I was worried, though. I wanted to be sure the animals in question would be well cared for, not subject to any of the cruelty or exploitation of which I’d heard rumour – I would hate to be a burden on the poor beast. Thus it was wonderful to discover that I could indulge my dream of elephant-back jungle exploration while not only being nice to Nellie but actually helping her recover from past traumas and move towards a brighter future. About 4km from Kata Beach in Phuket, southern Thailand, is a small, unnamed elephant trekking center. What makes it unique amongst the many others in Thailand is that, rather than just being another tourist trap, this center is Elephant Rehab.
Until a few years ago, indigenous elephants were used in the Thai logging industry, helping to carry trees and logs. Recognising that this practice was increasingly hard on the elephants, and that in many cases the poor creatures were cruelly treated to compel them to work harder, the Thai government banned the use of elephants in commercial logging. Great news, ele-fans would think — until you realise there are now hundreds if not thousands of elephants who have been tame all their lives and therefore can not return to the wild, but can no longer earn their keep with their owners. A solution was to give these unemployed ellies a fresh start in the tourist industry, where they could wander along jungle tracks with random westerners on their backs — a lot less stressful than hauling lumber. Sadly though, many of the lumberjack-pachyderms had been so scarred by the treatment they received at the hands of their erstwhile employers that they were terrified of humans. Carrying a well-meaning tourist on their backs would bring back memories of years of abuse.
While an elephant may never forget, however, the rehabilitation center is there to help them move on. Staffed by kind, gentle mahouts (elephant handlers), at the Kata trekking center the traumatised ellie is coaxed back into contact with humans, through long days spent in the jungle, learning the ele-human language of the mahout (Doctor Dolittle has nothing on these guys), and regular short visits down to the tourists, who feed them bananas and take quick jaunts through the lush enclave. The younger elephants, once fully recovered, will move on to work in other tourist trekking centers around Thailand, their futures safe and assured. Some of the older ones might just stay here and enjoy a gentler pace of life until retirement.
The 20 minutes I spent with my personal Nellie was a wonderful experience: the strange, solid lurching as she climbed suredly along the path, crunching vegetation under her giant feet, I amazed to be so close to her rough leathery skin and her warm, natural smell. The views from the jungle look-out were incredible and a million miles away from the commercialism of Phuket just down the road. But really, this experience was all about the elephants. When I arrived at about 11am, I was told the elephants wouldn’t be coming down to see the tourists until after lunch at least, because it was rainy and they don’t like the wet slopes. Later that afternoon, when the sun came out, Nellie the former logging worker allowed me to clamber clumsily onto her back, and she happily posed for photos with the other delighted tourists. The quiet trust this poor abused elephant showed me when I reached up to her mouth and placed a banana directly onto her tongue proved the rehab must be working.
You can find the elephant rehabilitation center by heading south on the Kata Viewpoint road from Kata beach, Phuket. Alternatively, you can contact Richard, who is another ele-fan living and working in Phuket. On his days off, he brings tours up to the rehab center free of charge — he just asks that you take a trek, the (very reasonable) cost of which funds the center. Write to Richard at [email protected] for further details, or to arrange a visit of a lifetime.