With an estimated 40,000 temples in Thailand, it’s rather easy for travellers to find themselves templed-out,
awe-inspiring architecture losing lustre the more you see.
Buddhist-inspired Places of Peace
Complete with abundant waterholes, customized diets, an on-site vet, and an attentive, fully dedicated staff, Elephant World is equipped with both the supplies and heart to usher these tired deep feeling creatures into greener, lusher, relaxed pastures. The site can only be better described as a luxury rehabilitation elephant-retirement resort.
As we prepared the elephants’ morning meal, I learned that elephants who run this tiny kingdom within a kingdom have come from trekking camps, defunct logging operations and street begging. While elephant captivity for the purposes of logging was banned in 1989, many trekking operations still use elephants to herd tourists through the jungle, often atop their backs in metal cages.
Before adding human weight, these platforms place upwards of 50 kg on the most sensitive part of the elephant’s skeleton: their spine. Working upwards of 10 hours a day, even despite the best of efforts, it’s just hard to sustain an elephant’s dietary demands: they require 10 percent of their body weight in nutrition per day. So often they’re malnourished, mistreated and in dire need of rest when they pass through the doors of ElephantsWorld.
As we dished out watermelons I spoke with one of the caretakers, a repeat volunteer, who told me that at ElephantsWorld “it’s the humans who work for the elephants.” Indeed, later that day we would palm pumpkin rice balls rolled in protein powder and divide baskets of various vegetables and fruits by name and dietary restriction.
Elephant washing, elephant walking, elephant trinkets, elephant pants, and my all-time favourite elephant poo paper. Everywhere you look in Thailand, elephant something is an option! Thailand’s history is as intertwined with the elephant as horses are to the American West. But buyer beware—as well as animal lovers and anyone with a fully functioning soul—elephant trekking is rife with malpractice.
Armed with an arsenal of cautionary tales that range from human zoos to the horrors of frozen tiger cub corpses, Sue and I were equally (and rightfully) skeptical of embarking on an elephant experience. With much due diligence and research, we were both relieved to find ElephantsWorld, a non-profit elephant sanctuary in Kanchanaburi founded in 2008.
All the volunteers we spoke with praised the work done by ElephantsWorld and enjoyed the work they were doing—but one also warned that “when you see the new girl, you’ll know.” Later, we did see her. As I scrubbed a baby elephant—who like a Great Dane moonlighting as a lap dog flip-flopped in the lake, his crushing size unbeknownst to him—a mahout (elephant trainer) was guiding a timid lone “lady” to a more peaceful part of the waterhole.
“There she is,” said the volunteer, following my gaze.
She was unmistakeable. The skin draped off her hulking frame like an aged leather jacket on a coat hanger. “We’ll turn her around soon. She is already markedly better than she was. This is my third time here. The most gratifying thing is returning to see the elephants you’ve bonded with happy and healthy again.”
My heart sunk as I thought how this creature who weighs some three tonnes could seem as delicate as a piece of straw. But just then a particularly plump elephant strolled onto the shore—a testament to Elephant’s World’s good work, she wasn’t chubby or over fed. She was expecting.
Elephants are highly complex creatures. From a care standpoint, they devour resources. They have choosey sweet teeth—the phrase “champagne tastes on beer wages” comes to mind—and even more fickle stomachs. From a social standpoint, they are even more so. Adoptive mothers care for orphaned young, entire herds will perform burial rituals and mourn their dead, even coming back to the resting place of their deceased to grieve.
ElephantsWorld is always looking for both volunteers and donations. A noble cause, and a noble use of precious holidays. They say an elephant never forgets. At ElephantsWorld we learned how imperative it is that as travellers it’s our great responsibility to remember we are not the only creatures on this earth that feel.
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