It’s hard to miss the Elephants when you’re in Ayutthaya. If you don’t see them carrying tourists around the city centre, you’ll definitely spot one at the side of the street when you head a few kilometres north out of town. The red wooden columns of Royal Kraal Village are loaded with history and still mark the home of the non profit organization Elephantstay today.
The Elephant has been domesticated for over 4000 years in Thailand. It is a highly respected animal at the very heart of the country’s history and culture. However, the domestic population of elephants in Southeast Asia no longer serves a valuable function and has become expendable in the context of unstable economies and the general “Westernizing” of Asia. In Thailand alone, numbers have dropped from over 20,000 elephants in 1989 to less than 5,000 today. Thailand is making the elephant a symbol of the past rather than an important part of the future. The domesticated elephants’economic value must therefore be raised and they must serve a purpose in today’s society. The Elephantstayprovides a new career and gives elephants a well deserved comfortable retirement (1).
I met so many enthusiastic people during my stay at Elephantstay, but one woman in particular – Jenny – was particularly knowledgeable and experienced. No surprise really, as she was there for the eleventh time since her first visit in 2006. She’s no stranger to caring for animals as she grew up on a farm and has spent over seven years working for Melbourne Zoo.
Health problems brought her to hospital where her oncologist told her she was talking in her sleep, saying she wanted to retrain to work with elephants. Regardless of the negative advice from well-meaning people, she literally followed her dream and met one of the program managers of Elephantstay when doing her animal training. During her first stay, Jenny took care of Loong Sap, one of the older retired elephants. In only ten days it became clear that Loong Sap was the perfect teacher to learn Jenny a lot about elephant life. It was difficult for her to say goodbye, and a whole year passed before she could visit Elephantstay again.
However, when Jenny did return, remarkably there was still a true connection between her and Loong Sap, despite the fact that the elephant had had many new human carers in between.Jenny was greeted by Loong Sap just as she would have been a year ago, yet with more excitement. She could tell the elephant was excited to be reunited by the way she lowered her head and gently put her eye next to Jenny’s face and the low rumbles she would make while she was feeding her. It confirmed that the elephant is a very special animal with great intelligence and complex emotions. Jenny also told me that when she left her takaw (bull hook to control the elephant) lying around Loong Sap would always pick it up and keep it safe until she returned, as she’d clearly wanted to take care of the tool that had been left unattended. Jenny and Loong Sap really got to know each other and became firm friends for life. It is therefore no surprise that I could really sense Jenny’s sadness when she told me Loong Sap has now passed away.Visitors can stay for a minimum of 3 consecutive days but generally stay longer or pay repeating visits to Elephantstay. The history and culture of elephants in Thailand is an important aspect of the experience. Participants get to see the documentary ‘The Last Mahout’ and receive a copy of the Elephantstay Handbook containing the history of elephants within Thailand, the importance of Mahout culture and a short guide in how to care for elephants.
The Royal Kraal Elephant Village is inextricably linkedwith the Mahout community. Mahouts are the men who work with the elephants and share a bond with their animal that is far deeper than merely being a “trainer”. For a mahout, their elephant is a family member and they share a trusting, close friendship.
I followed Jenny and the group of participants accompanied by the Mahouts on an average day at Elephantstay. They start early morning cleaning the Elephants resting place and feeding the Elephants before having breakfast themselves. The day is then mostly spent riding the elephants, taking them to the river for a refreshing bath, scrubbing them and last but not least: providing them with water and proper food. An elephant can drink as much as 200 litres on a hot day and eats an average of 100 kilograms of food per day. Beside the maintenance of the residence, this is what a large part of the money is spent on.
The most remarkable experience for many visitors is spending some time playing Elephantstay’s youngest resident, a baby elephant. At certain times of day she is brought to the river to swim alongside her mother, or sometimes she’s given a bath outside her living quarters. It’s magical to see the playful yet instinctive behaviour of both the baby elephant and the human spectators.
However, for me the most interesting thing to observe at Elephantstay was the way in which everybody get involved in the experience. As soon as they were riding their elephants it was as if they were taken to another world. At Elephantstay you really get immersed into the life of elephants, and it’s a very intense and unique experience to bond with such magnificent animals. Discovering their individual personalities and backstories really makes you realise that they all deserve a happy and healthy life.
For Jenny, her love of elephants didn’t stop at visiting Elephantstay. As well as setting up fundrasing events such as barbeques and silent auctions, she decided to start her own enterprise called Elephant Encounters, through which she aims to help people to connect with, understand and act towards a sustainable future for elephants. It’s great to see Jenny literally followed her dream and made it come true. I can’t fail to agree with what she said to me; “Don’t worry about what people tell you can’t do”.
Beside donating money, the best way to help Elephantstay in maintaining a happy and healthy life for (retired) elephants is to actually get out there and participate in the program they offer. After visiting Elephantstay I am sure it is a unique experience that changed many lives of which Jenny’s is just a perfect example. Learn more at www.elephantstay.com.