These gentle giants are always adorable to see. they travel in herds and they have their unique way to interact with each other. sadly, their habitat is being destroyed. Too much deforestation and illegal poaching activities for their parts are driving this majestic creature into extinction.
When it comes to tourism, Southeast Asia is known for its culture, pristine beaches and rainforest. However, this industry is abusing elephants to attract tourists. Many of the zoos and elephant-related activities have negative welfare impacts on them and resulted in these animals being deprived of their rights. They are usually treated is such inhumane way. So, how to experience interactions with these beautiful giants without abusing them? Luckily there are few rehabilitation center and sanctuaries across Southeast Asia for Asian Elephants that are open for visitors and volunteers. Let’s look at some of this few that worth the visit.
5) Tangkahan Elephant Camp, North Sumatra, Indonesia
Located in Bukit Lawang within the vicinity of Gunung Leuser of North Sumatra, It is probably one of the controversial elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia. Some will say this place does not deserve to be in the top 5. Well, folks, you have to do some reading. This sanctuary was created in 2001 and it is part of the conservation efforts for Sumatran elephants that are now critically endangered due to loss of habitat and poaching. The Conservative Response Unit or CRU fully manages it with the help of the locals that wanted positive change for the wildlife and rainforest. This is why we think they deserve to be in the top 5 although they have a lot more to improve.
These rescued elephants are also responsible workers who are trained for patrolling and guarding the forest with the rangers. In fact, this is their primary role here. They do this to protect their wild brethren from poachers and illegal loggers. Some people question the activities held by the CRU. It is explained that these elephants were domesticated, strayed due to loss of habitat and some of them had live in a horrendous condition previously. With the help of the CRU, they are rescued and now being taken care of and well fed. Walking with elephants or Angon Gajah is one of the activities that are conducted here. Visitors are allowed to walk with these gentle giants into the jungle, feed, and bath them in the river. A hefty fee is imposed on those who want to ride them and this is where some people disagree. It is optional and the fee is needed to sustain food and medical for the elephants as they are an independent NGO and fund is not easy to get. This act clouds the efforts the locals themselves take to ensure these elephants are free from threats of poaching and deforestation.
As this remote village was built on the logging trade, the eco-tourism elephant camp helps the locals to remove deforestation and palm oil activities from their economy hence protected the rainforest and the wildlife. The income from this effort goes to the NGO to combat illegal logging and poachings that destroyed the animal’s habitat. They are protected by the same mahouts and rangers that are dedicated to treating them as good as possible. Tangkahan itself is home to hot springs, few waterfalls and a small number of orangutans. Journey to the camp is long and the road is extremely bumpy. Tour can be booked via Sumatran EcoTravel and Bukit Lawang Tour and they provide homestays and lunch provided in local style. Do give it a try and while you were there, and most importantly take a chance to talk with locals and understand their efforts!
Price: Starts from $60
Opening: Saturday to Thursday (9 AM to 6 PM)
4) Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Phuket, Thailand
The island of Phuket in previous years is sadly famous for the unethical treatment of elephants due to an increase in tourism activities. However, all that about to change with the establishment of Elephant Jungle Sanctuary or EJS located in Patong. Their interactive activities are heavily focusing on the welfare and well being of the elephants. With the motto ‘ethical elephant adventure’, visitors can observe and experience the presence of these magnificent giants within their habitat, a natural surrounding. Started by The Care Project, their primary focus is changing the plight of domestic Asian elephants in Thailand as well as the people involved in caring for them. The elephants in their care are mostly rescued from ‘entertainment’industry, which means they were once walking along the street of Thailand to be ridden and forced to perform tricks for the sake of a photo. A minority of it came from logging area as they were workers elephant which no longer healthy to do all the massive task. Currently, The Care Project are located not just in Phuket but also Chiang Mai, and Pattaya.
Three of the main program in EJS is Adoption, Foster Care and Matriarch Project. Foster care is when the owner of these elephants requested EJS to put the elephants under their care. During this time the owners go through an education program on the welfare of this majestic creature. Adoption is when the sanctuary buys out these elephants from a contract that is unfair to these gentle giants and placed them under their care. Matriarch Project is where they rescued the elephants with medical conditions such as gout and cataracts and nurse them with the help of the veterinary. What is essential, the people behind this project are mostly professional veterinary and concerns citizens who are knowledgeable in elephant behaviors.
