All the elephants in the resort belong to the Bunpun Elephant Camp. The older ones worked in the jungle to move tree trunks before Mr Boonpanbuntham, a native Thai of Mae Wang, owner of the camp, rescued them in 1990. Duang Dee, Taeng Mo, Chai Lai, and Kham Kaew were born here.
The 10 mahouts are from the Karen hill tribe, the traditional elephant handlers of Northern Thailand.
Before your visit, we want to clarify some points to avoid misunderstanding:
- Our elephants are captive animals for tourist use, and the activities we offer are the best solution to feed them (250 kg per day for an adult). We have 13 elephants, meaning they eat more than two tonnes of food every day.
- We don’t have the means to build a sufficiently large and resistant enclosure, so we have to chain them after 16:30. We can’t let them roam free for security reasons.
- We try, despite these constraints, to give them the most pleasant environment. The first thing is to ban riding with cradles; only mahouts can ride elephants bareback. The second is to leave them without chains as much as possible during the day, and the third is to offer suitable activities for their well-being.
- You can check the FAQ for more details about captive elephants.
Facts About Asian Elephants In Captivity
“Currently, there are approximately 13,000 Asian elephants in captivity. Of course, the ideal situation for an elephant is in the wild, but this is unfortunately NOT a realistic option,” was a statement at the opening of a film released by the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG), a group of volunteer experts from around the world looking to set standards and disseminate correct information about the welfare of captive Asian elephants.
So why not let them roam free?
First of all, there is simply not enough appropriate habitat available. According to Dr. Taweepoke Angkawanish, less than 15% of the elephant’s natural habitat remains in Thailand. Basically, if we would let all captive elephants loose, they would have nowhere to go.
Even if some land were available, the process to reintroduce the captive elephant into the wild is complex. Even if elephants are seen to roam wild in private sanctuaries or parks, they still have to come into contact with humans, often to make sure they remain in the confines of the area, for veterinary and health purposes and for feed. Each interaction poses a great risk to humans and this is where traditional methods to control elephants used by mahouts have been both necessary and fiercely criticized. However, there has been much progress in recent years by groups such as ACEWG to train mahouts to use tools judiciously for their own protection and for the welfare of elephants.
The chain is another visible symbol of captivity. But it is a necessary tool. “Of course, it matters how you chain them, and how long you chain them. But to say ‘don’t chain an elephant’, unfortunately, that’s unrealistic,” said Carmen Rademaker, founder of Naka Elephant Foundation. It is the simplest and safest tool for a camp that cannot afford millions of baht in fencing. Unlike fencing, it also allows elephants to move locations throughout the jungle from patch to patch so that they can forage. Chains are also the best materials for control as they do not cause chafing on elephant skins. It would be impossible to keep an elephant in captivity without chaining, or fencing, if for at least a few hours per night.
FAQ About Asian Elephants In Captivity
The Elephant FAQ comes from the “Asian Captive Elephant Working Group”, this is a non-profit group, not in any way affiliated to any interest and their experts are highly regarded on an international level in their fields. It was formed in 2015 by a group of elephant specialists, veterinarians, researchers, camp managers and conservationists to address the current situation for captive elephants in the tourism industry in South East ASIA. If you want to know more about them, you can visit their website.
Why do we have elephants in captivity/where do captive elephants come from?
Asian elephants have had a relationship with humans for some 4,000 years. Historically, elephants were used as beasts of burden, for logging, as war mounts, ceremonial animals or simply kept as a status symbol. These elephants were mostly captured as wild animals by professional elephant catchers who then trained and either kept them or traded them to others for a specific use.
It is now illegal to capture Asian elephants from the wild outside exceptional conditions and with Government sanction. As a result, elephants are now being bred in captivity to maintain captive populations. However, illegal capturing and trading of wild elephants is still ongoing, which is why laws and regulations are so important to ensure these practices do not continue.
Please check that camps have policies in place to ensure they are not encouraging wild capture and that all elephants are legally registered.
Are elephants endangered?
The IUCN Red List, the international standard for categorizing species, has listed Asian elephants as endangered (likely to become extinct). There are less than 50,000 remaining Asian elephants in 13 range countries, of which approximately 60% are in India. If we can protect existing forests, and in some places, reconnect it, some wild elephant populations are still large enough to sustain themselves.
Should all elephants be free? Can captive elephants be reintroduced into the wild?
In an ideal world, all elephants would be free in nature. However, due to human population increases and habitat destruction, the reality is there is not enough appropriate habitat to support current wild populations of Asian elephants. Let alone reintroduce the existing population (upwards of 15,000 in Asia) of captive elephants.
Furthermore, it is a complex process to reintroduce captive elephants back into the wild. In addition to lack of habitat, released captive born elephants can increase human elephant conflict. Indeed they are used to interacting with and are not afraid of humans. Additionally, captive elephants may carry diseases that, if contact is allowed, can potentially spread to wild populations.
Captive elephants can serve as a means of maintaining important populations as “insurance” against environmental or human-caused changes. Up close and personal contact with captive elephants, especially when accompanied by educational materials, also can help inspire the public to care for elephants and their habitats.
How are elephants trained? What is the Phajaan, and what is crush training?
Every captive elephant must have some training to allow it to understand common verbal commands and to accept veterinary treatment. To not train an elephant under human care would be irresponsible. In the days of wild capture, the elephant was often tamed using very harsh techniques. But such methods are thankfully much less common today.
