Whenever you visit a different country that’s particularly popular with tourism, you won’t be able to avoid seeing stalls and pop-up offices that offer a number of adventures including long hiking expeditions, extreme sports and seeing exotic animals.
Granted some of these trips aren’t massively appealing to the non-adrenaline junkie but quite often, seeing wild animals up close and personal feels like a comfortable enough speed for most. It can be even more enticing when it is in an environment that offers a safe distance from tame creatures that couldn’t hurt you if they tried.
Elephant Sanctuaries: A Bucket List Experience
When we got settled into Chiang Mai, it was obvious that the biggest tourist attraction was to see elephants in such an environment; a sanctuary where people could visit to help feed, bathe and maybe even ride the animals. The adverts would show photos of people doing these activities and boast that there are ‘No Hooks’ or that the sanctuary is ‘Very Ethical’.
I was sold on the idea of seeing wild animals in such a natural and ‘ethical’ way and looked forward to being yet another person that could say they had fed or bathed an elephant. But the major problem with my thinking was due to a lack of actual research about choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary; it turns out that many of the practices advertised as ethical weren’t quite what they seemed.
The Ethics of Elephant Sanctuaries
The hooks that they refer to on the posters are bull-hooks. These are long steel rods with a point on the end that can be used to tame the elephant by prodding sensitive areas on its body, such as behind the ears, the trunk or around the anus.
The idea of using the hook to goad or ‘train’ elephants has openly been recognised as largely unethical which has limited its use in most of the locations that work with elephants. If the tool is still used in any capacity, it is likely to be to protect those with very little experience around elephants such as tourists or even sometimes new elephant handlers, mahouts and others still untrained in their role.
After some deeper research into what classes a sanctuary as ethical, it was apparent that even a physical interaction with elephants can actually be very counterintuitive to what we believe is helping the animals. The reality is that the elephants are being forced to work for paying tourists who are seeking experiences that they’ve seen on social media or that have been advertised as ethical.
Ideally, the promotion that you want to see on the adverts is that the sanctuary has some sort of no-touching policy of the elephants. When applying this new condition to our search, the options were narrowed down from a countless amount to just a small handful. This is where we found Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES).
BEES Elephant Sanctuary: Our Experience
After a visit to Thailand in her teens, Australian-born Emily discovered the cruelty that was present within the country towards captive elephants. The major problem was that due to a nationwide ban of using elephants for logging in 1989, most of the creatures that were typically born in captivity continued to be used illegally for the task or worst still, used for street begging.
Now in the present day, these elephants are spread out among tourism camps, caught in legislation that classes them like cattle. This means that they are continuing to be exploited to make money. Most of these camps have cottoned on to the fact that riding the elephants is now ethically debatable but you may still find some places that allow you to do so.
Emily and her Thai partner Burm decided to do something about this and bought some land to start up a different kind of project in 2011. This would allow elephants that have tirelessly worked all of their life to retire peacefully; somewhere that they can enjoy the freedom of just being an elephant. Welcome to BEES Elephant Sanctuary.
Day 1: Visiting Doi Inthanon National Park and Meeting the Animals!
We booked last minute and managed to squeeze into a 2-day slot before a big school group arrived at the end of the week. Burm and Emily arrived at our hostel in Chiang Mai nice and early to pick us up, along with two other groups scattered around the area. We all hopped into the back of their jeep and accompanying private bus and headed off on the six-hour journey to the project.
After our first stop at a supermarket to pick up some shopping and snacks, we learnt that the journey itself is only around 2 and half hours without traffic but Burm and Emily were going to take us to some stops along the way. We continued, picking up our lunch from a local vendor before driving into Doi Inthanon National Park, home to the highest mountain in Thailand that provides the park it’s namesake.
The first stop we made at Doi Inthanon was the Wachirathan Waterfall, one of the major waterfalls on the way up to the summit of the mountain. The first thing you feel as you approach the waterfall is the spray splashing from rocks below, a mist that is welcomed in the hot climate of the jungle. The waterfall stands tall at around eighty metres but one of the more astonishing visuals of the falls is at the bottom, where we were fortunate enough to see a rainbow beaming from the water below it.
