CHIANG RAI – Sitting on the border of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) in Chiang Rai recently opened its camp to give local and foreign visitors a chance to experience several educational activities about elephants and mahouts.
Set up in 2006 by the five-star Anantara Hotels chain, the foundation aims to solve the problem of elephants coming to city streets and generally improve elephant welfare in Thailand. Today, all elephants in its camp are rented from different villages to conduct the exclusive mahout and trekking programs for the guests staying at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle.
“Anantara took over this property with its elephant camp back in 2002. We recognized the potential for tourism in the Golden Triangle and wanted to do more with the land. That gave birth to the idea of setting up the foundation and inviting mahouts to work with us rather than taking the elephants to towns to walk on the streets,” says John Roberts, director of Elephants and Conservation Efforts of Anantara.
“In those days, tourism in this part of the world was still relatively small and the mahouts had no other ways of making money.”
But despite the good intentions, the foundation hasn’t always had it easy. Last year, Anantara Hotels was put in the hot seat after the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) released worrying video footage showing mahouts using bullhooks to beat and jab elephants during the polo matches, resulting in all the big names drawing back their sponsorship.
Anantara took quick action and launched the inaugural King’s Cup Elephant Boat Race and River Festival to replace its annual polo match. The charity event is taking place this weekend, joined by veteran Thai Navy paddlers and international teams from China and the Philippines.
“To improve the situation, we provide a positive and targetted training programme that can help the villagers teach their elephants without using bullhooks or hitting them,” Roberts explains.
“All mahouts learn the basics for controlling an elephant from their parents. It’s like learning to drive with our parents. It might not be the best way but this is tradition and the techniques have been passed on from generation to generation for 4,000 years. We don’t want to touch their heritage. We just come up with a different way that can help them do better.”
The GTAEF camp in the luxury Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort occupies 2,000 square metres as is home to 25 rescued elephants and a small village of mahouts and their families. Many of elephants here came from the streets but others used to work for illegal logging camps or elephant shows. The camp pays Bt25,000 a month to provide mahouts with an guaranteed income and also supports their spouses in their silk weaving group.
For the recent celebration, the lush jungle was transformed into a ceremonial ground, where a group of elephant spirit men from Surin’s Ban Ta Klang Elephant Village performed a Kui traditional ritual to pay respect to the guardian spirits.
A long table was set up in the middle of the lush grounds packed with offerings and nang pa kam, a sacred 100-year-old robe made from buffalo leather that has been used to capture a wild elephant in the past.
“Being an elephant spirit man is local wisdom and passed down from father to son. We pray in the Kui language and blow sang (a buffalo horn), which is traditionally used to capture wild elephants. The offerings include a chicken chin, a pig head, fruits and bai si,” explains Uncle Chalerm Salangam, 70.
“Today, our village has 300 elephants and we’ve trained a new generation of elephant spirit men to maintain our traditions.”
The elephants themselves were more excited about the buffet, eagerly tucking into watermelons, coconuts, bananas, sweet corn, pumpkins and pineapples.
A short walk from the ceremonial venue, development manager Laddawan Yonthantham was acting as a tour guide to give visitors an introduction to sustainable elephant welfare management.
“About 30 years ago, the government enacted legislation to ban logging in the jungle and mahouts became unemployed. To generate income, they shifted to putting on elephant shows at tourist attractions or took their elephants to the city essentially to beg. Raising elephants is expensive as they need 200 to 300 kilograms of pineapples, watermelons and sugar cane, depending on their weight – and the average weight of an elephant is 2,500 kilograms,” Laddawan says.
“Our camp offers natural space near the river so that the elephants can exercise and eat organic fruits from the local plantations. Initially, we purchased some overworked and street elephants from mahouts but they bought new elephants to sell to us again. So, we rented the elephants and hired the mahouts to conduct eco-friendly activities for our all-inclusive hotel packages.
“Mahouts can take advantage of Anantara’s staff welfare programme, which includes a residence, uniforms and three meals a day. Based on sustainable living, it aims to keep them from falling back into the same cycle.”
Hotel guests can register for trekking and riding an elephant or learn the basics of being a mahout while the elephants get additional exercise. As we walk around the property, we see domesticated giant Bo and her friends jumping into the Ruak river and having fun in the clear water as they take their daily bath.
“We limit work to three-and-a-half hours and even have a customized exercise routine for elephants so that they can stay healthy. They love jumping into a mud pond to cool down,” says Laddawan.
Mahout Wattana Salangam and his giant friend Bo have worked with the elephant camp for 14 years. Before that they were in Bangkok, roaming the streets to earn money.
“I was in debt so I took Bo to Bangkok. We would walk around the streets and would collect about Bt2,500 a day. We made ourselves a camp on vacant land to save money. Then we moved to the elephant foundation in Phetchaburi and had to take care of many elephants, most of them belonging to other people. It was dangerous because most elephants only obey their owners,” Wattana says.
“Here, I started on a salary of Bt18,000 and now receive up to Bt25,000, plus extra income from guest activities. I’m happy to work here. My elephant has enough food no matter if I have work or not.”
“Our foundation doesn’t support mahouts to breed their elephants. Today, there are more than 4,200 house elephants and not all of them live in good conditions. We can’t release them to the forest because they have no skills to survive. Normally, elephants live in a group and don’t accept strangers,” Laddawan says.
An in-house veterinarian team is in charge at the positive reinforcement target training station where elephants learn to perform certain tasks such as raising a foot in a purely positive manner. A small branch is used but no punishments are meted out. Instead the elephants quickly learn about rewards.
“Our camp set up this training in cooperation with Dr Gerardo Martinez, a world renowned large animal trainer from the Africam Safari Park in Puebla, Mexico. This target training can be used to train the elephant in the event that they need veterinary treatment. It can help feel free and release stress for both elephant and vet,” says Laddawan.
The camp also conducts Elephant Cognition (problem solving) Research. Here, visitors can see the elephants using their trunks to pick up tokens of different textures and work as a team.
Next door was the space for Elephant Osteopathy Demonstrations undertaken in collaboration with veteran British animal osteopath Tony Nevin. Adapted from techniques used with humans, the massage treatment is designed to relieve muscle tension and pain.
“We focus on the elephant’s spine and balance while walking. The massage starts from the neck and goes from rib to hip. This treatment can be used for other animals too, like giraffes, horses and ostriches,” Nevin says.
The Walking with Giants activity takes place in the early morning and takes guests to explore a trekking trail around the camp and learn about daily life of elephants. For example, elephants splash dirt over their back to chase bugs and black dung means they are eating too much dirt probably have flatulence.
“For the next step, we are focusing more on mass tourism. Western guests are still concerned about the unfortunate reports from last year but Chinese guests, who are now our biggest visitors, are not so worried. We are trying to find more staff for the elephant camp and we are also trying to develop facilities for those wanting to experience the trekking camp,” director Roberts says.
“In terms of conservation, we have teamed up with US Agency for International Development (USAID) to teach travellers not to buy ivory. We’re also working with Srinakharinwirot University, which is going to send students to the area where villagers are facing problems with elephants coming out from the forest. We will try to identify what is the best practice to keep both people and elephants happy when they come out from the national park.
By Pattarawadee Saengmanee