Ethical Elephant Santuary in Thailand
No trip to Thailand is complete without a visit to an “ethical” elephant sanctuary. Despite outward appearances, many of the sanctuaries are far less ethical than they proclaim. It was therefore with a bit of a weary heart that I set off on my 5-day stay in the Boon Lott Elephant sanctuary. Spoiler alert: It turned out to be magical!
A bit of background of the Thai Elephant
The plight of the Thai elephant has become clear to many people thanks in part due to heart breaking videos of “elephant training” going viral on social media. As a result a new type of elephant tourism has popped up– helping out in a sanctuary. For yours truly this really was on the top of my bucket list of activities to partake in while in Thailand. After many hours sifting through the internet, I made up my mind that Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) was where I wanted to volunteer.
Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)
BLES is nestled in the middle of Thailand in a small village an hour out of historical Sukothai. The sanctuary was founded by Katherine Connor in 2005. Katherine, 35 years old, born and raised in London, came to Thailand in 2002 on a backpacking adventure where she volunteered in an elephant hospital. It is here that she forged a bond with a baby elephant (Boon Lott) in who’s memory BLES was founded.
Today, BLES is home to 12 elephants, 2 monkeys, many cats and dogs and even a crocodile lovingly named Jerry. The animals rescued have often suffered emotional and physical abuse. Where others have given up or failed, Katherine persisted and has nursed the animals back to health. The focus of this blogpost is the elephants, but please take a look at the bottom of the article for more info on the BLES cat and dog sanctuary.
The first morning, my 5 fellow volunteers and I were treated to a veritable vegan feast for breakfast. As we munched on pancakes and fresh fruit, there was a rumbling noise all of a sudden. I turned around and to my surprise I saw three large elephants marching defiantly over our way. These are the infamous gossip girls, Lotus, Wassana and Pang Dow, as I later learned. All through breakfast we could hear the ladies trumpeting, rumbling and squeaking. They too are having breakfast, crunchy banana leaves. It seems they have a lot to talk about and live up to their name. Never in my life have I heard elephants make such noises. I bet you not even David Attenborough is aware of this fact.
The BLES house rules are very clear, no touching the elephants unless they seek out human interaction. With this in mind, I was a bit uneasy when Lotus decided to plop her trunk on the side of our breakfast hut. Does this constitute requesting human interaction? After a nod from Katherine, I leaned over to touch Lotus’ trunk. Her trunk was leathery with a few hairs poking out left and right and a big wet nozzle at the end of it. This nozzle soon ends up on my face and hair as Lotus was equally curious about me. At first this frightened me slightly but fright soon gave way for pure awe.
Unfortunately our bonding moment is interrupted by feisty Wassana trying her very best to sneak off with the leftover fruit from the table. She has yet to catch on to the fact that being stealthy is hard when you are a 1Ton elephant.
After breakfast, volunteers, Katherine and the gang of dogs customarily go on an elephant walk. On the morning walk, we walked around the luscious 700 ha property and listen to Katherine’s many stories. On the first day, we were introduced to the female elephants Pang Noi and Pang Suai and handsome Mr. Moo, a bull, who happened to be chomping on some delicious greenery in the forest. In the distance we heard the gossip girls’ vociferous conversations on topics not befitting our ears.
The Mahouts and misschievous Wassana
Amidst the trees we saw colorful pieces of cloth and people chilling out. Upon closer inspection, it was the Mahouts (elephant keepers). Each elephant has a dedicated Mahout hanging out in their hammock nearby. The beauty is these Mahouts are not here to keep the giants in check but rather to ensure they are ok and don’t wander off and hurt themselves. There tools used here are not bullhooks and force but mutual respect and love.
We walked back to the breakfast hut, which also happened to be the location for lunch. While having lunch, Wassana strolls over and opened the tap which is located next to the hut. It did not take long for water to gush everywhere. Her Mahout, Phi Loy, stands close by grinning from ear to ear and shrugs. This is obviously a familiar scene in the Bles household.
In a move that reminds me very much of my own parents, Phi Loy fastidiously wiped away the grit and dirt around Wassanas eyes and trunk. Later on during my stay I witnessed Phi Loy and Wassana playing a game of hide and seek during their morning walk. Phi Loy walks away and hides behind a tree, and usually Wassana comes marching around the path to find him. This time around Wassana was too busy gossiping with her crew. Poor Phi Loy took his rejection in stride with his ever present grin. There is clearly a very strong bond between these two and I feel very privileged to be allowed a peek into their day to day life.
Time to go home! After 5 days staying at Bles, I was sad to leave but grateful to have partaken in this experience.
BLES is the most magical place on earth. A place built upon hard work and a dream to let elephants finally be free from abuse and be themselves. It is proof that one person is capable of making a difference.
What to expect when visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary
Please don’t come here expecting the animals to stand for selfies, to wait around to be washed, or for anything else. Come with an open mind, set your clock to elephant time and be prepared to be star struck. There is hope for a better future for the Thai elephants and it starts with us supporting organizations like BLES.