January 19, 2017:
Today we went to visit an elephant camp in the foothills outside Mae Rim. However, before we even got on the bus, we had to go say, “Hello”, to the two resident water buffalo, who had just been brought down from the farm where they spend their nights for their arduous day grazing by the side of the hobby rice paddy at the resort. I have to say, these are the best-fed bovines I’ve ever seen!
The Mae Rim hill area used to be a prime teak harvesting area, but in 1989, the former King, Rama IX, outlawed teak cutting, which left thousands of elephants (and their owners) out of work. The solution to the problem was to form elephant camps for tourists to learn about elephants, participate in their care and feeding, and go for elephant rides.
We were not aware until we got to the preserve that there is some controversy about this practice, as the elephants at some camps are poorly treated, and some people claim that just riding on the elephants is harmful to them. As we hadn’t heard this before we arrived at the camp, and had not had the opportunity to research it for ourselves, I was somewhat conflicted. What I did know was that Asian elephants are endangered, the care and feeding of elephants is incredibly expensive relative to the average income of the people here, and that without intervention, these elephants formerly employed in the teak timber industry would have likely starved to death. For example, just one stalk of bananas, which is an essential part of the elephants’ diet, costs about 500 baht (about $14 US), while the average income of a Thai family in Chiang Mai is about 13,000 baht (about $370 US) per month, and the elephants require several stalks of bananas per week.
When we got to Maesa, the first thing we saw was a picture board with the names of each elephant and their respective mahout (elephant trainer), along with some relevant facts about each beast, which immediately personalized the visit. We observed that each mahout was paired with just one elephant, and there truly seemed to be a close relationship between the elephants and their mahouts. I did not observe any of the animals being controlled with painful methods, and this camp has both an active elephant breeding program and nursery, as well as providing retirement care for elephants who are too old to work. The first thing we got to do on arrival was to feed the elephants, and the elephant I got to feed was not only really healthy looking; she was pregnant!!!! The gestation period for elephants is over two years. We fed the elephants two of their favorites treat; bananas and sugar cane, and I even got an elephant hug!
Then we watched as the mahouts gave the elephants their daily bath in the adjacent river. The elephants seemed to really like getting scrubbed head to tail. When I dropped my sunglasses by the river, an elephant was quick to give them back to me (and take the baht note I offered in thanks)!
Then there was a show demonstrating various skills of the elephants, which was a little hokey, but the younger elephants seemed to get a kick (!) out of playing goalie for an elephant soccer game. Finally, the elephants painted pictures, which I have to admit were surprisingly good.
Finally, it was time for our ride, and truthfully, we really enjoyed it! The tour went through the adjacent hilly jungle, where we saw one older elephant “out to pasture”, and through a river by the camp. Apologies in advance for all the photos!