“We should work for the elephants; not make the elephants work for us.” This is the simple and heartfelt ethos of Elephants World in Kanchanaburi. Founded in 2008 by a Thai veterinarian, Dr. Samart, and his wife Khun Fon, Elephants World provides a safe haven for rescued and injured elephants.
Located on the banks of the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi province, the facility has evolved since it first opened and is now a totally self-supporting Environmental Conservation Organisation. Elephants World provides a home to over 30 elephants and more than 100 staff.
Meet the elephants
Different elephant facilities in Thailand take different approaches to the amount of interaction allowed. It’s an emotive issue and one which even elephant experts can’t agree on. At what price point do you expect visitors to come and pay for the upkeep of the elephants without getting close? But just how close is the big question. At Elephants World, a certain amount of supervised interaction is allowed which gives visitors an educational as well as pleasurable experience. But the welfare of the elephants always comes first. Visitors can walk with the mahouts and elephants to the river and mud bath, but groups are kept small and guests must respect the elephants.
Many of the residents of Elephants World previously worked in the logging or trekking industries. When they first arrived some were malnourished or depressed. Getting mistreated elephants to trust humans again isn’t an easy task, but the team at Elephants World use positive reinforcement to achieve this.
Like people, each elephant has their own individual personality. When you visit the facility in Kanchanaburi, staff will let you know the names of the elephants and their main characteristics. The Elephants World website also has a helpful page of biographies for the elephants which details their backgrounds and personality traits. Elephants like Malee who was one of the first three arrivals at Elephants World back in 2008. Malee worked as a street elephant in Bangkok until she was hit by a car and suffered a serious injury to her left rear leg. Identifiable because she is tall, slim and with a pronounced backbone, Malee likes to trumpet and enjoys rolling around in the mud pool. And then there is Lam Duan, a blind elephant. Her exact age isn’t known, but she is thought to be around 65 years old and is the only elephant at the facility with a female mahout.
Feeding the elephants
Elephants World have built an elevated walkway from where visitors can feed the elephants. And if there is one thing that elephants love to do, it’s eat. They can spend two-thirds of the day eating with a medium-sized Asian elephant chomping through at least 150kg of food per day. In addition to this, they need to be near a source of fresh water and it’s important that they are given a balanced diet and have access to extra food at certain times of the year e.g. during the dry season. To put the costs into perspective, it equates to around £800 per month to feed and care for an elephant.
Meet the mahouts
The elephant handlers, mahouts (or kwan chang), are integral to the Elephants World family and their contribution should not be overlooked. Although the mahouts at Elephants World are better paid than many of their peers elsewhere around Thailand, this isn’t a job they do for a big salary. This is a vocation. The mahouts at Elephants World are Karen, a hill-tribe community who have a long history of working alongside and caring for elephants. Knowledge and skills have been passed down from generation to generation, but the mahouts at Elephants World have also shown a willingness to adapt to change and accept new ideas.
At Elephants World, there is a genuine bond between the elephant and their mahout. The mahouts have dedicated their lives to the elephants. That isn’t the case at all elephant facilities in Thailand, but it is at Elephants World. Visitors don’t see the times when mahouts are up and about in the early hours collecting extra food for their elephant. Or the times when elephants are unwell and the mahouts are by their side every hour of the day to comfort them. And for anybody who is interested in learning more about the role of the mahout, Elephants World has a program where you can stay on site for a week and learn more about what being a mahout involves.
No hooks, no riding, no breeding
There is no riding at Elephants World and that applies to the mahouts too. It used to be a tradition for the mahouts to ride their own elephant, but they no longer do so. Since they first opened, the team at Elephants World have responded to feedback and changed their approach. Although the term domesticated is sometimes used the elephants are captive wild animals and can still be unpredictable. Any changes made at Elephants World had to take into account the safety of the elephants and the visitors. There are no chains or restraints used on the elephants during the day. The one exception is for Lam Duan, the blind elephant who is loosely chained for her own safety.
Karen mahouts are used to working with bull-hooks which, when properly used, are a safety device. However, the team at Elephants World made the collective decision to stop using them and it has proven to be a success with the Kanchanaburi facility maintaining an excellent safety record. Visitors may notice the mahouts do carry a knife which is used for collecting food.
Although there is no breeding at Elephants World, they do have some young elephants. This is because the facility has taken in mothers with their babies who were previously at trekking camps. In one instance, a pregnant female elephant had elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV) which resulted in the loss of her baby which was heartbreaking for all the staff.
Visit Elephants World
Elephants World is located in a rural area of Kanchanaburi province, approximately a 40 minute drive north-west of Kanchanaburi city. The facility is open for half-day or full-day visits. There is also an option to stay overnight or for a week or more as part of the mahout program.
The future for captive elephants in Thailand
At the time of publishing (April 2020) the Covid-19 situation continues to affect all elephant centres in Thailand. With uncertainty about how long centres will be closed and when visitors will return, these are especially tough times for Thailand’s ethical elephant facilities.
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