Train a Rescued Elephant in Northern Thailand
Looking for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in the mountainous Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand, where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos converge? Love elephants? Want to help rescued Asian elephants and protect Thailand’s wild herds?
If your head’s bobbing and you’re intrigued, check out the work of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. The foundation rescues abused, abandoned, and overworked elephants, many of whom once toiled in the logging industry, and has created camps for them in two impressive resorts in the Chiang Rai region of northern Thailand.
The elephants earn their keep at the Anantara Resort‘s Elephant Conservation Camp and at the Four Seasons Tented Camp by interacting with guests and carrying them on treks in Thai hill country, through dense patches of bamboo and across riverine flood plains. Each resort also employs the elephants’ mahouts (drivers). They teach guests some of the 70 verbal commands the mahouts use to communicate with these gregarious beasts.
To learn more about this exciting program we caught up with John Roberts, Director of Elephants at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort’s Elephant Conservation Camp.
How long has the foundation been in existence?
The foundation was created in 2006, after we rescued our first street baby; the intention to help came first and then we built the charitable apparatus to help us do more. The camp has been in existence since 2003, when we started with four government-owned elephants from the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre around whom we built the, then unique, guest mahout training program. This program has been copied and is now an accepted sustainable, elephant-friendly way for elephants to make a living from tourists.
Since its inception, how many elephants have been helped by the foundation?
We currently have 18 elephants under the care of the foundation, two born here and 14 at the hotel camps. These are all still ex-street elephants but they don’t come under the foundation as they, with our help, earn a sustainable living for themselves.We’ve also sent money, vets, and vet equipment to other worthwhile projects–particularly the Thai Conservation Centre–to enable them to give free help to elephants throughout Thailand. We’re most proud about our elephant ambulance, mobile centrifuge, and Dr. Pap, who’s now a vet for the Royal White Elephants who received his training under our patronage.
How many elephants are currently at Anantara and the Four Seasons Tented Camp?
We have nine elephants at Anantara and four at the Four Seasons Tented Camp. We control all of these elephants and design guest activities for them.
How many visitors come each year to interact with the animals?
I was going to say about ten a day, which is about 3,650 guests who take the mahout training or driving lessons and many more who just visit the camp, meet the babies, watch the wives of the mahouts weave their organic silk (a process we set up to give them an income independent of the elephants).
Is attending the elephant camp included in the Anantara resort rates?
Visiting and watching the bathing is free but if guests want to take part in an activity, we do charge as the point of our working camp is sustainability and we need to feed our elephants, pay the mahouts, fund new projects, etc. from the money we make from guest activities. Our relationship with the hotels is symbiotic.
Where does the money come from to support this interesting program?
Money for the working camp comes from the hotels’ budgets and from revenue from guest activities. The contributions of private donors (many of them once guests at the hotels) enable us to care for the foundation babies (18 elephants too young, old or pregnant to work). We also work with a couple of international charities, among them Elephant Family in the UK and Friends of Conservation in the U.S.
What sort of medical issues are most common among the rescued elephants?
Once the elephants get settled here and relax, we actually have very few big problems. The work, if there is any, is easy and the food is good, the environment natural. We treat cuts and abrasions. One of our boys had his tusks ripped out before he got to us so he is in need of constant attention. But for the most part, TLC and a natural environment calm the ex-street guys down.
How are the mahouts and their families assisted by the program? Do they live at the camp, too?
We’re unique in seeing the elephant, the mahout, and his family as a package so we don’t just buy the elephant and take it from the streets. We rent the elephant so the family retains ownership. In addition to renting, resting, and feeding the elephant, we provide a home for the family, insurance for the mahout (and the elephant), and all of their food. It’s an environment in which the kids can grow up to be mahouts or to develop their talents elsewhere by going to school locally.
How’d you get involved with the program and become the director of elephants?
I was here to set up the original camp and I had some ideas that could make us different and it grew organically.
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Read More: In addition to elephants, the resorts offer spa treatments, placid swimming pools, Thai cooking classes, visits to traditional Thai hill tribe villages, or a crossing of the mighty Mekong into Myanmar, visa permitting. To see John’s foundation in action, check out his blog as well as the foundation’s Youtube channel where you can watch videos of the clever elephants.
Photos: Courtesy of John Roberts, Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation