Earlier this week I had the opportunity to visit two more elephant facilities in Thailand.
Anantara, near the Golden Triangle, was my first stop. Although long, the bus trip north was well worth the time.
Anantara is a spacious resort nestled in lush forests bordering Myanmar. I was told that on rare occasions an elephant has silently swum across the river to foreign soil. An unsanctioned border crossing for sure.
The elephant program at Anantara is well thought out. With the exception of the first few elephants acquired by the organization in its early development, all of the elephants are rented, providing continued employment for their owners. The mahouts’ families relocate from their homes in Surin, where street begging is a staple employment. Renting the elephant instead of buying has many advantages, including the quality of mahout, the beneficial long-term relationship between the mahout and elephant and removing begging elephants from city streets.
Due to the number of captive elephants available in Surin, Anantara can insist on renting elephants with skilled mahouts who properly care for their elephants. By renting the elephant instead of buying, Anantara also avoids creating a market for elephant sales. (In the last few years, dealers have figured out that they can sell a sick or injured elephant and with the revenue buy a couple more.)
The company pays a higher than average rental fee to encourage owners to stay long-term. They provide village-style accommodations and ensure that the children of the mahouts receive an education.
What I observed at Anantara were relaxed elephants who had what appeared to be a healthy relationship with their mahouts. They were playful, responsive to their mahouts and displayed no fear or anxiety.
Anantara is conducting non-invasive research on elephant intelligence, which was very interesting to observe. I cannot divulge information about the exact projects currently being conducted, but from what I saw this work will definitely add to the current deficient body of scientific knowledge about elephant intelligence. I am anxious to see what will be learned over the next few years.
A by-product of the research is behavioral enrichment. Since these elephants, like all elephants in Asia, spend many hours each day on chains, the research benefits the elephant because they are off chains and engaged. Of course I would like to see the elephants off chains many more hours, if not completely, and posed that idea to John Roberts, the program manager. A progressive thinker with an open mind, John is motivated to explore ways to increase the elephants’ quality of life. Hot wire is a proven effective way to confine elephants without using chains and is already used in a small area of the elephant stable area. At first the mahouts were resistant to its use but they now seem to accept the new idea. I feel confident that in the future Anantara will utilize hot wire yards to increase the elephants’ freedom of movement.
One of the most commendable things about Anantara is that all of the funds generated by its elephant program go directly to elephant conservation projects that benefit Asian elephants.
In my next entry I will tell you about the second facility I visited.