Cindy had the whole itinerary somewhat mapped out when we started planning this trip. She had put together a calendar and when I looked at it, I realized excitedly she had planned for elephant rides in the river scheduled for my birthday. You see we decided we had to stay for the full two weeks so I could celebrate turning 30 in Thailand – otherwise we would have likely been traveling back on my birthday and how lame is that. So anyway, I was extremely excited about the prospect of riding an elephant in the river in Thailand – that is…until we all started to do research. I mean, riding elephants in Asia is the stuff that dreams are made of, right? Everyone wants to ride an elephant and get their picture made on top of it to prove to the world just how awesome and adventurous they are. But what we found in researching was the horrible, disturbing truth about the inhumane industry of elephant tourism in Asia – particularly Thailand. Not only that, but how the Asian Elephant is sadly a dying, endangered breed – it is estimated by conservationists that these majestic giants will be extinct in just another 5 years despite recent efforts to educate new generations on the threats to these animals. And African Elephants may very well be extinct another 5 years after that. Can you imagine a world without elephants? It’s really pretty sad to think about the destruction humans have caused. The tourism industry in Asia is guilty of some of the most inhumane treatment of these animals – in order to be docile enough to be ridden by a human they are ripped from their mom as babies, beaten into submission using bull hooks until it’s spirit is broken and then chained up in atrocious environments. They are left alone in the hot sun with no food or water all day when they are herd animals who need communal interaction with other elephants much like humans. They are pushed beyond their abilities by being forced to carry people for nine hours a day – something their spines are not made to support. The chair or howdah often attached to their back adds to this weight and causes additional injuries. Their feet sustain infections and injuries from long-term trekking. Can you imagine a worse prison sentence? How is all of this possible? Why doesn’t the elephant just revert back to being a wild beast and trample the mahouts? An elephant never forgets. They have deep emotional intelligence and feel pain, sorrow, happiness. So when they are beaten and broken as a baby, they remember that pain and the daily beating with a bull hook or other sharp tool is a poignant reminder of what they don’t want to experience again. You can quickly google a multitude of websites and videos that show you just how cruel the elephant trade is in Thailand, but here are a few if you want to read more detail: Expert Vagabond, One Green Planet, World Nomads. You will find some sites that counter it to say this is a vital part of the culture in Thailand and while that may be true that Thais don’t believe there is anything wrong with their treatment of elephants because it’s been so integral to their culture for so long, that does not make it okay. If I grew up smoking cigarettes because my parents did and I knew it was okay, does that make it healthy for me? That’s crappy logic. All of this lead us to find an animal refuge foundation that is funding conservation and fighting to save elephants in Thailand instead of supporting the cruel elephant tourism trade. Most of the elephant nature parks are up north near Chiang Mai – an area we would be too far from for a visit. Enter Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand (WFFT) near Bangkok. Founded by Edwin Wiek, the organization’s main objectives are to rescue wild animals, educate people, prevent hunting and promote conservation, and to gather knowledge. They are committed to the rescue of wildlife suffering in captivity due to neglect and abuse; they do important work providing medical care and a permanent home for animals that are sick and injured, as well as rehabilitation and release back into the wild when feasible.
You can volunteer at the center or they offer a full-day experience where you will enjoy a guided tour with tons of amazing, educational opportunities and once in a lifetime experiences. The full day experience costs 1,600 baht per person, all of which goes to support their efforts. You also have to find a way to the center – you can find your own transportation, get picked up from Hua Hin or Cha Am for an additional 200 baht or use their taxi for a total of 3,500 baht. We opted to use their taxi for ease of planning and split the cost between the 8 of us that went on the excursion. The taxi picked us up at 7:00am from our hotel in Bangkok. Once you reach WFFT, which is about a 2 and a half to 3 hour ride from Bangkok, you will be greeted by the educational tour guide Tanya and offered tea or coffee. Your tour will then begin by first feeding bananas to one of the female elephants – Boonme – where she is kept near the rescue centre. Boonme was rescued from a riding camp in 2012 where she was very malnourished and blind in one eye, so we had to stand to one side of her so she could see us out of her good right eye. Then you will be shown around the grounds of the rescue centre and see the other animals residing here including gibbons, bears, macaques, langurs and many more hearing some of their very depressing back stories. The centre is also home to many dogs! Tanya had adopted a few of them, including Go, who helped her be our tour guide for the day.Go and this Macaque, who was previously someone’s pet used to entertain tourists by being dressed up, had an odd friendship – they liked to play and fight with each other through the fence.
This old dude was the younger macaque’s roommate.Next up we stopped by the new bear enclosures home to several Asiatic and Sun bears, often trained at temples to do tricks to entertain tourists and housed in very poor conditions. There was a news story after our trip where WFFT attempted to rescue and save a very maltreated Sun bear who had been left in a dark confined room at a temple for many months – he was so malnourished and sick that he was unrecognizable as a bear!! The bears at WFFT have a ton of space to roam around and enjoy the sun!We then walked through the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center – an area where they are moved to prepare them for possible release to the islands across from the center where they get to be free of fencing, but safe and protected because monkeys cannot swim – they are terrified of water.This area had huge enclosures in the forest for a variety of monkeys and slow lorises that simulates being in the wild because they are up in the trees. We were warned to stay on the path and watch above our heads for droppings…the monkeys had been known to time their bathroom breaks just perfectly!! Lulz. As we entered, the macaques and gibbons got very loud notifying each other of the presence of intruders. They have tons of space to run between enclosures. The macaques above have runs that sit directly over the path and not that far from your head. Tanya warned the males to duck and watch their heads as they walked through because these guys did not like men and knew the difference in gender! We tested it out with Remington & David…
This old girl named Rose reminded me of an Italian grandma – full of expressions and just wanted her banana. She would steal them from the enclosure next to hers! So funny! And then Tanya had to go and be an instigator!
