Photographs by Jasper Wilkins
During my travels in Asia over the past five years, i've witnessed a lot of animal exploitation - and elephants are subject to riding and entertainment across the continent. There are currently only 30,000 – 50,000 elephants left in Asia, with numbers decreasing mostly due to habitat loss and poaching. Fortunately, China has banned ivory, which has slowed down the demand. And many tourists are becoming increasingly aware of the issues, and are making sure they choose ethical resorts and attractions.
Before visiting Elephants, research the sanctuary to make sure they are not being exploited.
I wanted to share my recent personal experience with these incredible animals at a wonderful elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Early in 2020, I decided to visit Sappraiwan Elephant Sanctuary located in Phitsanaluk, Thailand, a mountainous area in between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Sappraiwan is home to six calm, beautiful female elephants that have all been rescued from exploitative industries such as logging, riding and/or shows across the country. The sanctuary itself is situated on 360 acres of land immersed in nature, and it was an incredible experience to stay here. Work on the sanctuary started back in 1998, when the whole area was farmland, and 30,000 trees were immediately planted to reforest the area. The sanctuary owners’ goal is to expand the sanctuary in order to reconnect people back to elephants in their natural habitat, without the exploitation. As Sappraiwan grows, they hope to preserve the natural environment, and educate people about the importance of connecting to nature. It was fascinating to spend time with these gentle giants for three weeks. I’ve learned some incredible facts about elephants and how to care for them. For example, there are approximately 50,000 muscles in their trunks, their brains are four times the size of humans, they can learn how to use tools, they eat between 12-18 hours per day, and consume 200 to 600 pounds of food in 24 hours.
I also had the opportunity to get to know the men who spend all of their time with these elephants—called “mahouts”—whose main job is to feed the elephants since they eat for approximately fourteen hours a day! Sangao is the oldest animal and we had to blend her food every day—bananas and leaves! (She has become quite picky in her old age.) It is clear that the mahouts, who have lived with elephants their whole lives, care deeply about these animals. School children and people from the local community visit the sanctuary and learn about the issues, welfare and ethical treatment of elephants in Thailand. Education is vital to create awareness—both for the local communities where elephants live, and for the millions of tourists that visit attractions across the continent. For me, the biggest highlight of my visit there, besides spending time with the elephants, was seeing the excitement of the college students from the United States who came to visit.
When we educate people about the realities of animal entertainment, we realize that there are ethical ways to see and spend time with these amazing animals. Although these six elephants have been saved, many more animals in Thailand and across Asia do not have the same story: they are often exploited for entertainment for their whole life. It is an incredible experience to spend time with elephants, but people should research what they are visiting to make sure the animals are not being exploited for entertainment. I hope that more people will visit the sanctuary, learn from Sappraiwan’s values and be inspired to choose ethical options when traveling. Besides spending time with elephants, Sappraiwan is a perfect place for people to escape into nature and relax. They also provide a pool, gym and bikes for people who want exercise and adventure. To find out more about the elephants and the sanctuary, visit www.sappraiwan.com
The original publication on the Plant Based Network: