We did it. I’ll be honest. I won’t lie. That experience, you think it’s right, you think it’s what you might be meant to do. It’s not, you learn quickly, some of us too late, some of us early on.
Riding elephants. Riding elephants that are tortured to carry roughly 2-3 people with a bamboo seat, made for their back, set to keep you safe as he or she takes you up and down hills, through water, down streets that are hot and polluted. Elephants that are poked and hit with hooks, elephants that are made to move when they don’t want to, when they almost can’t.
Summer 2020, has us here in Bangkok and spending time on the beautiful, quiet and currently desolate island of Koh Samui, where it’s lacking and craving 90% of its population of tourists that drive this usually bustling place.
On one of our many adventures on the island we spent an afternoon at the Ko Samui Elephant Sanctuary. It is the first elephant sanctuary established on Koh Samui. They have since opened one more, where as they say ‘the elephants can live with dignity and respect’.
The day of our visit, they were on week three of opening back up since lockdown and with new restrictions. We were the only people there that day. They had just brought back some of the 11 employees they had to let go, just months before. You see, they had to decide whose mouth they would feed, the 7 female elephants they have in their care, who eat 20 hours out of the day or keep their full staff on that wasn’t running tours. Our hearts sank, imagining having to make that decision as the person in charge.
I called in the morning to ask about the programme and if there was space for later that day. A few hours later we were sitting, watching and learning about their initiative, how to be safe while walking amidst 7 wild, unchained beautiful creatures and feeding them bags of bananas. These bananas were made possible by our entry fee, with money left, to feed their staff and their families, (and some cats too) they were eternally grateful and were not shy to thank us throughout the day.
Yet, in us, there was a mutual feeling of gratitude. We were walking in a forest, with little hesitation and some unknowingness to find 7 beautiful elephants that we learned about one by one as we stepped through long grass, sandy pathways. Some of us stood or sat in a covered area while the staff held the elephants gently back until we were allowed to approach them and fill their bellies with Thailand’s natural candy; bananas.Â Â
For every elephant there was one boy, ages 10 years to 3.5, four of them mine, the other three our friends from Bangkok. The boys listened and carefully fed them, touched their trunks, giggled when they saw the size of mouths and screamed when one or two was sprayed with elephant saliva, as big as most raindrops. I looked at the children in awe, all safe and secure, I smiled in admiration for the way the experience was run, the passion in our tour guide’s voice as she told the tales of their tortured life. Each boy observing, totally switched on, attentive as she spoke, searching for the pain and scars left on the elephants bodies that were put there by someone else in order to follow their rotten rules.
The tour, just 1.5 hours was enough time and information seeking for our lot. The material, and message clear for all, even the littlest tyke. Each of them able to share and feel what they learned and what a life of animal cruelty can do to anyone or thing with a beating heart. They witnessed what saving and putting effort into looked like and how standing up for what you believe in can bring.
This is a sanctuary, at its purest. In a forest that is filled with peace and security, with a team working to keep safe some of the largest creatures in the world, to feed them, and watch them roam free. To let these magnificent beings lay in a playpen-like area to rest for those quick 4 hours a day, and hopefully continue to be able to be fed them enough and allow themselves the stability in a job they love doing.
When we set out to have our visit to Koh Samui Elephant sanctuary we had an open mind, not sure what we would see or experience. In each step was everything a sanctuary for saved animals can and will display. Yet, all the while, seeing and offering additional proof that COVID-19 is having a worldwide effect. That even size and environment and dedication to keep you safe and cared for is not giving you immunity from this beast.
‘When an elephant becomes your friend, it is your friend for life’
Photos taken by Louise O’Brien