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Responsible Travel in Asia

Conserving Elephants in Thailand

Travelers Interact with Mahouts and their Elephants, While Supporting Thailand’s National Elephant Institute

Converving Elephants in Thailand

A "mahout," or professional elephant handler, rides a young elephant out of the river after its bath at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang Province, Thailand.

Cover photo by Michelle McCue

Have you seen the elephant yet?” A British backpacker pointed out the baby elephant, a fixture most nights on the buzzing streets of Bangkok. The creature plodded through the crowds, drugged and woozy, led by a local who collected money from tourists wishing to caress and photograph his “pet.”

The National Elephant Institute

As responsible travelers, especially in developing countries like Thailand, we often find ourselves caught between our consciences and our curiosity. Fortunately, I discovered one place in Thailand that satisfied both my elephant curiosity and my desire to protect this endangered species. The National Elephant Institute, located in northern Lampang Province, is part of a national effort to promote eco-friendly tourism and resolve the many issues surrounding Asian elephants.

From the northern capitol, Chiang Mai, it is only a 60-minute bus ride down the Lampang-Chiang Mai Highway to the entrance. At Chiang Mai’s main bus terminal (east of the river) catch the “Green Bus” to Lampang and get off at the 37-kilometers mark. Beware—it is two kilometers from the entry arches to the main grounds, so call ahead and a van will pick you up, or walk up the left fork to the tourist office where staff can arrange for a ride.

Founded in 1991 by the Forest Industry Organization, the National Elephant Institute (also known as the Thai Elephant Conservation Center) has provided care for more than 100 elephants, as well as jobs and housing for elephant keepers and their families. Known as “mahouts,” professional elephant handlers were born of the need to control elephants used for labor in the logging industry.

Mahout Training

The Institute’s many projects have neatly solved some of the economic problems created by the 1989 ban on logging, which left mahouts and their elephants unemployed. I signed up for a program—part of the project to promote eco-tourism—that paired me with a professional mahout and his elephant for a day of basic “mahout training.”

My mahout training began at the show grounds where I met Sat-tit, a massive male elephant about 35 years old, who would be my partner for the day. Dressed in baggy denim mahout pajamas, I got to know Sat-tit over a breakfast of sugar cane and palm fronds—which he eagerly snatched from my arms, probing my pockets with his delicate trunk when the supply dwindled.

Though my morning consisted mostly of falling, swearing, and perspiring, I eventually learned to mount and ride the elephant in true mahout style. No basket, no saddle, no rope or stirrups to pull myself up, just Sat-tit’s helpful leg, ears and patient attitude. Sitting bareback atop one of the world’s largest land mammals, I was awed by his strength, grace, and personality.

While later watching the elephants bathe in the river, I met two veterinary nurses from Australia participating in another of the Institute’s programs, a 3-day homestay experience. More in-depth than the 1-day program, homestay visitors lodge overnight with the mahouts and help cook Thai food. In addition to learning basic mahout skills, they also accompany the mahouts to the forest each morning and evening to retrieve and return the elephants.

J.R., our English-speaking escort, served as our translator and guide throughout the day. At the facility for making “dung paper,” he grabbed a handful of pre-washed dung and swirled it in a bucket of water, demonstrating how we could make our own paper from fibrous elephant droppings. The wives and families of some mahouts are employed by the facility; one woman grinned as I wincingly squished the yellow dung through my fingers.

At the elephant hospital, four elephants were receiving care. One was a 56-year-old male known as the “White Elephant” for his sickly pinkish-white flesh, the result of being severely burned while chained in a forest that caught fire. Another was a two- year-old baby, adopted and sponsored by a British woman, who had been immobilized after breaking his rear legs in a fall.

After the hospital visit, the nursery was a bright spot. A baby born at the camp just two weeks before my arrival stumbled around his mother’s tree-trunk legs. Another baby, two months old, lay napping peacefully.

Like other elephant camps, the Institute puts on a twice-daily elephant show for tourists. But unlike the circus-style shows, these elephants performed no weightlifting or balancing acts; instead they demonstrated traditional logging techniques and painted abstract watercolors, which visitors could purchase in the gift shop.

We were even treated to a mini-concert performed by the elephant orchestra—which, incidentally, attracted international media attention in 2002 and 2004 with the release of two "all-elephant" improvisational jazz CDs.

Later, I boarded Sat-tit one last time for a trek into the humid jungle. As the dense woods unfolded in the late afternoon and Sat-tit trod deliberately through a shallow river to the spot where I would leave him for the night, my conscience and my curiosity were quietly satisfied.

For More Info

The Best time to go: December through March. Because the weather is relatively dry and cool, this is also high tourist season. For reduced rates and fewer crowds, try late May through June but prepare for the heat. Avoid the rainy season (Sept.-Nov.), as leeches, mosquitoes, and downpours make the experience less than pleasant.

The National Elephant Institute is a nationally run organization in Thailand founded to aid in the conservation of elephants for future generations.

Wildlife Friends Foundaton Thailand features an Elephant and Refuge Camp and Education Center offering opportunities to volunteer with elephants.

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