the ramp and joined her friend out in the fields.
This was their first hint of their new lives. In the quiet field surrounded by trees, they were led out into the grass. This is the moment their mahout took off Madee's chains and then walked away.
Madee immediately started dusting herself down, while Kannika went straight for a patch of banana trees. We followed them a short distance away, and watched them eat and throw soil on themselves.
Mr. Todtane and Kannika's mahout could tell that she was still nervous of the situation; it's a big adjustment for the elephants to get used to. Some animals take years to fully adjust to such a drastic change in their lives. In the case of elephants, one thing that helped her to relax was to put a 'drag chain' back on her ankle. Although it wasn't attached to anything and simply 'dragged' along a few metres behind her, there must be something strangely disconcerting about having that chain removed after 60 years. I have seen this exact thing happen to rescue elephants before, and it is a heartbreaking idea: they were so used to their captivity that taking off their shackles makes them uncomfortable.
Mr. Todtane and their mahout talk each day to see if she is ready to have her chains taken off, and after a few days, knowing she is in a safe environment, she accepts it and never looks back.
It's not just the elephants who have the challenge of adjusting to sanctuary life. The mahouts give up a certain level of control that they are used to, and need to learn the new limits of what the elephants are free to do. These are not wild elephants and its unlikely they ever could go back to what wilds there are left in Thailand. Like most other rescued animals I meet, it was humans who got them into this situation and now it's humans responsibility to give them as good a life as possible since they can't go to the wild. That means they will still need limits, like not smashing building or cars, or hurting humans, and even to train them to accept help from humans when they are injured or sick.
After decades of learning their craft, it takes time for mahouts to adjust to the new way of life, essentially letting the elephant be their own boss now, unless there is any danger.
The mahout seems to find it difficult to give up control on the first afternoon, calling Madee from across the water as she goes about destroying some trees. We watch her doing this for 10 minutes, talking to Mr Todtane, he can't reach Madee, and his frustration in trying to call her back turns into laughter. He realises that here, neither elephant nor mahout will get blamed for knocked down trees: at a sanctuary, that's what they are there for. Despite his decades of instinct, and our lack of a common language, we all laugh together at this elephant ignoring us and getting on with what elephants do.
They spend literally hours in the lake without leaving. Mr. Todtane is smiling the entire time, looking like a proud father. He says they haven't done that for 20 years.
The lake that is overlooked by what will be the visitors centre. Here guests will be able to watch the elephants going about their business, and judging by today they will have a great show. No shouting, commanding, or forcing the elephants to do anything they don't want.
As the sun starts to set they move to the forest again, and later we take them to the new facilities where they will spend their first night.
While we all agree that elephants should be as free as possible, they are dangerous animals and they can't be allowed to wander without any supervision at all unless they are out in the forest where they can't hurt themselves or others. Any sanctuary that let elephants roam free in a town or village would be hugely irresponsible and it wouldn't be long before there were elephant or human injuries, or worse.
There's no perfect solution, instead, elephant sanctuaries have a few options for what happens at night. All of them are compromises, but absolutely necessary.
Some opt for chaining the elephants on a long chain, e.g. 20 metres, to allow the elephant some freedom to walk around, eat and drink until the morning. Although many people have a knee-jerk reaction to the word "chain", this is quite standard and fans and supporters who have followed elephant sanctuaries for some time will understand this.
Another option are the chain-free corrals you will have seen in my photo-essays about charities such as BLES in Thailand or Elephant Aid International in Nepal. These also have pros and cons. They can be very large and give lots of room for the elephants. Some elephants find it difficult to accept electric fencing and don't react well, although most adjust easily. As with any other captive animals, trees around the fences should also be cleared in case they fall down and break the fencing during the night. That can be a problem in areas like PES in Phuket, where they need every bit of space they can get for the elephant to be free during the day.
At PES they have opted for some very robust night shelters. These avoid the need for chains, are strong enough not to worry about being broken. They're not as large as corrals can be, they are big enough to provide lots of space for the elephants during the night hours. They have trees, sandpits and shelter from the rain.
Both the elephants and mahouts begin to get into the new routine and what it does and doesn't entail. Within a few short days Madee and Kannika have gone from being wary of each other, to allowing each other in their space, to becoming inseparable all day long.
While the elephants have everything they need, the visitor facilities at PES are still being built and they are hoping to open within the next couple of months. Nevertheless, they have already been approached by elephant owners to take more elephants from the camps, with even more interested expected as the camps start to see what modern tourists want. But more than a place to home elephants, PES hopes to become a model for the existing camps too, so that all the elephants in Phuket can enjoy better lives.
Aside from the visitor facilities, there is an even more important job. Everything needs to be in place to make sure that visitors from all over the world can learn how elephants should live, regardless of the language they speak (and read). Tourism to Phuket elephant camps is booming from many countries such as Russia, China and Korea, and PES aims to make sure people of many cultures and languages are given the chance to learn how elephants should really be treated.
For now, these first two rescues continue to accept their new lives. Every day they grow closer together, and get used to doing what they want in their sanctuary home.
Elephants may never forget but, for Madee and Kannika, the memories of the trekking camps are getting farther away every day.
Thank you to everyone who supports my work via my Patreon page, it's only through this crowdfunding I am able to help these charities. Thank you from all of us and the animals!