The image of Asian elephants is synonymous with Thailand, and for some visitors a ride on an elephant is the ultimate bucket list experience, without a thought for the welfare of the animals and the sustainability of this practice. So we were very happy to find out about Hutsadin Elephant Foundation in Hua Hin, which offers alternatives to interact with elephants without harming them or having them perform for our entertainment.
The Hutsadin Elephant Foundation was started by three local Thai businessmen to rescue elephants abandoned by their owners due to ill health, old age or simply because they are unable to work any longer.The Foundation purchases these elephants and then provides care and support for them so that they can live a full and pain-free life.
Many visitors to Thailand have elephant trekking on ‘their lists’, however its important to understand the background to elephant tourism and make an informed decision about elephant interaction and decide how and where you do so.
For thousands of years, the strength of elephants has been used by humans to transport goods and people, to assist in construction and even to fight wars. In Thailand, Asian elephants were used extensively in the logging industry, a practice which not only reduced their own native habitat, also created an environment in which elephants and their carers/keepers (mahouts) were dependent on the industry for their livelihoods.
After terrible floods were exacerbated by deforestation, logging in Thailand was banned in 1989, leaving many elephants and mahouts without employment. They then drifted into alternative forms of employment, including elephant tourism activities such as performing shows, begging on the streets or giving rides to tourists. Some have become involved in logging activities over the borders.
It is alleged that some elephants are subject to systematic abuse in order to ‘train’ them to accept riders and perform in shows, and experts claim that the middle of an adult elephant’s back can only support a maximum of around 150kgs for up to four hours per day. Some elephants work eight hour shifts, carrying two adults at a time plus a 50 kg metal seat.
However, these elephants do need to be fed, cared for and exercised, and this all costs money – at least 1,000 baht per day to feed an elephant properly.
There are a number of elephant rehabilitation centres around Thailand which are committed to rescuing and rehabilitating Thailand’s working elephants. Possibly the best known is Elephant Nature Park, about 60kms from Chiang Mai.
Hutsadin Elephant Foundation at Hua Hin is a smaller organisation also dedicated to providing care and support for elephants who suffer from ill health or those that have retired. It is a non-profit organisation and funds received (from companies or from the public) directly benefit the elephants.
Hutsadin is located at a temple in the forest just outside Hua Hin. The Foundation has a large open space behind the temple, which is used for the elephants to walk around, and volunteers are constantly working to improve the environment, planting appropriate trees and plants to create a good elephant habitat.
In an ideal world, these elephants would be living a totally natural existence in the wild, with no demands on their time or efforts, no danger from external threats, no chains and no illness or injuries. However the 21st century world is not ideal, so my view is that at least organisations like Hutsadin are doing what they can to make these elephants’ lives better, raising funds to care for and feed them, and at the same time educating the public about the plight of Asian working elephants.
The Foundation currently owns seven elephants who have each been purchased from their previous owners. The six females and one male range in age from the ‘baby’ Song Kran who is 7 years old to a 90+ year old female elephant.
The Foundation funds food and water for these elephants, plus pays salary to 15 Thai staff, including a mahout for each elephant. Interestingly, while food is an obvious cost, water is also expensive. Elephants shower five times and drink around 150 litres of water every day. In Thailand’s dry season the Foundation needs to bring in a truckload of water each day to meet these needs. Donations to assist with the upkeep of the elephants are appreciated, and the Foundation is also attempting to raise approximately 1,000,000 baht to purchase additional land which would allow the elephants to roam free and to bathe in mud and water.
A number of English-speaking volunteers support the work of the Foundation, and are actively involved in promoting activities that offer visitors the best opportunities to interact with the elephants without exploiting them or having them perform for entertainment. The volunteers ensure that each elephant gets a monthly check up from a vet and any medication or supplements that are required. They raise funds for this, and also for improvements such as shelters and revegetation. Volunteers also respond to all emails, Tripadvisor reviews and queries and run the website.
The Foundation offers several options for visitors ranging from a 1/2 hour trek on one of the elephants through to a morning ‘mahout experience’ which has been set up and run by the volunteers at the Foundation who want to give a more ‘hands on’ approach to visitors who are interested in learning about the day to day care of the elephants. (It is only available on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday morning and booking is always required (1,000 baht per person). There’s also an option to ride (bare back) on one of the elephants through the surrounding area for approximately 20 minutes and then give her a shower on return (1,000 baht…only one person at a time).
Or you can arrange just to visit (on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday) and spend time with an English-speaking volunteer who can show you around, introduce you to the elephants and answer any questions. There’s no charge for this, but bookings are encouraged.
Again, in an ideal world there would be no riding of the elephants, and the volunteers do work very hard to encourage visitors to choose the other options, however the economic reality is that while demand exists, these options continue.
Having informed ourselves about the details of riding an elephant and the impact on the elephant’s well-being, we were not at all interested in the trekking or bareback options, so we arranged to do one of the other shorter options which was taking one of the elephants for a walk in the surrounding area and washing her on return (600 baht per person).
If more and more visitors to Hutsadin are aware of, and choose, these non-riding options, hopefully demand for the riding will cease, but the Foundation will still be able to raise the required funds for elephant upkeep through these other options.
Via email communication with the Foundation in advance, we were given the number of a taxi driver to call to collect us from our hotel and take us to Hutsadin. This is a very helpful service, as many of the regular Hua Hin taxis will try to take you to the Elephant Village (which is a for-profit elephant tourism park) rather than Hutsadin.
We were greeted on arrival by the manager of Hutsadin, who took us out for a walk with the beautiful Tong Kam. Before we left, we gave a couple of the other elephants big drinks of water in their capacious trunks.
Tong Kam was purchased by the Foundation in 2011 via a generous donation from a Swiss businessman. She is 47 years old and had a previous life working in the logging industry. When she came to the Foundation, she had a work-related injury and was very nervous of people. Over the time since, she has relaxed as she has learned that no-one will be punishing her at Hustadin and she is now a beautiful gentle friendly girl.
She’s now a little bit on the chubby side, which the Foundation had hoped was a sign of her pregnancy. But as the gestation period has well and truly passed, they accept that she is just ‘chunky’!
We walked with Tong Kam through the open field behind the Foundation. Along the way, we offered her bananas which she adeptly took from us in her trunk, and put into her mouth. At the mango tree we stopped while she systematically gave herself a good scratch against its bark.
Then we returned to her shelter area to give her a shower. My tip for this is to wear clothing that you don’t mind getting wet in – and even bring thongs (flip-flops) for your feet, as I ended up quite wet.
Being so up-close with such a majestic creature was an incredibly humbling experience. To see the texture of her skin and look straight into her soulful eyes with those gorgeous eyelashes was amazing. You don’t need to ride an elephant in Thailand to make a memorable moment. Being able to see and understand these beautiful animals and encouraging those who care for them is a truly bucket-list-worthy experience.
The DetailsHutsadin Elephant Foundation
Address: 176 M7, Hua Hin, Nongplub Road, Prachuab Khiri Khan, 77110 Thailand
Tel: (032) 827 098 100
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/hutsadinelephants
Volunteer options: Contact the Foundation on the email above.
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