A Beautiful New Sanctuary For Rescued Elephants Opens in Phuket Thailand
The Phuket Nature Reserve – Elephant Habitat opened to the public at the beginning of 2020 with a goal of delivering a genuine ethical sanctuary that puts the welfare of rescued elephants firmly at the forefront of operations whilst also providing visitors with a fun, interactive and educational experience.
Under construction since April 2019, the management team at the Phuket Nature Reserve – Elephant Habitat have been carefully designing the layout, construction and elephant welfare programs based on their combined knowledge of best practices gained from over 50 plus years of collective experience working with elephants in Thailand.
This included, for example, six massive 20m x 10m overnight shelters for the elephants, the largest in Phuket, providing ample room for nighttime movement and plenty of access to food and water. This totally eliminated the need to chain the elephants overnight, a very common practice in many elephant parks and even so-called ‘elephant sanctuaries’ once the tourists have departed.
Another initiative was the nature jungle hike providing beautiful panoramic views and essential exercise to the elephants, together with the customized hydrotherapy pool that provides key strengthening and rehabilitation to older and injured elephants.
Yet another goal to eliminate single-use plastic was achieved by giving all visitors a free high-quality stainless steel water bottle with refill stations around the sanctuary.
These are just a few of the creative initiatives put in place to create one of Thailands leading sanctuaries for rescued working elephants.
The end result is an environmentally friendly, truly sustainable and fully ethical elephant habitat that genuinely cares about elephant welfare and best practices, highlighted by a recent audit with the respected Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES)
But the decision to go 100% ethical & sustainable wasn’t always that straight forward….
The Balance Between Being Ethical and Surviving
The Phuket Nature Reserve – Elephant Habitat, like the majority of elephant sanctuaries, is a business, not a charity, and receives no government funding or support. As such we require revenue to pay staff, look after the Mahouts, buy & grow elephant food, pay land rental fees, insurance coverage, veterinary costs and much more in order to operate and be able to provide a safe home for our rescued elephants.
This means that the program experience being offered needs to be attractive to visitors so they will come to visit and support our elephants.
Whilst there was never any doubt that the Phuket Nature Reserve – Elephant Habitat would be built as a sustainable sanctuary, taking a predominately hands-off approach to the visitors experience was a calculated and somewhat risky decision as many visitors to Phuket and Thailand still want to experience one of the two main tourist elephant attractions that require a significant amount of unnatural elephant control:
- Elephant riding
- Elephant bathing
Only a much smaller, yet slowly expanding tourist market, understands the merits of visiting and supporting a genuine sanctuary where elephants can just be elephants without being forced to work long hours to entertain people.
Why is Elephant Riding and Bathing Wrong?
Elephant riding has been around largely since the 1989 ban of logging when elephant owners and Mahouts were required to look for new employment to survive.
Elephant riding, as supported by many industry experts, in itself can be ok in a controlled environment for short periods and low weights but this almost never happens in tourist elephant riding camps.
Instead, elephants are required to carry heavy loads including a 50kg seat, up to 2 adults and the Mahout for up to 12hrs plus per day which is far too much for the elephant to cope with and results in the following problems:
- So much of the day is spent carrying tourists that insufficient time is allowed for food and water which deprives the elephant of its natural growth and feeding routine. Elephants typically feed up to 15-18 hours per day and can consume close to 10% of their body weight daily or around 150kg of food, and require around 190 litres of fresh water daily
- Carrying heavy loads with eventually flatten the elephant’s spine and eliminate its natural curve
- In order to force the elephants to carry tourists around all day, the Mahout needs to control the elephant with physical force and will use bullhooks, nails, sticks and other sharp objects to achieve this. A number of recent news articles highlighted this sad treatment
The same applies to the hands-on elephant bathing and mud spa activities where visitors jump in the water to scrub an elephant or apply mud over its body. Yes there is a sense of excitement swimming close to an elephant and rolling around the mud with them but if you stand back and watch closely, similar issues of unnatural elephant control exist:
- It’s simply not natural for an elephant to be crowded with groups of noisy tourists while it takes a bath which leads to the Mahouts using force to control the elephant. This typically results in ropes being tied around the elephant’s neck and ‘encouraged’ into the water, or prehaps a nail in the hand to force the elephant to lie down or stand still while tourists have their fun
- Elephants can produce over 100kg of dung per day and frequently defecate in the water where the tourists are playing. This leads to major hygiene issues and risk of infection or sickness for those in contact
- Elephants are BIG animals, and it’s not uncommon for excited tourists to get injured trying to get close to the elephant
So while elephant riding, bathing programs, circus shows and the like are popular and attract large numbers of tourists, they definitely do not represent ethical tourism, sustainable practices or focus on the elephant’s welfare and should not be supported.
An Ethical Yet Interactive Approach to Elephant Welfare
The obvious choice then was to create an observation only elephant sanctuary which provides captive rescued elephants with the ideal environment and surroundings to live a natural and protected life.
Yet the team at the Phuket Nature Reserve – Elephant Habitat felt this was a great opportunity to create something more interactive and educational than just spending half a day observing elephants, lunch then back to the hotel, given the ticket prices for such sanctuaries.
And so the challenge began to design a brand new experience for visitors based on hands-on education and creative initiatives whilst fully maintaining elephant welfare and ethical guidelines.
The result is the Phuket Nature Reserve – Elephant Habitat and our unique half-day Elephant Safari Experience which really focuses on delivering a range of elephant welfare experiences, hands-on activities and a strong education in set in a beautiful natural jungle environment:
- Meet and feed the elephants in a safe & natural setting
- Learn about key elephant nutrition and prepare herbal balls at our Herbal Treatment area
- Observe the elephants swimming in our customized Hydrotherapy Pool providing exercise and rehabilitation benefits
- Visit where the elephants sleep at night in our oversized elephant shelters and learn about the daily cleaning and upkeep required
- Learn about the daily elephant health checks and our regular veterinary care, common problems and cures for elephants in our Elephant Life & Vet Care program
- Observe the elephants playing and relaxing at our Mud & Sand Spa areas
- Learn how to convert elephant dung into recycled natural paper and bio-gas for cooking at our hands-on Elephant Dung Recycling Center
- Hike with the elephants at a safe distance on our beautiful Nature Elephant Jungle Hike with Hilltop Viewpoint