A few years ago, on a previous trip to Northern Thailand we went on an elephant trek, our first time and we really enjoyed it, even having the funny experience of a hat being blown off and another elephant bringing it back to us, so here we are in Ao Nang and one of the things to do is an elephant trek. I guess as you get older you start to question things a bit more and we’re a little bit torn between the experience and the worry of exploitation, after that first elephant trek in Northern Thailand we’d since been to the elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka, a government run facility where semi-wild elephants roam free in a forested area, you can’t ride them in Sri Lanka but they are quite tame and well looked after and, on the surface, looked a good facility.
We’d done a bit of research into the operators in the local area and found one that seemed to get good reviews on the way they look after the animals. So we decide to book the trek and head out to the Khao Panombenja jungle trekking site.
Set some 45 minutes outside of Ao Nang the trekking station is set up partly in some remaining forest and partly in a palm oil plantation, as we arrive we see 5 or 6 elephants happily munching away on pineapple plant off cuts, they seem delighted with their meal, slapping their legs with the plants to soften up the fibers before munching away.
The Thai government banned rainforest logging in 1990 so most of these elephants would have spent their entire lives as trekking elephants, carrying tourists like us around the mountain track, a far better existence than the city elephants, left to scavenge food from tourists in Bangkok, there are estimates as many as 300 elephants are taken by their owners into Bangkok at night to beg for food, a practice outlawed by authorities some years ago, but still in practice.
The only legal work for an elephant in Thailand now is either as a trekking elephant, or to work in a show or circus, so the business of trekking continues to be seen as a solution to help in both feeding the elephant and keeping the mahout in work and off the streets.
The Thai government set up, in 1991, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, we have not visited it, so cannot say if they’re doing a good job or not, but it appears to be a similar facility to the Sri Lankan center.
So, we did the trek, Mr Tong, our elephant, was a gentle giant, seemingly happy enough to plod along the mountain track, pausing now and then to rip branches from nearby palm trees for a mid afternoon snack, what he makes of the funny looking white folk perched on his back is anybody’s guess, we like to think he’s having the best life possible at the moment and at 48 years old he still has plenty to live for and at least he’s not in a circus or begging.
It struck us later, on our way home, that we probably would have paid a lot more to just go and see some semi-wild elephants on a reserve and not go on the trek at all, but that’s just us.
Anyway, here’s some shots from the back of an elephant.
All photos copyright Ross Duncan: firstname.lastname@example.org