Phuket’s new elephant sanctuary has celebrities gushing
Lee Cobaj, destination expert
18 MAY 2017 • 12:13PM
I have drool all over my arm. Not something I would usually be pleased about but in this case I couldn’t be happier. The slavering culprit? Kannika, a 32-year old elephant. As an infant she was wrenched away from her mother and forced to spend her days traversing Phuket’s blistering hot beaches for tourists to photograph.
When she grew bigger (and supposedly less cute), Kannika was sold to a trekking camp and into a back-breaking future, humphing 500 pounds of metal and human beings around in circles, day-in, day-out. Now, though, she loves to eat watermelons, trumpet loudly and smash down trees.
Standing by Kannika’s side is her best friend Madee. Madee is thought to be in her sixties (it’s hard to be precise when an elephant has been sold and resold as many times as she has). She is calm and curious with a penchant for mud baths and her call sounds more like that of a broken squeaky dog-toy than a four-tonne beast.
This now-happy couple were the first two elephants to arrive at the new Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, the first ethical elephant centre in Phuket and a shining example to other elephant attractions around the country. Opened at the end of 2016 in the jungle-shrouded heart of Phuket, it is a place of joy and an antidote to the many toxic animal centres found elsewhere.
Two more elephants have since joined – the grandma of the group, Dow Gaew, and the sanctuary’s blind elephant Gaew Ta, otherwise known as Darling – with four more pachyderms on the way in the coming months.
Inspired by the pioneering work at Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park, in Thailand’s north, these animals are considered retired.
Having been manhandled and mistreated their whole lives, interaction is kept to a minimum. “We want to give our elephants some dignity and allow them to be themselves in their natural habitat,” explained co-founder and Yorkshirewoman Louise Rogerson.
Here, visitors begin their morning tour watching an educational video highlighting the cruel and unnecessary practices used to break the spirit of young elephants, abuses within logging and tourism industries, as well as an upbeat animation on what makes elephants such unusual animals.
For example, did you know? Elephants live in matriarchal families and are capable of experiencing human-like behaviours such as teamwork, problem-solving, empathy and grief – and those 400 pound trunks can suck up 14 litres of water at a time or pick up a single grain of rice.
Next: breakfast, when huge buckets of watermelon, pineapple and bananas are brought forth and guests are invited to feed the eles – and be slobbered on – before setting off together on a 90-minute walk around the lush 21-acre grounds.
Leonardo DiCaprio has posted about the critically endangered Sumatran elephant on Instagram before
“Keep at least six feet away from the elephants and don’t stand where they can’t see you, it makes them nervous. And don’t stand behind them either – they might fart in your face,” our guide quips cheerfully. Groups are kept to a maximum of 35 people per day. Mine kept a respectful distance at all times and are clearly enchanted by simply observing Madee, Kanikka and Dok Gaew as they pluck jackfruit from trees, snap tree branches to scratch their backs with and wade, dip, twirl and trumpet in muddy natural lagoons.
Over lunch – a bountiful spread of crisp spring rolls, zingy stir-fries and hot-hot-hot curries, including in the THB 3,000 (£67) fee – I chat with Nicola Oates, from South Yorkshire, who was visiting the sanctuary with her husband and 14-year old son.
“We did some research online before we got here and knew that this was the one place in Phuket that we really wanted to go – and we’ve loved every minute of it. It’s clear that the animals are well-cared for and it’s been an unforgettable experience to see them in their natural habitat.”
And the Oates family aren’t the only ones who have been impressed. The sanctuary has seen a steady stream of big-name celebrity guests join its tours, from British musicians Coldplay and Goldie, to superstar DJ Kaskade to Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and, according to eagle-eyed locals, Leonardo DiCaprio.
“We’re delighted by every guest that wants to visit the sanctuary but our continued growth relies on donations – we hope to eventually accommodate up to 20 elephants and build a proper veterinary care unit – so we’re really pleased that our celebrity guests have helped to raise the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary’s profile,” said Rogerson.
A handful of the island’s luxury hotels, including Iniala Beach House, Amanpuri and Keemala have also thrown their full support behind the project, by actively encouraging their guests to visit and throwing lavish fundraisers.
Volunteer programmes have also been introduced, allowing guests to get up-close and personal over seven nights (THB 16,000 / £358) building shelters, collecting and preparing leafy bedding, scooping poop out the lakes, as well as feeding and caring for the eles.
But for all their early success, the sanctuary doesn’t see itself as being in competition with Phuket’s other elephant camps. Rogerson adds, “our aim is to help all elephants, to encourage an ethical business model and hope that other camps will follow suit.”