You may not know this about me, but I have an odd love for otters. They are one of my favorite animals for their cute personalities. My first ever experience with them was as a young kid going to the Chattanooga aquarium with my mom – I fell in love instantly. She bought be a plush otter that day that I wore out! It would be an understatement to say that I got excited when I spotted Ollie, the Otter, on our tour of the centre. Otters are known for mating for life, but they have to be paired up with the perfect match – Ollie was still alone because he was a greedy little bugger. He had just been fed and you could tell there was no way he was sharing!He was enjoying the heck out of his snack way too much!Those are some seriously meaty paws he has too.WFFT had a female otter in another enclosure that had recently been rescued – she had been kept as someone’s pet for many years. Can you imagine this gal as your pet? As cute as they are, I doubt they are anything like having a dog. Her name was Ophelia and she really wanted me to give her something to eat. She seemed pretty mad when I didn’t having anything to offer her.
Finally we ended the tour with the wild bird enclosures. WFFT is home to a few Asian breeds, including two giant white bellied sea eagles like the one above. There was also a beautiful blue parrot – apparently one of the loudest, most vocal animals at the center. This is my shocked face. 😉After the walking tour of the enclosures, a Thai buffet lunch offering meat, vegan, and vegetarian options was served at 12:00 – it was all surprisingly very tasty! They also have a fresh fruit smoothie bar if you want to purchase a drink other than water.At 1pm after lunch has finished we got to take an elephant walk into the forest surrounding the center with one of two female pachyderms, Boonme who we had already met or Pailin, that are very docile around humans because they still associate people with positive reinforcement – that is to say they think we will give them bananas and other fruit. In fact, we fed her pieces of fruit while she walked next to us to keep her moving! They only use positive reinforcement at WFFT – absolutely no bull hooks! And the walk is part of the elephants exercise routine to keep them happy and healthy. Tanya divided the tour group, which included us and about 8 other people, into two groups for the walk. I look pretty stoked because I was really excited about this part of the day!!Meet my new friend Pailin, the inspiration for WFFT – a 71 year old Asian elephant. At the time of her rescue, Pailin was malnourished and weakened. She was at first a logging elephant and then became a trekking elephant; giving rides to tourists, sometimes as many as five people at a time, the weight and the badly designed chair have deformed her spine. She also had a deformed snout due to an accident where it was caught in a wire fence. She loved her fruit snack! Look at that big grin on her face!By the end of the walk, we were best friends forever…seriously one of the coolest experiences of my life. What better way could I have celebrated turning 30??Pailin’s mahout at WFFT walked by her side throughout the trek through the forest assisting us in guiding her along the way. Mahouts have a complex relationship with these creatures – often raised up together – mahouts spend their life with the elephant, training it and caring for it. They are an extension of each other and have a strong bond, but often mahouts don’t want to part with their elephant for financial reasons that animal being their source of income. After her walk, we cooled Pailin off with a refreshing bath!We took turns spraying her with the hose and scrubbing her down – she loved it!
AC seems to be having a little too much fun…The final part of our journey was to meet the other elephants housed at the sanctuary – WFFT had 11 in total at the time of our visit in March of 2015. (left to right – Caleb, AC, David, & of course that last guy looks familiar….) We loaded up in the back of pick up trucks and were driven out to the Elephant Refuge & Education Center – in 2008 people from Australia donated a plot of land 40,000 square meters in size to the EREC for the rehabilitation of Asian elephants – it sits behind the Wildlife rescue centre bordering the creek, and has been fenced and enriched to keep the elephants as happy and safe as possible.(left to right – that’s me! Cindy, Kimia, & Mahsa)We met the only male elephant at WFFT at the time – a young Khan Kluay at 10 years of age and weighing in at two and a half tons. In terms of human years, he was a teenager about to hit puberty. They were in the process of building him a new, much larger enclosure with a cement wall surrounding it. As a male elephant, who are loners, of his size, he is already capable of doing serious damage even with the best of intentions. As he grows and develops, this will become an increasing concern. We were told to stand several feet away from his current enclosure because he could easily swing his trunk under the fencing, grab you and pull you inside. We gladly obliged. Soon he will be released into his own land enclosure with tons of space for him to roam and a large man-made lake for him to swim. There were four more females that we met – two of which were older and seemed to be the best of friends – Duanphen and See Puak.See Puak is known as an especially ‘attractive’ elephant and had been used in the film industry as an animal star for many years before coming to live at WFFT. To end, we watched as the females enjoyed an afternoon swim. Go even joined in the fun! Going to WFFT was definitely a once in a lifetime experience for me and I honestly could not have asked for a better way to spend my 30th birthday than walking among elephants in Thailand! If you ever go to Thailand, I encourage you to support the noble cause at WFFT and other NGOs throughout the country that are pushing for conservation, education, and rehabilitation of these beautiful animals. Visit WFFT for yourself and see the amazing things they are trying to do in the midst of a country whose culture views of animals as beings you own to be used for financial gain and entertainment – not as living creatures with feelings deserving of a better life. I encourage you to do your own research on the atrocity of the elephant tourism trade in Asia, particularly Thailand, before you go and make the decision for yourself to not support that industry!
Next up from our Thailand trip – our time in Bangkok – a city that never sleeps.
In the meantime, check out our other Thailand posts here: