Among gentle giants

Photo courtesy of Anderson Estrella

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Getting to know Thailand's elephants

American college graduate Anderson Estrella had the opportunity to spend some time with Thai elephants near Chiang Mai. Here's his story about the experience.

If there’s one animal that comes to mind when you think of Thailand, it’s the elephant. However, in the past one hundred years, the number of elephants in the country has dropped from around 100,000 to less than 5,000. In that time, the beautiful creatures have impacted the country’s art, religion and culture, and aided the nation during times of conflict. Despite this unique cultural status, elephants are still endangered. 

Only a century ago these gentle giants roamed Thailand in vast numbers. Exploitation led to their decline, as they fell to poaching (for their ivory or calves), illegal logging, tourism and the reduction of their habitats. The vast majority of the elephants that remain are privately domesticated and live in captivity, thus leaving a minority of approximately 1,000 elephants roaming the wild freely in herds that are fragmented and isolated in pockets of the scattered forest around the country. 

The opportunity to encounter and aid elephants lured a fantastic group of women from all walks of life from different continents to team up with volunteering tourism group We Are Bamboo. As a team we got close and personal with these creatures and the people who look after them, turning our perceptions into understanding. We experienced Thai culture firsthand, through the eyes of those who call this place home — aiding the community through agricultural, developmental and cleaning projects that benefit not only the overall welfare of the elephants but the community we stayed with.

Photo courtesy of Anderson Estrella

Venturing into the Kingdom of Thailand is an extraordinary experience; however, traveling to an elephant sanctuary project is a unique experience. North of the buzzing and metropolitan Bangkok lies Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, where in its outskirts a traveler has the opportunity to be face-to-face with the creatures who claim this region as their capital. My fellow teammates and I acquired not only a unique taste of Thai cuisine but lived among its people in a rural village and with one of the most fascinating, intelligent animals to walk through its fields, the elephant. We essentially went off the grid in the rural highlands of northern Thailand, as our accommodation was rustic but pleasant, with the sounds of the nearby river our soundtrack at dusk and dawn. We rose alongside the jungle as we ventured out every morning prioritising the welfare of every elephant over stunts and rides by being conscientious actors with the desire to continue to support a viable solution to the crisis involving elephant conservation.

In a matter of days, we grew accustomed with the daily routines of the local community, and even adopted phrases of their language in our day, beginning with breakfast bright and early and ending late in the evening with dinner and Thai lessons. In Chiang Mai we were privileged to visit the numerous elephant sanctuary project camps where we helped the mahouts — elephant caretakers — in continuing their efforts to have sustainable ecological elephant-friendly tourism that does not involve mistreatment and exploitation. Sustainability and humane elephant treatment were the grounding values and the main focus of the project, as opposed to begging on the street and exploitative tourism that leads to abuse and bodily harm.

The group activities ranged from cutting sugar canes, planting seeds, helping build a watering hole for bathing, feeding and cleaning the elephants, community cleaning, educational learning and daily chores. As well as walking with the elephants to their watering holes and mud pools, we witnessed their playful and intelligent side in their natural habitat.

Our stay in Thailand was authentic and one that cannot be replicated. We got the privilege to encounter and care for extraordinary animals, learning about them and their contributions to the kingdom of Thailand, standing among these gentle giants.


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