Imagine elephants free from chains, free from torture, free from a daily working routine….. well you don’t have to imagine it….. you can experience it!
I can personally say from my own experience in studying both captive and wild elephants, you can not beat observing them in their natural habitat – in the WILD. Yes, it’s incredible getting up close and personal with the gentle giants but there is something extra special about knowing the wild elephants you observe have little to no relationship with humans.
I’ll never forget my first encounter with elephants in a Sri Lankan National Park, we spotted a herd of five elephants browsing on vegetation, minding their own business, nothing extremely exciting happened but it was magical – the elephants did not mind our presence and we certainly enjoyed theirs. Then during my time on game reserves in Africa I got better acquainted with wild elephants and found the fact that we may or may not see them extremely exciting, each encounter was as special as the last! There is nothing more thrilling than a large herd of maybe 60 elephants walking across an open savannah towards you! Observing elephants acting how elephants should act; grazing, playing, browsing, socialising, is very cool and memories no one can take away from you! I have also observed elephants dancing and painting and these images will also remain in my head but…. these are memories I want removed!
The wild population of Asian elephants is estimated to be between 37,000 – 48,000, of these it is estimated up to 3,000 live in the wilds of Thailand. Deforestation is a major threat to the Asian elephant, forcing elephants closer to human settlements causing another major threat – human-elephant conflict! One source said 20% of the worlds human population live in or near the home range of Asian elephants. Almost 70 million people live in Thailand with 75% of these people living in rural areas, removing more and more forest as the population increases. Forest cover in Thailand fell dramatically by the late 90’s but after logging became illegal in 1989 the forest cover started to recover and the country currently has 37% cover, but this is compared to 75% cover in the early 1900’s when there were over 100,000 wild elephants! Due to the many threats elephants face it is now estimated that elephants could become extinct within 3 generations. Potentially sooner with the current ivory crisis.
Spotting elephants in Asia is a lot more difficult than in Africa; population numbers are a lot fewer but Asian elephants tend to live in dense jungles rather than open savannahs and because of this elephant families are a lot smaller, generally consisting of 5-10 individuals compared to herds of 20 + in Africa. But like I have said when you do see them, it’s well worth the chase!
In Thailand the best time of year for wildlife watching is generally during the rainy season as this is when the forests are flourishing (rains typically last for a few hours at a time). The locations and duration of the rainy season varies from year to year throughout Thailand, it is advisable you check out the weather for where you are visiting before you go.
TIP: You do have to watch out for leeches but these little critters are pretty harmless, they can leave you scared so maybe invest in some leech socks.
In Thailand there are over 100 national parks, not all have elephants but I highlighted a few places where elephants are enjoying the wild side of life.
With approximately 320 elephants and lots of open spaces, Kui Buri boasts it is the best place in Thailand to see wild elephants. Kui Buri National Park covers 962 km² of land and is located in Tenasserim Hills in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province which is South West of Bangkok. A guided tour must be taken, you cannot enter the park and do a ‘self drive’ safari.
Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries
Situated in the West of Thailand Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries is spread out over 3 provinces – Kanchanaburi, Tak and Uthai Thani. Covering 6,220 km² of land it is the largest conservation area in Mainland South East Asia. It is also one of Thailand’s least accessible so is one of the least disturbed forests. This sanctuary is considered the most interesting place to see wildlife. The sanctuary is home to a vast diversity of animals and has the largest population of wild tigers in Thailand!
Khoa Yai was Thailand’s first national park and Thailand’s third largest national park. Khoa Yai National Park covers 2168 km² of land and is situated mainly in Nakhon Ratchasima Province which is 3 hours North East of Bangkok. Wild elephants are often seen in Khoa Yai, this attracts tourists from far and wide. 1-Night safaris are also available.
Kaeng Krachan National Park is the largest National park in Thailand, it is 2419 km². It is covers areas in both Phetchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan Provinces. Most of the Elephants are often seen wandering close to the Ban Krang campsite, another hotspot to see them is at the salt licks situated between Sam Yot check point and Ban Krang. Night time elephant safaris are available. Not easy to get around the park alone so best to arrange a guided trip.
If you don’t see elephants in Thailand you may still encounter gibbons (their call is unforgettable!), slow Loris’s, barking deer (listen out for the deep bark in the dark of the night), civets, wild boar, even tigers or leopards and the birdlife is incredible (my favourite is the great hornbill!)!
If visiting a national park please be considerate of the wildlife, it is after all their home. Please drive slowly, in some parks it is common to see injured animals from driving accidents. Please use red torches where possible at night time, white lights can temporally blind nocturnal animals making them vulnerable to predation.
Speaking and acting quietly and calmly will increase your chances of some incredible sightings.
Yes you can go and ride an elephant, yes you can go and watch one dance, paint or walk a tight rope but first, please ask your self – Is this natural? How do the mahouts MAKE the elephants perform these tricks? Do I really want to contribute to animal abuse?