Lonely Planet Writer

Phuket’s new elephant sanctuary wants to educate travellers about harm caused by elephant-riding

Ah, Phuket. White sand, a massage and maybe an elephant ride in the jungle before dinner. For many visitors to Thailand’s largest island, elephant-riding is as integral to the holiday experience as sun loungers and snorkelling, and carried out without any knowledge of the harm caused to the animal beneath them.

No bullhooks, no saddles, no zoo enclosures, elephants roam free.
No bullhooks, no saddles, no zoo enclosures, elephants roam free. Image by Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is hoping to change all that. Opened in 2016, it has been conceived as a refuge for elephants rescued from the tourist and logging industries, and no riding is allowed. It’s the first of its kind on the island. ‘Before we opened, there was nowhere on the island for old, sick, injured, tired or overworked elephants to go, no retirement home. They were worked until they died,’ co-founder Louise Rogerson said in an interview with CNN.

The sanctuary offers a sustainable, ethical, and compassionate approach to elephant tourism.
The sanctuary offers a sustainable, ethical, and compassionate approach to elephant tourism. Image by Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

The sanctuary aims to educate travellers about elephant-riding. Visitors to the park begin their tour by watching a video that explains how the wild animals are first trained or ‘crushed’ into domesticity so they can accept riders; a process that can involve being being tied up with ropes, beaten with a stick or bullhook, and starved. Visitors can then join the animals as they bathe and walk in the grounds and play.

The santuary opened last year.
The santuary opened last year. Image by Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

‘What amazes me is that we have taken in these elephants, some in their 60s, which have spent their entire life in cruel servitude to man, and they have recovered so quickly,’ says Rogerson, ‘elephants are emotional animals, they feel happiness, sadness and show love, and here we allow them to be themselves again, unafraid.’

There are now five elephants at the sanctuary, after three joined in December. It is modelled on the award-winning Elephant Nature Park , near Chiang Mai, and follows the same ‘saddle-off’ approach where the animals welfare is put before everything else. Visitors can observe the elephants from a close vantage point, but otherwise the animals are encouraged to follow as close as possible the natural behaviour of a wild herd.

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is located in Paklok, in the Thalang District of Phuket and offers half day tours and week-long volunteering programmes. It was founded by Mr Montri Todtane, a Phuket camp owner, conservationist and founder of Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park Lek Chailert and Louise Rogerson, found of EARS Asia. You can find more about their work on the sanctuary’s website. Read more about how to interact ethically with elephants in Thailand.

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