At the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, rescue elephants, mostly female, are free and well cared for.
On a recent visit to Phuket, I decided it was finally time to visit an elephant sanctuary. How many times had I been
to Thailand, and passed that one by? But what intrigued me this time was what I had heard about the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, which actually uses the word “ethical” to describe its view on how these astonishing creatures should be treated.
“‘Ethical’ means we create an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible, resembling their life in the wild,” says Vincent Gerards, director of marketing and sales. The elephants here are left to roam freely over a vast tract of land, yet they are cared for. They tend to be older, brought here after a lifetime of hard work, when their “owners” can’t make money from them anymore, and don’t want to pay to take care of them. Some are blind, or injured. Most are female, as males are prized for their tusks, and when they get too old to work, they are sold for the ivory. I asked the staff about it at Trisara Resort, the gorgeous beachfront property where I was staying, 30 minutes away. “Ah, the good elephant sanctuary,” they said. They knew what I was talking about right away.
When the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary opened, three years ago, it was the first and only one on the island, though not anymore. “We buy every animal that we rescue,” says Gerards. “Most sanctuaries rent the animals, which means they can go back to work.” This 30-acre property, the largest on Phuket, is essentially a fancy retirement home for elephants that range in age from 35 to 69 (most have a life span of approximately 70 years). The elephants have access to full-time veterinary care. Unlike other sanctuaries where you can ride them, the interaction here is limited to feeding them and walking beside them. “Other sanctuaries can create stress for the elephants, who are touched by many people,” says Gerards. Here, each elephant has her own “mahout,” a designated human who spends the day beside her and cares for her. They also have the elephant equivalent of “spa time” in the form of a “hydrotherapy pool,” where injured elephants can spend rehabilitative time soaking in the water.
The Sanctuary has plans to build three villas on the property, made from local materials, for overnight guests who want to wake up with the elephants. They are also building an elevated 750-meter walkway above the grounds, for viewing. The lush Sanctuary is located next to a national park, with waterfalls and rivers, and has the potential to house 25 elephants, which is the goal. Right now, there are nine.
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary CEO, Mondtri Todtane, used to run a monkey and elephant show himself. The turning point came when a beloved elephant suffered a leg injury. Todtane looked for a “retirement home” for him, and couldn’t find one. He began to think about “elephant well-being,” and that’s when he decided to create a safe haven for elephants,Va place where old, sick and injured animals could retire and be happy. “I wanted to free them,” he says. And so he did.