We pressed on, stopping at a market which Burm informed me was special, as being up in the mountains, it was the furthest market from the ground in Northern Thailand. We pressed further on until we found the spot we were to eat lunch.
This was a good opportunity to speak to Emily and Burm more and they told us stories about the origins of the project and prepared us for what to expect at the sanctuary. Here we learned about some of the awful conditions that the rehabilitated elephants, cats and dogs originated from. Some were chained up above a house and others had been shot by a maniacal local farmer.
Once we’d eaten, Burm took a few of us over to another waterfall which was currently ‘under construction’. The Huai Sai Lueang Waterfall itself was complete, splashing naturally from above us before finding the pool below; it was the road around it that was actually a work in progress. This concrete path needs to be paved before tourists can properly witness the new-found addition to the National Park.
We found more astonishment in the wildlife of the jungle, with spiders and butterflies that were the size of my hand! Before I had a chance to fully imagine how I would deal with something so big being in my personal bubble, we moved on. Our final stop was BEES, which we were more than aware of before even entering the residence, as we were greeted by the barking of excited dogs.
Once we had waded through the wagging tails and hand licking, we could take in the view of the area. A fully functioning residence had been set up with several accommodations, a kitchen, a dining area and an upstairs social area. All of these, successful constructions from the labour of Burm’s family as well as the local community.
Our role at BEES took immediate effect, we were here as volunteers and would be helping in any way possible to keep the project moving. Our first task was to relocate hundreds of pumpkins from the side of a barn to the elephant snack preparation area.
After forming a human conveyer belt system to fill the back of a pickup truck with the pale pumpkins, we made our way over to the space nearer to the enclosures used for feeding the elephants. It was a huge sheltered area with about the same floor space as the average warehouse, all swept clean of any elephant dung and previous food mess, ready for when the elephants fancied returning from the jungle to eat their food.
Some of us started by carrying the pumpkins down to the nearby stream to clean them of any dirt that may have accumulated from their time at the barn whilst the rest of the group peeled bunches of bananas into a small washing basket. Once we’d cleaned around 30 pumpkins, we chopped them up into large chunks, compiling together two larger washing baskets filled with a mixture of the pumpkin and some unpeeled bananas.
I learned from Got, a local who has been working with BEES for the past two years as a guide, that the reason for the unpeeled bananas was to do with the age of one of the three elephants currently under BEES care, Thong Dee.
After the age of 65, the teeth of an elephant can deteriorate and become a little too fragile to even bite through the skin of a banana, so as Thong Dee was in her 70s, the solution was to peel them ready for her to eat without any concerns. The other two younger elephants Mae Kam and Mae Dok don’t have the same issue, though the real task is getting the basket into their enclosure before they both hungrily reach in with their heavy trunks and knock it from your hands!
The rest of the evening was spent enjoying the company of the attention-seeking dogs, as well as time upstairs in the ‘cat café’ where you’ll find all the felines who are trying to stay away from their excited canine neighbours below. With full bellies and a plan to go on a long hike the next day, we retired to bed.
Day 2: Jungle Trekking and the Importance of Ethical Animal Tourism.
The next morning, we felt well rested after the long journey and hard work from the previous day. Breakfast was all set up ready for us in the netted dining area whilst lunch was being prepared in the kitchen for the long hike ahead.
The sanctuary’s guide, Got, was going to be taking us on the hike and had us assemble in the sitting area by the kitchen where he made sure we had packed enough water for the trip, which of course, we hadn’t. Once we’d all restocked our bags with more water, we regrouped by the elephant enclosures to help clean the floors of dung and food before setting off.
The goal was to find the elephants out in the jungle where they spend most of their day, before coming back to the protection of the sanctuary at night. What we didn’t anticipate was that to find the elephants, we would be trekking for nearly 3 hours.
We trudged through the jungle, encountering many dips and hills, as well as several fallen trees to climb over and around. Got would assure us that we were only 5 minutes away every 15 minutes, confirming that his judgement was a little questionable at times! We pressed on, seeing crabs, water spiders, butterflies and even a little scorpion.
