In past years, elephants helped build Asia as part of a necessary transportation infrastructure. Over the years they have been abused. Many elephant orphanages and sanctuaries have sprung up in various countries to stem the abuse, but much of it still continues and only now is even recognized as abuse. In Thailand for instance, it is still possible to ride on the back of an elephant and watch them perform a show where they paint with their trunks. In Nepal, in Chitwan National Park, elephant rides are offered as part of a jungle safari. Those days are quickly coming to an end with more and more people feeling that kind of activity exploits the animals.
The tide is changing in Asia. Even when elephant rides are offered, many tour groups do not participate. What has taken its place however, are elephant sanctuary visits, where the elephants are being rehabilitated. These sanctuaries exist throughout parts of Thailand, Malaysia and Nepal, to name a few countries. Visitors first watch a movie on the process of capturing abused elephants to bring them to the sanctuary. It is a rough and tumble process due to the animal’s weight, and at first blush does not look humane. Fortunately, at the Malaysia sanctuary at least, they are working with the Smithsonian and following established guidelines for elephant capture. The elephants may not like being drugged, chained down and carried to the sanctuary, and the process is difficult to watch, but the end result is they get to live better lives, breed in captivity, and avoid extinction.
Visitors to these sanctuaries are allowed to spend time feeding elephant families including the babies. They are given sugar cane, carrots, and other fruits and vegetables appropriate for feeding. After the feeding is over, the elephants are brought out for a bath by the mahouts, and visitors are allowed to wade into the river with the baby elephants and help wash them.
Washing baby elephants has turned into a fairly robust tourist activity, as elephant reserves turn away from elephant rides and shows. It can be a very, very wet experience, however! Washing baby elephants involves wading into waist deep water, and likely being splashed by the animals and their care takers. So when booking an eco-adventure of this nature, make sure to bring an extra change of clothes (including underwear!), no matter what the literature says. Some sanctuaries have half day visits, some are full day, and some allow for home stays where the visitor spends the night at the sanctuary and helps care for the elephants during the entire stay.
For more information on elephant sanctuaries, click on the links in this article. More specifically, in Malaysia about an hour outside of Kuala Lampur, there is the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary (also called the Elephant Orphanage Sanctuary). In Thailand outside of Chiang Mai, one to consider is Friends of the Asian Elephant and the Thai Elephant Conservation Center near Lampang,True conservancies will not have shows which cater to children, will not offer elephant safaris, and will only admit about 30 people at a time. Book in advance since spots fill quickly. Tickets to visit these sights can easily be purchased on Viator.com.