CHIANG RAI – Before she turned four, YinLuck had already been begging on the streets of Southern Thailand. Like other elephants, she might have gone on to work at a circus had she not been rescued by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.
Elephant husbandry in Southeast Asia is a contentious topic. Asian elephants play a part in ceremonial and religious traditions, and mahout (caretaker) culture demands certain families own elephants.
In the city, elephants face a life of inadequate nutrition, poor health from pollution, and the threat of being hit by cars. In illegal logging camps, elephants are overworked and underfed.
A recent surge in ecotourism may be the best opportunity for the majority of Thailandâ€™s 4,000 captive elephants and the communities whose livelihoods are dependent on them. But concern over trekking conditions (overworked, improperly carrying unsafe loads), and frequent reports of abuse and the illegal capture of young elephants from wild herds to supply the tourism or entertainment industries, is unsettling.
Boycotting elephant tourism isnâ€™t a solution. Thai elephants canâ€™t simply be released back into the wild: besides a loss of habitat and fragmentation due to urban growth, there are also dangers with ivory poaching and run-ins with humans.
John Roberts, director of elephants at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort and founder of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, says education is the best way to aid species conservation. â€œYou canâ€™t stop over 4,000 years of tradition when the biggest asset that feeds these families is their elephant. So try to help through the tourism perspective, while giving mahouts the tools and opportunity to treat their elephants well.â€
Via the foundationâ€™s forward-thinking initiatives, the mahout community can sustain its needs and preserve its culture. Funded by luxury hotel chain Anantara, parent company Minor International, Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, and guest donations, a camp has been set up like a village, with elephant stables and lodgings. The families receive health care, schooling, and support for wivesâ€™ silk-making enterprise. Mahouts are taught positive Western reinforcement techniques that refine their traditional methods, with protocols that give elephants the appropriate care, protection, treatment and security.
Outside the camp, the foundation is also reclaiming agricultural land through reforestation, protecting corridors of elephant traffic, and developing methods to eventually safely release captive elephants into the wild.
Guests can experience safe and ethical activities, from walking with the giants â€” a gentle, minimally imposing means to enjoy the company of the majestic creatures, to dining alongside baby elephants. Thereâ€™s also a full-day mahout training experience, and a morning elephant yoga class I had erroneously thought of as a cute side-by-side workout, but actually involved up-dogging on the mammalâ€™s neck.
Roberts says that done properly, the elephants arenâ€™t bothered by the activity. Still, for my own peace of mind, I chose to admire them from afar.
RenÃ©e S. Suen was hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and a guest at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort