Asian Elephant Projects (AEP) was established in 2018 to improve the living conditions of captive elephants in Thailand by helping small, inde-pendent elephant tourist camps transition to ethical and sustainable programs that are considerate of the elephant’s well-being. The idea is to support a more compassionate approach to elephant tourism by allowing the elephants to do what comes naturally, including foraging in the jungle, swimming in the river, and taking mud baths together. AEP programs endeavour to provide visitors with an adventurous and intimate experience with elephants that is not based on exploitation.
Under the “Saddle Off” model, elephant owners agree to follow a set of guidelines designed to ensure the welfare of the elephants under their care. In turn, Asian Elephant Projects supports these ethical elephant projects by providing them with tour guides, transportation, booking management, and marketing, in addition to veterinary care and elephant food deliveries.
The concept behind Asian Elephant Projects was formed by Saengduean ‘Lek’ Chailert, founder of Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephant Foundation. For over two decades, Lek has been rescuing injured, abused, and senior elephants, while leading the movement towards the ethical treatment of elephants in Asia.
Lek saw an opportunity for riding camps and Karen elephant owners to embrace ethical elephant tourism, thereby improving the lives of their elephants, and at the same time, providing an income for their families. “Through Asian Elephant Projects, we wanted to help small elephant camps transition from offering riding and shows to more ethical programs that focus on the natural behaviour of elephants”, says Lek.
Visitors to one of AEP’s ethical elephant projects join a small group with an experienced tour guide for an unforgettable day with rescued elephants. Guests get to know the elephants a little while feeding them fruit and vegetables and then join them for a walk along jungle paths, where they can observe the elephants foraging on natural vegetation. Other activities include preparing banana health balls for the elephants, watching them take a mud bath, and bathing in the river. Some projects also offer an exhilarating white-water rafting trip down the Mae Taeng River at the end of the day.
AEP also supports two volunteer programs - Journey to Freedom, a Karen project south of Chiang Mai and Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia, near Siem Reap - offering visitors a special one week experience. Volunteers positively impact the lives of elephants and people in the local community by planting and cutting grass for the elephants, preparing medicinal health balls, teaching English at the local school, as well as helping to protect the surrounding forest. One of the highlights of being a volunteer is having plenty of time to observe the elephants in their natural habitat – foraging, interacting, and communicating with each other as a herd.
Asian Elephant Projects offers a range ethical elephant tours - some better suited to adventure seeking travelers who don’t mind getting dirty, while others are ideal for families looking for a relaxed day and easy walks with the elephants in the forest. At all of the projects supported by AEP, there is an emphasis on observing elephants being elephants in nature, where they are respected and able to live a happier life.
All photographs copyright by Asian Elephant Projects