Walking side by side with these elephants through the jungle is a priceless experience. On top of that, the sanctuary allows visitors to help them feeding and bathing the elephants. Visitors will be given a unique native dress and get the chance to swim with them while learning about their behavior. For those who love to get wet and muddy, this place provides you with an opportunity of a lifetime. The earning from the tours goes directly to the well being of the elephants especially for their food, medical cost, and infrastructure. The sanctuary also helps to boost the economy of the locals. As they are an NGO, donations from visitors are highly welcomed. EJS provides morning; afternoon and day visit in Phuket. The tour includes Thai style lunch and pick-up from the hotel. Tours can be booked directly with EJS!
Price: Starts from $70
Opening: Monday to Sunday (9 AM to 5 PM)
3) Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Center, Pahang, Malaysia
Located about 100KM from the capital, Kuala Gandah National Elephant Conservation Center or NECC in the state of Pahang is a non-profit government-funded rehabilitation center for rescued elephants that have faced mistreatment, injured and orphanage. This conservation center which also known previously as Elephant Orphanage Sanctuary is not a typical park or safari that you can find in other regions. It is solely dedicated to helping wounded elephants as well as training few of them in assisting their wild brethren that stray out of the forest reserve into human populated areas. The center explained that trained elephants can help to calm wild elephants hence reducing the risk and stress for both elephant and man in rehabilitating and relocating procedures. Currently, NECC is taking care of elephants ranging from 9 months to 80 years old.
Established in 1989 within the vicinity of Krau Wildlife Reserve, they started by sheltering orphanage elephants. The center then evolves to a more difficult task which is rehabilitating and relocating wild and injured elephants due to loss of habitat from growing agricultural activities. It was not developed as a tourist attraction at first but changed into one after the number of visitors who came to see their work keep increasing. Up until now, they have successfully rescued and relocated more than 400 elephants back into the wild. As it is government funded, entrance to the center is free. However, donations concerning money or food such as brown palm sugar and bags of rice for the elephants are welcomed. The workers and mahouts in the center usually work as the nature guides and visitors are highly recommended to hire one.
Visitors and volunteers will first be briefed on relocating procedures via a very educational video to increase awareness among the public. They will next invited to observe the elephants and its behavior as they roam inside the center. Riding of elephants is strictly not allowed under the law passed by the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN). However, volunteers are welcomed to help bathing, prepare food and to feed the baby elephants. This is done maximum 2 times a day by the nature guides. Early registration is a must for this session as there is a limit imposed by the center. NECC, however, stated that bathing can only be performed if the water level in the river is safe and the elephants are not stressed. During the monsoon season, the river current can be rough and this will put the elephant and visitors in danger. Thus, it is strictly prohibited. Kuala Gandah itself is near to Malaysian National Park that preserves some of the oldest rainforests in the world. Bookings can be made directly with NECC. Most private tours such as WhoAdventures provide Malay style lunch and pickup for visitors from Kuala Lumpur. Another trusted personal nature guide that is often used by volunteers are Mr. Zali (+60176162105).
Tour Price: Starts from $70
Opening: Monday to Sunday (8 AM to 4.30 PM)
2) Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai is home to several elephant sanctuaries. The increase in tourists visiting this northern part of Thailand has lead to elephants being used as attractions. Luckily, few of the sanctuaries run by local and foreign animal welfare association has helped these gentle souls out of an abusive world. Established in the late 90’s by Sangduen Chailert or Lek, Elephant Nature Park or ENP is one of the best sanctuaries in Chiang Mai. Lek herself was named Asian Hero in 2005 by TIME Magazine for her outstanding effort in saving these majestic mammals. Apart from that, ENP has also been featured in National Geographic, Animal Planet, and Discovery Chanel. They have rescued dozens of distressed elephants from all over Thailand and heavily involves in educating society on the importance of animal welfare. This journey is documented in a program called Love and Bananas which received the official selection by Environmental Film Festival and International Wildlife Fim Festival. Lek is a backbone to this movement and her neverending rescue mission sparks hope and future for elephants across Thailand. Visitors and volunteers who spend their time here contribute to the movement and that is a priceless experience.
Most of the rescued elephants are survivors of torture from trekking, tourism and logging activities. Some were in dire need of medical attention and nursed back to health by them. The mahouts will share each heartbreaking personal stories of elephants here as they interact with the visitors. Elephant observation, forest-walking, and feeding are part of the activities here. Currently, about 80 elephants are roaming free in this park. Volunteers can also participate in cleaning the park and prepare medicine for the elephants using Thai herbs. One of the exciting programs that are introduced in ENP for visitors is ‘saddle off!’ which highlights the reality of elephant riding and tricking. This program is conducted with the collaboration of Karen tribe, the natives of northern Thailand. Another program that catches our attention and should be highlighted is the 7 days ‘Journey To Freedom’. This program allows volunteers to have hands-on experience in elephant care, local agriculture, and community welfare. These 2 programs put ENP on the second rank of best elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia. For those interested to join, early booking is needed.
On top of that, the park hires local people from maintaining to producing food for the elephants. This is also an effort to integrate culturally between the park and the people of Thai in general. The elephant rehabilitation center is also a stepping stone for the park to restore the rainforest in the surrounding area. In future, they are planning to repopulate 25 hectares ground of mountainside with trees. Apart from elephants, the park also cares for dogs, cats and several other animals that needed shelter, food, and medicine. It is a place for animals to seek refuge! Beside Chiang Mai, ENP sanctuaries can also be found in Kanchanaburi, Surin, and Siem Reap. As they operate independently, donations are highly welcomed. Bookings can be made directly with ENP. Visitors can choose between half day, full day or overnight visit. Transportation, vegetarian lunch, dinner, and accommodation within the park are included in the tour package itself. The plus side of the overnight tour is visitors have the chance to see the elephants roam free within the park all day, and night from their accommodation.
Tour Price: Starts from $75
Opening: Monday to Sunday (8.30 AM to 3.30 PM)
1) Elephant Valley Project, Mondulkiri, Cambodia
Regarded as the best Elephant sanctuary project in Cambodia, we at Kokonutlist gladly announce that Elephant Valley Project or EVP is the best in Southeast Asia. It is founded in 2006 by an NGO called Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (E.L.I.E.) who put the elephant first. With the motto ‘Let Them Roam Free’, you can visit or volunteer at this sanctuary and interacts with the elephants as they roam freely in the jungle. E.L.I.E work closely with the locals to help boost their economy in eco-tourism as well as to save the elephants from this region that once worked in the cruel tourism industry. This 1,500-hectare ground consisting of forest, grassland and rivers in Krong Saen Monorom is a place for at least 10 of these magnificent souls to retire. Making them the largest captive elephant sanctuary in Asia!
The primary goal for this sanctuary is for the elephant to be released back into the wild. This needs a lot of effort in making sure they are fit to survive in the jungle. Volunteers and visitors are allowed to walk in the jungle with the elephants while the mahouts provide necessary information on their behavior and past life. Riding and bathing of the elephant are not allowed as their concern is more on the animals well being. However, volunteers are allowed to assist in health checks and feeding these adorable giants. Apart from that, cutting the grass and trimming trees are some of the work that volunteers can do in this sanctuary. As an NGO, funds is crucial for them. EVP happily accept donations and individuals who want to sponsor an elephant.
The jungle walk requires visitors to be fit as the track can be hilly and muddy. Aside from the elephants, the dense forest itself is home to various tropical wildlife such as deer and monkeys. This sanctuary has been featured in National Geographic and several media channel for their superb work in rehabilitating the elephants. Booking can be made directly with EVP. They offer day trips or a 2 to 3 days trip. Transportation from Saen Monorom and accommodation is provided with the fee including Khmer style lunch and dinner prepared by the locals. However, due to its remote location, it is fundamental and in a way, perfect for those who are adventurous.
Price: Starts from $45
Opening: Monday to Saturday (7.30 AM – 5.30 PM)