The importance of socialising elephants in captivity.
Wild elephants live in large social groups with the eldest elephant being the matriarch of the herd. The matriarch leads and teaches the younger elephants the paths to food and water, how to interact, defend themselves, and generally how to survive.
In captivity they have been robbed of this luxury with most being taken away from the mother, sometimes as young as one year old and then “trained” to work in the tourism industry, circus, zoo or logging industry.
Elephants are then in the unnatural position of being surrounded by other elephants but kept separately and live a solitary life, and are not allowed to interact, communicate properly or behave like a normal elephant. There are also unable to roam freely, throw mud, bathe together or even simply have a friend.
When an elephant is rescued to a sanctuary, you are never quite sure of the background of that elephant and just what horrors, brutality and cruelty they might have endured and just how their mental state will be.
We often see elephants that just have no idea how to be an elephant or even how to be friends with another elephant. In fact, quite often the first weeks and months they are often still waiting for commands as they have been so strictly conditioned. They may stand by a body of water unsure if they are allowed to enter, look at a tree not knowing if they can scratch against it, or wonder if they can graze on natural vegetation without getting punished.
Some elephants will try to join other elephants, only to be pushed away, or some may choose a solitary peaceful life to recover in their own head. Quite often like PTSD sufferers, they will have scars that are triggered regularly and may last forever.
In 2019, we took what was originally an elephant riding camp that was closing due to no business and created Tree Tops Elephant Reserve in Phuket, Thailand. There were seven beautiful elephants who were giving rides, and for the youngest, performing in a show, and we changed their lives. We transitioned the riding facility to a peaceful sanctuary, giving our elephants the freedom they deserved. It did however take a long time for some of our elephants to start to make friends (apart from Nam Gaew and Fah Sai, which was immediate), even though the elephants had been giving rides and at the same camp for years.
Since lockdown we have had the opportunity (outside of raising funds to keep ourselves afloat) to try different socialization approaches, as well as recently rescuing 3 more elephants.
We have introduced different foods at different times of the day to see which elephants come together and watched the interaction. We have moved our elephants into different night shelters to be next to other elephants when we can see a suggestion that an interest or friendship may be there.
We have swapped mahouts around if we felt the elephant may respond to a different personality. And we have simply let the elephants roam around the land, swim in the ponds and play in the mud, to see which elephants gravitate to each other.
Fah Sai and Nam Gaew was an immediate mother daughter bond. Although we know for a fact that they are not related, they took to each other very quickly, so much so that they share a night shelter together. Fah Sai is a young elephant that wants to be friends with everyone. Although Lampoon was her initial choice, Lampoon just wasn’t ready in her recovery to be hounded by a young excited elephant. Nam Gaew took over immediately and to this day, they are inseparable.
After a few months on a very rainy day, Lampoon had her moment of realization that she was truly free to be herself and she waded into the back pond and slammed her trunk repeated on the surface of the pond creating enormous waves! (we have a wonderful video of this on insta) and not long after this she became much calmer. Our mahouts were initially hesitant but we encouraged them to allow Lampoon to head over to Fah Sai and Nam Gaew and give them space to decide themselves. After many rumbles and roars, two became three.
Nam Sook is our 70 year old elephant we refer to fondly as Grandma. Shortly after we took over and created Tree Tops were told by no means would she interact with the other elephants and in fact hits out and doesn’t like anyone, and she prefers to be by herself.
At this point she was skeleton thin and we were concerned for her health and life. After focusing on a nutrition plan and gradually putting weight on her, we could see her looking out at the other elephants and wanted to be included, but her mahout said it wasn’t safe for her. Not long afterwards we changed Nam Sook’s mahout and immediately saw a strong, confident elephant that roars, rumbles and leads the other elephants around.
Three then became four with Nam Gaew, Fah Sai, Lampoon with Nam Sook leading the way.
Boon Song choses the solitary life as she prefers to be alone. We are told that only four years ago she was in the logging industry and came into tourism very aggressive, hard to settle and difficult to manage. Again, we have changed her mahout and have started to see a much calmer, much improved and friendlier elephant. However, she still chooses her own space and we respect this.
Nam Phet is the big walker of our elephants and is constantly on the move, she gets on with all the other elephants. She is our gentle giant and has recently taken to bathing in the pond with Fah Sai and one of our new rescues, Asia.
Tong Tip has always been solitary, preferring to stand in one position and eat, then move onto everyone else’s leftovers! We are told that she was chained up and starved for a long period at a previous logging camp so we have been hesitant to push her to a situation that she didn’t want. She has also tried to push Fah Sai in the past and we had to be careful as Tong Tip is much older and a much bigger elephant. However, out of the blue when we rescued Phi Seux (Butterfly), the energy at Tree Tops seemed to change amongst our elephants, and Tong Tip started to squeak, rumble and show signs of wanting to be included.
Lampoon and Tong Tip are of similar age, and Tong Tip decided that Lampoon was her first choice as a friend and this has worked about perfectly. We often see Tong Tip running through Tree Tops to be by Lampoon’s side if she loses sight of her! They are now in neighboring night shelters to be close to each other constantly.
Onto our 3 new elephants.
Butterfly initially wanted to be close to Fah Sai, Nam Gaew and Nam Sook and spent the first week following and learning from them, however this has now changed as she chooses to walk around by herself, sometimes joining the others if she decides this is what she wants to do.
Malee has been with us only a week and has been in the same areas as our others but again is free to choose when she decides to make friends. She is currently munching her way through banana trees and grass and rarely coming up for air.
Within one day, Asia deciding the she loved Fah Sai and joined that group immediately.
Asia is an incredibly large elephant with the most gentle of personalities. It is almost like she has been with us forever as all four elephants (Nam Sook, Nam Gaew, Fah Sai, Asia) fill Tree Tops with rumbles, roars, and trumpets every day.
What we do at Tree Tops is to create a peaceful and friendly environment for our elephants that allows them to settle quickly. Our mahouts are quiet and patient and watch the elephants roam around at will, making sure of safety and keeping a watchful eye on any new behaviors that need attention.
It is very early days in this new dynamic but at Tree Tops we truly believe in putting our elephants first and really working our days around what is best for them.
With the patience of our mahouts whom we work very closely with, we have allowed our elephants the freedom and kindness to make their own choices, forage where they wish, bathe, throw mud and dust, and slowly become a herd, and this results in much happier elephants.
It really is true that elephants heal each other and make each other calmer and happier, even though humans have the uncanny ability to think they know what is best and feel it necessary to keep these emotional, family-oriented animals separated.
Elephants speak each other’s language so we should respect this, listen to them, and give them back their right to socialize and live peacefully.
Russell @ Tree Tops Elephant Reserve, Phuket, Thailand.