Eventually, we came across two of the elephants, the inseparable Mae Kam and Mae Dok breaking down bamboo to eat. Here we could witness, from less than 5 metres away, these two beautiful creatures communicating with each other through toots and squeaks as they devoured a small amount of their daily food consumption. Got explained that although they eat large baskets of fruit at the sanctuary, what they eat in the wild actually contributes to around 85 percent of their daily food intake.
Once the elephants had started moving again, we continued to follow them, letting them lead us to a small area by the river where we could stop to eat our own food. Here we also found Thong Dee cooling herself down by throwing mud onto her wrinkly body. The duo of elephants had a more efficient plan and instead, made their way into the river.
Along with the rice dishes we were provided for lunch, we also had open plates of refreshing papaya and passionfruit. However, once we’d finished everything, the leftover papaya attracted Thong Dee’s attention! We all stood clear of her, watching as her thick trunk searched the table and ground for any of the musky, sweet fruit.
Once she’d had enough, we were beckoned to the river to see the younger two elephants bathing. We found a perch right above the two huge beasts splashing, diving and rubbing against the rocks below us. It really made the long hike worth it to see the beautiful animals in such a safe but free environment.
Although it’s hard to know whether an animal is truly happy, it was easy to see that Mae Dok and Mae Kam were completely content in the moment, enjoying each other’s company. After watching the elephants for a while longer, we headed back. Instead of walking the whole way when we were nearly out of drinking water, we opted for the truck to pick us up after an hour.
Back at the sanctuary, we had a little time to rest before heading back to the enclosures to prepare some more fruit snack baskets. The elephants must have sensed this as they were back at the sanctuary waiting for us to bring the food over.
Once we’d delivered the snacks with haste, I had a chance to find out a little bit more about Got. He told me how he got his job at BEES and how he had originally volunteered there to learn English whilst helping out with the elephants. After his studies, he had found himself back full time, helping as a guide alongside new volunteers.
Along with the others, we discussed some of the brutal methods that a lot of tourist traps still use to control the elephants. These include nails in the hooves of the elephant to keep them alert and mahouts concealing sharp objects in their hands for use when they feel that the elephant isn’t being tame enough.
What I found from talking to Got and others at the sanctuary was that besides a few qualifications and training requirements for animal management, the driving force among the staff at BEES is a passion for animal welfare and the belief that these magnificent creatures deserve the best life they can have. Even the more experienced mahouts who grew up in a world where taming elephants didn’t have a lot of ethical boundaries have adapted to this new world where that kind of cruelty is no longer tolerated.
In fact, BEES seems to be relatively unique in its approach to maintaining animal welfare, whether it’s through simply providing a safe place for the elephants to roam in or working with companies such as Elephation to allow the animals to remain in a positive place when human interaction such as veterinary action, is necessary.
The most important message that BEES promotes is simple and easy enough to understand: elephants shouldn’t be working for humans in any capacity. Sadly, with most of the elephants in Northern Thailand being born in captivity, they can’t all survive a move back into the wild. This means that for the time being, there will be a need for sanctuaries which help to maintain the elephant’s welfare in their remaining days.
Today, we have the power to change the level of welfare that these animals receive, simply by encouraging these camps to meet a higher standard. Tourists need to do in-depth research into the places they wish to visit, something that I confess to not doing before finding BEES.
Instead of visiting as a tourist, you’re better off paying to be a volunteer for an animal sanctuary or in the local community. This can mean spending as long as you like helping with the elephants (or any animals for that matter), teaching English to locals or even assisting with the local farming.
In order for the current camps to move away from promoting activities that can be stressful to elephants, such as rides, shows, bathing and direct physical contact, tourists need to be more aware of the situation and encourage a hands-off approach.
When the needs and the wants of the travellers shift, the locals that rely on the profits from animal tourism have room to progress to more positive and ethical experiences, allowing people to witness these beautiful creatures just being elephants.
One of the biggest challenges that any kind of pioneering idea faces is how far its message can spread. Simply by talking about this unique and unknown sanctuary in Thailand which encourages a no touching policy, means that we can push forward to create a healthier connection between humans and animals.
After spending just a couple of days at a genuinely ethical sanctuary such as BEES, the real benefits of helping these places are witnessed firsthand and prove that positive change really is possible. You can book your visit to BEES via South East Asia Backpacker here!