It’s been quite some time since I’ve visited a sanctuary, but it’s been great to make a return this January whilst travelling Thailand. Sanctuaries were one of the main inspirations for the Kinship work. It’s where I’ve spent most time with other animals in adult life and where I learnt most about freedom, agency, self-determination and simple blazing joy.
I remember the first time I got close to an elephant in India about 13 years ago (https://transspeciesjourneys.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/59/). There is wonder in meeting an elephant, excitement and awe too. And meeting these elephants was no different. Hard to communicate but I hope the images below will help.
For centuries, elephants in Thailand have been domesticated for work. Since the end of logging concessions in 1989, many domesticated elephants and their mahouts have gone through extremely difficult times. There was a huge increase in the use of elephants in the tourist and entertainment industries. Thankfully now there is a slow but steady movement in Thailand to transition elephants out of logging, tourist and entertainment industries and into lives that are more suited to them. There is an often challenging fine line between the elephants’ welfare and finding ways to support them sustainably. The two sanctuaries I visited are meeting those challenges head on.
The first sanctuary I visited was the Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (www.blesele.org) in Sukhothai province. Boon Lott is a sanctuary of about 25 elephants of various ages and backgrounds living on a 750-acre forest plot. The sanctuary’s founder Katherine Connor started the sanctuary in memory of a baby elephant called Boon Lott she nursed and cared for. There is a very nice passage on the sanctuary website that summarises their work:
“This unique sanctuary is just that to the elephants— a haven that allows them to simply be. There are no rides, shows, or painting projects — just elephants who have finally been allowed to live with dignity and respect.”
A few days later I visited a small village with elephants transitioning out of either the logging or elephant ride industry, a project run by The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (www.elephantnaturepark.org). The village was home to one large older bull, two infant elephants and their mahouts.
There was an important difference between these sanctuaries. Perhaps it’s quite a big difference, although it took me the experience of it to get the flavour of it. Who are these sanctuaries for? At Boon Lott, it’s for the elephants. They are the priority. I can’t say that’s not the same for the programs run by The Elephant Nature Park but the activities and schedule are for humans…
Having noted that difference, at the Elephant Nature Park, at the end of the day, I overheard one woman emotively express how this experience had made her want to spend more time with animals. She was touched and moved by a remembering of that feeling that she said she’d always had. It was touching to hear that – significant, and so I recognise the importance of all these projects as part of a journey towards a different relationship to elephants. Transitions are important and need to include rather than exclude. Things take time to get better, and if the change is full, it needs generosity, patience, and for nobody to be left behind.
Sanctuaries are for the purpose of providing a home, safety and recovery, but there is something else that comes from the human side – the desire and longing for connection, communing and kinship across a subtle but acutely felt feeling of separation. It’s beautiful and melancholic at the same time. I don’t know if sanctuaries are the answer, or just part of it, but could we just have more sanctuaries in the world? More, larger, more expansive, more inclusive? And then what if those sanctuaries eventually joined up… what kind of world would that be?
If you’re ever in Thailand and want to meet elephants, search out amazing projects like Boon Lott and support them. They are portals to such rich encounters.
Thank you to the amazing people working in sanctuaries pioneering new ways for us all to coexist.