“Words are cheap. The biggest thing you can say is 'elephant'” – in a world where big words like environment, ecology and sustainability are on everybody’s lips, this Charlie Chaplin’s quote is as telling as ever. Luckily, there are also people who believe that actions speak louder than words. One of them is Montri Todtane, the founder of Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, who challenges the status quo, one elephant at a time.
How did elephants enter your life?
Montri Todtane: For more than 10 years I worked in an elephant camp which offered elephant rides to tourists. During my time there, I’d seen many elephants suffer, injured or very old and still working. And that’s when I started to wonder how to change that.
I had this plot of land, it is my grandfather’s land and I was born here, and this is where I moved my first two elephants. Here I could observe them – without chains, without hooks, free. And what I saw were two very happy elephants. That’s when I decided to start the Sanctuary. We started looking for elephants all over Thailand, the south, the northeast, and rescuing them.
How do you choose which elephants to rescue?
At the moment we focus on old elephants because I think that young elephants can still work. You know, no rich people look after elephants, only poor people, whole families. And sometimes a single elephant can support the whole family. Which is why I think it’s ok for younger elephants to work, as long as they are cared for and treated with respect. But old elephants deserve to rest. So, this is our priority for now.
There are still very few places like this in Phuket and in Thailand. Why?
That’s true, a lot of places in Phuket still offer elephant riding. But through this project, we show them that there is another way to do business, to make it sustainable, to keep both the tourists and the elephants happy. The main problem I see is that it’s not easy to find land in Phuket; some elephant camps have maybe one acre and six elephants crumped onto that. Also, there is little support from the government. Until recently, all that was promoted was elephant riding – you come to Thailand, you have to ride an elephant. But I think there is another way, I show that there is! It’s more natural to observe elephants the way we do in the Sanctuary, where they can be themselves, where they roam free, they drink water, they swim, they do anything they want to.
Has anyone followed in your footsteps?
There is another project coming up nearby, though for now they only have three elephants. It’s like our sister project, I support them, provide marketing for them, help them any way I can. Also, some of the elephant camps in Phuket have elephant bathing now. I think it is a good movement, some people will still go riding, but there will be some who opt for bathing, and others will visit us to simply enjoy observing elephants in their natural habitat with little interaction. There is an alternative. And it’s just the beginning.
Is it safe for tourists to be with elephants that are not restrained in any way?
I remember a mahout form the north of Thailand who told me that if I want to control an elephant, I have to beat it, to make it scared, to hurt it. I believed it and I obeyed. But when we moved here and saw what’s possible, everything changed. I realized that everything that I was taught before was a lie. Abused elephants, kept without water, without food, can become aggressive. But if you take care of them, they are calm and safe for the tourists.
Why elephants? What do you find so special about them?
Elephants are big, but their hearts are soft and sensitive. They have great memories and build strong relationships with humans. You can see it in their eyes, they are very loving. They even take care of each other, the young take care of the old, they protect each other. That’s not something you can see in a zoo, in a show or a riding camp, only here, in their natural environment.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is the first ethical elephant sanctuary in Phuket, providing a home for retired working elephants and an opportunity for tourists to see those mighty animals in their natural environment, in a 30 acres-large lush tropical jungle.
Learn more at phuketelephantsanctuary.org