A truly ethical elephant sanctuary in Phuket
Note: Tree Tops Elephant Reserve is temporarily closed
Tree Tops Elephant Reserve Phuket is a truly ethical elephant sanctuary. It might come to you as a surprise, but not all ‘sanctuaries’ are actually ethical. The growing number of travellers who love and respect elephants are wondering what is going on with all the sanctuaries in Phuket? Yes, the large majority agrees that trekking must stop, but… not all sanctuaries are ethical? It is very confusing! What should you do?
In just a couple of years, there has been a massive social movement to end the long-established elephant trekking. It was an activity most travellers would add to their must-do experience in Thailand. And while you still can find a few trekking camps remaining on the island, they thankfully are disappearing, replaced by the very popular, and equally profitable, elephant bathing ‘sanctuaries’.
As you travel around Phuket, you soon realize that people are not well aware of what makes the difference between those two types of sanctuaries. No one is really to blame as information is slow to reach out, and it takes time to educate people. (some animal supporters don’t help much when becoming aggressive behind their anonymous keyboards).
What’s wrong with bathing with elephants?
It is not apparent at first. Most travellers bathing with elephants do mean well. They want to do something kind to the animals, get a chance to see them closely, touch and feed them, and even rub them with mud. Yes, it does look like the right thing to do, being gentle with the gentle giants. So, what makes Tree Tops Elephant Reserve any different? Why should you come here instead of bathing that seems to be what elephants love to do? Well, there is a twist.
There are two key problems with bathing with elephants:
First: The water you are bathing in is highly unhealthy. Come on, think about it for a second: elephants pee and poo in the brown water you are splashing everyone with… but the staff usually scoop the poo very quickly. Elephants skin is thicker than yours, so it’s not a problem for them, you might not be so lucky.
Second: Elephants are not meant to be surrounded by dozens of screaming and gesticulating humans. Having so many people touching the animals can make the elephant uncomfortable or even threatened, and accidents are not unheard of.
Why is Tree Tops different?
Tree Tops Elephant Reserve is an immense land near a lake in the centre south of Phuket island where the approach is different. Yes, you can feed the elephants, but it stops there. Once you fed them bananas and cucumbers, they walk away at their own leisure across the vast land. Pineapple leaves have been dropped here and there for them to eat whenever they feel like it, which is most of the time since they need to eat 300 kilos per day!
Only small groups of visitors are allowed per half day. You can stay with the animals as they walk with their mahout, listen to the guides explain about each elephant, their story and their life. Compared to the bathing sanctuaries we visited, the narration sounds true and not rehearsed. The guide speaks excellent English, and everyone is genuinely passionate about their mission. One thing that is also clear is that while elephants don’t mind having humans nearby, they don’t particularly seek their company. Once done eating, they walk here and there. Some will go to the nearby pond for a bath… but on their own. Watch how they play in the water and tear some bamboos and branches around to nibble some more. They look peaceful and stress-free, finally.
After a few hours of walking around observing and learning, you’ll be invited for a light dinner and refreshments in a bamboo restaurant with a thatched roof built above another pond. Eat some green curry, fried rice and fried vegetables while watching the elephants roaming or bathing at the end of daylight is very relaxing. It’s also a chance to meet the team and ask a few more questions.
Who are the elephants?
There are seven elephants in the camp. The youngest, called Fah Sai, is nine years old and the oldest, called Nam Sook, is 65
- Nam Phet, 45 years old, worked in the logging industry in Trang
- Fah Sai, 9 years old, was taught to perform tricks to entertain tourists
- Nam Gaew, 50 years old, was working as a tree logging elephant
- Boon Song, 44 years old, was also working a tree logging elephant
- Nam Sook, 65 years old, worked as a tree logging elephant
- Lam Poon, 42 years old, worked in the trekking industry
- Tong Tip, 40 years old, worked as a tree logging elephant
Who is behind the reserve?
Tree Tops is the work of an amazing team, working hard and with passion with visitors and also behind the scenes. To lead them, there are 3 persons behind the project:
- Mr Wallop P. Luengdhama, the CEO, has spent 35 years in the tourism industry
- Louise Rogerson lived in Asia for over 20 years and has been working with captive elephants in Thailand and Cambodia for 10 years
- Russell Withers has been working with Asian elephants for 5 years in Thailand and Cambodia
Where does the money go?
Running such a vast land with 7 elephants, mahouts, staff and logistics have huge overheads. Each elephant eats 300 kilos of pineapple leaves per day, which is more than 2 tons every single day! No days off!
So yes, your visit means a lot. Not only do you learn about them and why ethical sanctuaries are the only way those gentle giants should live, but you also do a good deed, allowing them to be free, as they deserve.
Please think about it when the day comes to choose between bathing, and true ethical: Do the right thing.
Tree Tops Elephant Reserve Info
Location: near The Big Buddha
Address: 78/10 Soi, Chalong, Amphoe Mueang Phuket, Phuket 83130
Open: 9:30 am – 5.30 pm, Closed on Sunday
Phone: 095 256 6912
Morning program: 9.30 am – 1.30 pm
Afternoon program: 1.30 pm – 5.30 pm
Price: Adults: 2,900 Baht per person
Children: 1,500 Baht per person (4 – 11 years), Children under 4 years – Free
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FAQs about Tree Tops Reserve
- Q. How many elephants are there at Tree Top Reserve
a. There are 7 elephants: Nam Phet (45 years old), Fah Sai (9 yrs), Nam Gaew (50 yrs), Boon Song (44 yrs), Nam Sook (65 yrs), Lam Poon (42 yrs), Tong Tip (40 yrs)
- Q. Why can’t I bathe with the elephants?
a. Elephants are not meant to be surrounded by dozens of humans and the water you are bathing in is highly unhealthy.
- Q. Can I feed the elephants?
a. Yes, you will have time to feed them bananas and cucumbers before they walk away at their own leisure across the vast land.
- Q. Where does the money go?
a. Running such a vast land with 7 elephants, mahouts, staff and logistic have huge overheads. Each elephant eats 300 kilos of leaves per day.