The goal of most vacations? R&R and rounds of mojitos. But some people are using their days off to learn about the plight of Asian elephants—per a recent New York Times Magazine article—while staying at a luxury resort that helps end animal exploitation and the poverty cycle that can create it.
Elephant sanctuary resorts exist mainly because of English-bred environmentalist John Roberts, who directed his interest in conservation to Thailand after seeing and hearing stories of elephants trawling urban streets with their their mahouts (keepers), doing tricks and posing for photos, working long hours, and being poked and prodded and underfed—all in hopes of bringing in a few baht (Thai currency).
That led him to create the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) and become the Director of Elephants—how’s that for a job title?!—at the Four Seasons Tented Camp and the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort, the two main supporters of the foundation, in Thailand’s northern Golden Triangle, where the country nudges up against Burma and Laos.
“Anyone who has visited Thailand will be familiar with the Kingdom’s reverence for its elephants,” Roberts explains in his official bio, but widespread poverty, he says, has caused many Thai to mistreat the animals in attempts to make a living.
Since 2003, Roberts’ passion has led the foundation to rescue 32 elephants, along with providing income to the mahouts and their families, who otherwise would have been out of a job. It’s currently supporting more than 60 people.
And since simply releasing elephants into the wild isn’t really an option—as many had been born in captivity or become so accustomed to cities that life in the wild, even if their habitat were intact, would kill them—the foundation created a way to ethically employ the gentle giants, as part of the mahout trainings and elephant treks that are key parts of the package at both resorts.
Mahout training at both properties involves learning basic verbal and physical commands to steer, stop, start and encourage your elephant to lift a leg for you to use as a step to climb aboard and ride bareback. You discover a lot about connection and teamwork (kind of like Miraval’s Equine Experience), and nothing makes you more sympathetic to an animal than learning to communicate with it.
Once you’re good with that, it’s off into the lush bamboo forest, past the rice paddies and into the river. Many guests find that they want to go deeper, which is why Four Seasons recently added daybreak elephant treks up to a scenic viewpoint for sunrise over the Mekong, and Anantara offers sunset treks and interactive programs with a resident research assistant from Think Elephants International.
While the Four Seasons and Anantara are for-profit, luxury resorts (and plenty luxurious, at that), their goal is to support a better life for the animals and to educate guests. Unlike some of the basket-ride tourist operations outside Chiang Mai, the experience here doesn’t feel exploitative since the elephants aren’t overworked and are kept with steady supply of bananas, bamboo, and sugarcane.
Resort fees cover most of the elephant camp’s operating expenses, mahouts benefit from tips, and guests are educated and encouraged to donate or even virtually adopt an elephant. (Non-guests can also help by donating via the GTAEF’s website.)
Roberts says, “Because our parent company covers all of our administration costs, as well as being our largest single donor, guests who donate can be sure that every penny goes straight to help the elephants—either to help us keep our promises to the elephants rescued from the streets who now live onsite; or to fund our educational activities, research, welfare outreach projects to other camps; or to our projects working to keep elephants safe in the wild.”
When I rode on an elephant’s shoulders there, she lumbered through the rain forest and cooled herself off splashing around in a river. From that vantage point, it certainly felt like those promises were being kept. —Ann Abel