In Northern Thailand, “Phajaan” is in fact not a training method at all, but a spiritual ceremony associated with the training. It is carried out before training to ask the spirits to protect the people and the elephant. This ceremony is an important cultural tradition.
Today, captive born elephants grow up with and around humans and often begin their training soon after birth. Attitudes are changing and more owners are recognizing the benefits of using more humane and ethical training methods.
How much weight can an elephant carry on its back?
Studies have not been done on elephants; however, in horses, dogs and donkeys, the weight-carrying capacity is about 20-25% of their body weight, which equates to over 600 kg for an average-sized elephant weighing about 3,000 kg. Furthermore, the front and rear long bones of elephants are particularly strong because they do not have a bone marrow cavity but instead have a dense bone structure. The weight of one person without a saddle (less than 3% of body weight) would hardly be noticed.
Is performing and doing tricks bad for elephants?
Elephant performances, if done properly using positive training techniques, are not bad for elephants. Ethical, well managed and properly scripted animal presentations can have benefits to the animal’s health. Indeed they provide a form of exercise and mental stimulation. Many elephants readily participate in these activities because they are rewarded with favoured foods and attention. However, some activities should not be allowed (walking on hind legs, sitting upright, or riding a bicycle). They are not only unnatural behaviours, but can negatively affect the elephant’s well-being and physical health.
A good camp should determine what activities are best suited for each individual elephant. If the elephant looks healthy, is guided using positive methods, a show can be a beneficial component of a captive elephant facility.
How much do elephants need to walk/exercise every day?
The amount of walking a wild elephant does each day depends on the quality of their habitat. Asian elephants can walk 3-20 km a day in search of food and water. A herd of elephants may walk seasonally in an extended loop, looking for fresh resources within a home range that can be anywhere from 30 – 300 km3. The better the habitat quality, the less elephants will walk.
Elephants in captivity usually are provided with adequate food and water, and may not walk much if they do not have to. Thus, it is important they be provided ways to exercise, such as being walked several km daily or participating in trekking. Daily exercise is important for skeletal, digestive, foot and joint health, and to avoid obesity. Exercise is also an important form of enrichment for captive elephants, alleviating boredom, reducing aggression, and thus improving the welfare of the animal.
Do elephants like to interact and be close to people?
In captivity, most elephants have become accustomed to people. They have learned that people bring rewards, such as food treats. Even some wild elephants will interact with people in return for kindness or food – though this can be very dangerous. Some elephants seem to enjoy being part of a social group, even if that group includes humans. Other elephants are wary of people. All elephants should be approached with caution and never without the mahout present.
How do you know an elephant is happy?
It is difficult to determine if animals are truly ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, as their emotional states are not exactly like those of humans. Still, there are certain behaviours that display a state of emotion that can be related to happiness. For example, the display of exploratory or playful behaviours is a good sign that an elephant has good welfare. Happy elephants are probably best observed when kept in compatible social groups. Look for elephants that touch and comfort each other. Check out what each other is eating, play during bath time and vocalise a variety of greetings. These are examples of contented elephants. A good camp will give elephants ample opportunity to exhibit these behaviours.
Why are elephants chained?
Chaining is an important part of managing elephants where there are no enclosures to contain the animals. Chains are the simplest and safest tool to confine these large and potentially dangerous animals to a specific area. Because they can be more difficult to control, male elephants often have permanent chains around their ankles to provide a safe and quick means to control them if necessary.
Many forms of restraint, if done properly and with appropriate tools, are not harmful to the animal. A chain of sufficient length is important because it not only allows elephants to interact with one another but also allows them to find space alone. Unrelated elephants do not always get along and aggressive individuals can be dangerous to other elephants, sometimes fatally so. From a management perspective, using long chains to tether the elephant at night rather than fencing allows the elephant to be moved and allowing them access to fresh browse. Fences are often unreliable and, if not constructed properly, can be dangerous to the elephants themselves.
Satisfactory alternatives to chaining, like cement or steel structures, are very expensive and are therefore financially not possible and are impractical for most elephant tourism operations in Asia.
Facts About Asian Elephants
Elephants have a very good memory
- They can remember other elephants and people for decades after they last saw them.
Adults elephants eat around 250 kg every day
- This is due to a very poor digestive system, they are defecating 60% of the food intake. An adult weighs around 5000 kg.
Elephants needs between 150 and 200 liters of water every day
- A single trunk full may provide 10 liters at a time, but they don’t drink from it. Once the water is in the trunk they blow it out into their mouths.
The gestation period for Asian elephants is 18 to 22 months
- The longest of all animals.
Asian elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror
- There are only nine species that have this ability.
The elephant ears are used to regulate their body heat
- As the ear’s skin is very thin and full of veins by flapping it they are cooling their bodies.
Elephants are known to create tools
- They snap off tree branches to swat away flies and scratching. After digging a water hole, elephants will strip bark from a tree, chew it into a ball, then use it to fill the hole. Once the top has been covered with sand, the elephant has an evaporation-resistant canteen.
Elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors
- Only humans, apes, and dolphins possess this kind of self-awareness.
Signs that an elephant is healthy are:
- Ears flapping and tail swishing frequently
- Eating and drinking a lot
- Defecate more than 10 times per day
- Humidity is present at the base of the toenail and the end of the trunk
Did you already know these 9 facts about Asian elephants?