The views from the observation deck, fondly called the ‘Tree House’, is breathtaking. One can easily imagine the spectacular vistas in a few months’ time, when the monsoon rains gush over the rocks of Mae Wang River which runs through this bucolic little valley, just over an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai. The terraced paddy fields will soon be filled with fresh green rows of rice swaying in the breeze, the surrounding jungle will thicken with foliage, the distant huts of the local Karen people dotting the landscape gleaming in a most picturesque manner, and the elephants will continue to feed, frolick and roam free.
ChangChill is offering a new kind of elephant tourism, one that we expect will be in high demand and one we hope will soon become a model many others will follow.
Working closely with the international World Animal Protection organisation, ChangChill is the first elephant friendly and high welfare venue following World Animal Protection Elephant Friendly’s criteria in northern Thailand. To live up to this claim, its owner and management have spent the past year and a half learning about best practices for captive elephants, talking to international animal welfare experts to find solutions to replace human interaction and to better the quality of life of the six elephants under their charge.
“My father has a traditional elephant camp,” said by Supakorn Tanaseth ChangChill’s owner, “and in 2017 we were invited by World Animal Protection, along with around 40 other camps in Thailand, to attend the Elephant Friendly Business Model Conference in Bangkok. We learnt so much and really wanted to try to do something new, something responsible not just for the elephants, but also for the mahouts who live amongst them. We realised that often it is tourist interaction with elephants which can cause harm. The mahouts are worried about the tourists, so they may strictly manage the elephants which can result in stressing our both elephants and mahouts.”
ChangChill’s six female elephants have, for the past year, enjoyed a healthy and happy routine which will not be affected by visiting tourists, one which allows them to interact with one another as well as the surrounding nature, in a natural way. Everything in the camp has elephant friendly design. Elephants live on a shady hilltop, where they spend their nights next to their mahouts, whose purpose-built houses are both comfortable, and within easy reach of their charges. Like all elephant camps, elephants are chained at night for everyone’s protection. However, ChangChill is in the process of experimenting with their pair of mother and daughter elephants, so nstead of being chained to a tree, they are chained to long sling cable which allows these two to roam further as well as interact with one another, in hopes that if applied to all resident elephants, they will form a natural herd. Each morning, food is delivered across the 21 rai of forest mountain land and the elephants, along with their mahouts, roam free, feeding…and chilling. Visitors will be able to walk around with well-trained guides who will point out activities and behaviour of interest as well as help spot any hidden elephants lurking in the foliage. There are many natural mud baths dotted around, as well as a man-made one which has been engineered to allow visitors to turn on and off sprinklers or throw buckets of water at the elephants from an observation platform. There is also a fascinating newly engineered feeding tube, which visitors can stuff with elephant treats such as sugarcane, corn and banana, sitting back and watching them burrow through the holes and tubes with their agile trunks to find a snack.
The state-of-the-art Tree House is ChangChill’s perfect vantage point as it overlooks a few mud holes as well as the small river – and the breathtaking vistas beyond. It is here that the elephants while away their afternoons until bedtime.
“We aim to be eco-friendly, so we use hydro power from the local river and take care of our surrounding nature,” said Supakorn Tanaseth “We are also mindful of the surrounding community, and have a small cultural centre and souvenir shop where local Karen people, many of whom we employ, can come and earn a living.”
ChangChill’s elephants roam free ten hours per day, resting up in their sleeping quarters after hours. This is, according to animal welfare experts, a relaxed, regulated and healthy routine designed to keep them happy and healthy. The by-product of a happy and healthy elephant, is a safe mahout.
Apart from observing elephants at their natural best (and Supakorn Tanaseth says that even in the past year since they have followed these stringent criteria set by World Animal Protection, he has seen how much more relaxed and happy both elephants and mahouts have become), there is also a Mahout Chat session, where tourists can spend some time learning about elephants from the men who live with and care for them. Visitors can delve deeper into both fascinating facts and the challenges Thai elephants face today with a slew of information boards set up to educate and elucidate. They can also see the on-premises herb garden and learn about what indigenous plants are used for medicinal purposes and even make their own ball of natural super drug, a healthy treat to feed the elephants.
“If they want to bathe, they bathe,” said a mahout standing under a tree watching his elephant roll around in a mud bath. “We don’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do. We carry traditional hooks for our protection, but we don’t use them unless it’s an emergency. This is the best care for my elephant.”
ChangChill opens its doors on the 1st of April and hopes to continue to grow, bring more elephants and mahouts under its care, and hopefully set standards and become a model for other camps to one day follow.
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