Elephant Camps

The Ayutthaya Royal Elephant Kraal is located just outside the city of Ayutthaya in Thailand.  It is privately owned and largely funded through tourism.  The Kraal maintains 90 elephants in all, 30 of which are bulls and 60 females.  The Kraal has successfully bred 25 elephants since February of 2000.  Eight of them have been born since September, 2006.  There is a recorded history of difficulty breeding elephants in captivity, but here in Ayutthaya, the elephants are well taken care of and the staff is very knowledgeable so it surely does not seem to be the case.  This is a very good sign for the elephant population numbers. In addition to 90 elephants, the Kraal also houses an equal number of mahouts and their families.

Much of the funding for the Elephant Kraal comes through a tour location that it maintains at one of the major wats (temples) located in downtown Ayutthaya.  The actual Kraal itself is located farther away from town and although is open to all, does not generally advertise for tourists.  Some do find it and indeed come to visit but the “open door” policy at the camp is mainly to allow locals, Thai people, to be able to come through and visit “their” elephants.  This is designed to promote a sense of community, pride, and ownership of the elephants by all within the local population.

The focus of tourism is the downtown location, which is capable of handling the busloads of visitors that it receives daily.  Ayutthaya is the ancient capital of Thailand, formerly Siam, so is abundant in breathtaking ruins and well worth visiting.  Tourists can take rides atop the elephants around the many beautiful wats in the area during the day.  Both the Kraal and the downtown Village are listed as World Heritage sites.

The newly-restored Kraal still exists at the camp itself.  It is a sturdy enclosure designed to hold a herd of wild elephants.  It was designed in a way for the wild elephants to be herded inside the structure, where the King would then select the best and strongest elephants of the group to be used for labor or as military might.  The last royal round up occurred over one hundred years ago, but the Kraal itself does stand as a reminder of elephants’ importance within Thai culture.

Today, owner Mr. Laithongrien Meepan, and his staff are working to return the descendents of these warrior elephants to their former glory as worshipped and revered animals.  In an attempt to educate the public about their past glory days, the elephants are adorned in their old regal dress for parades, annual reenactments in battles of yore, as well as for films such as Alexander and Around the World in 80 Days.

Over the past few years, I have had the honor of getting to know the owner and his staff, as well as two Australian transplants, Ewa Narkiewicz and Michelle Reedy.  Ewa and Michelle maintain a new and important program at the Kraal called, ElephantStay.  ElephantStay, is a program designed to provide funding and care for retired elephants by providing a way for visitors to live at the camp and care for the elephants, be it for a day, a week, month, or as long as someone wishes to stay.  As part of the program, it is your responsibility to care for, bath, feed, and cleanup after your elephant while at the same time learning the basic rules of mahoutship.  The program provides once in a lifetime up-close and personal contact with an elephant while educating people what all goes into caring for these beautiful animals.  There is a fee, but with it comes lodging in one of seven very well kept and comfortable units on site.  This program is aimed at providing funding, care, and a purpose for elderly retired elephants who might otherwise fall into neglect as they can no longer bring in an income for their mahouts.

In addition to helping the elderly elephants at the camp, Ewa and Michelle, have helped revitalize our painting program here at the Kraal.  The funds that we supply to the camp are aimed at providing additional treatment and care for these retired beauties so that the ElephantStay program can grow and prosper.  The reinvigorated painting program has also benefited greatly from very caring and interested mahouts and by the regular input of Ewa, Michelle, and on occasion, art students who visit from the local University.  The students assist in providing artist direction during the paintings sessions.

The uniqueness of these works, aside from the individual artistic style of each elephant and mahout, is embodied in the paper itself.  The majority of work by these talented elephant artists is being done on elephant dung paper.  The paper is beautifully textured, odorless, and environmentally sound.  With 90 elephants on site, each of which eats on average 300 – 500 lbs. of food daily, one can surmise that a fair amount of cleanup is necessary.  There has been a new movement as of late to reuse this elephant by-product in larger elephant facilities throughout Southeast Asia.  The dung is processed, bleached, screened and dried into a papier-mâché type material.  The beautifully textured result is being used to create a variety of wonderful products such as paper, picture frames, bookmarks, jewelry boxes, even hats.  Yes, “art from both ends of the elephant”.

We sincerely thank Ewa Narkiewicz, Michelle Reedy, Mr. Laithongrien Meepan, the manager, Mr. Kukrit Khwarlami, the elephants Boon Lot, Ging Gaow, Kam Lai Tong, Noppakhao, Yod Yeam, as well the mahouts; Mr. Supat “Ee” Bunchuay, Mr. Kumron “Nigh” Rungreang, Mr. Suram “Raam” Pungsuk, Mr. Pipat “Pat” Salamyam, Savang “Jay” Santiwong.  Fantastic work is being done here at the Kraal and we are all very excited about the limitless possibilities of these larger than life animal artists.  All were integral in the creation of many of the painted fabrics that will be presented at The Trunk Show.

74/1 M.3. Tumbol Suanpik
Phra Nakhon Sri Ayutthaya
13000 Thailand

Contact: Ewa Narkiewicz and Michelle Reedy
Website: www.elephantstay.com
Email: elephantstay@gmail.com

The Kandang Gajah Camp, which is located on the grounds of the Borobudur Temple in Central Java, Indonesia. The temple exists within a beautiful lush valley of jungle and rice paddies.  The Borobudur Temple was discovered under volcanic ash and jungle overgrowth in the 1814.  It’s exact origins and history remain a mystery.  Borobudur is the largest Buddhist Temple in the world. Suspected to have been erected around 800 A.D., it contains countless stone etchings and features 504 Buddha statues and 72 stone stupas arrayed in concentric circles around the temple’s center. Quite a site to see in itself but when considering the surrounding landscape - truly breathtaking.  The temple‘s valley is surrounded on three sides by volcanoes, one of which, Mt. Merapi, most recently erupted in 2005.

Indonesia is home to some of the most kind and sincere people that I have ever met, but the country as a whole has had its share of knocks in recent years.  After the Bali bombing came the tsunami, after the tsunami came the earthquake, then the volcano eruption, then the floods…

Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place to visit.  Really it is, trust me.  Upon our most recent travels to this seemingly prehistoric land, we were able to reconnect with one of our star painters, Sela, as well as with her team of mahouts, her art teachers, Robertus Sutopo, brother Augustino, and our main man and overseer of the Borobudur Elephant Art Project, Sean Flakelar.

Kandang Gajah Camp, where Sela lives, is physically located on the grounds of Borobudur Temple.  The camp has five elephants, most of which are used to give people rides around the temple, especially at sunrise when the views are breathtaking.  It is a very small and simple operation that is government funded but not necessarily funded well.  The elephants however are healthy and in good condition.

Sela first learned to paint when the AEACP first visited the camp in 2003.  She has since refined her technique and with the help of local artist extraordinaire, Robertus Sutopo, has been developing various color combinations and line qualities.  So far, Sela is the only artist at the camp but this may change in the future.

Monies from the sale of Sela’s artwork has most recently helped fund a visit by elephant expert and head veterinarian at the Singapore Zoo & Night Safari, Dr. Richard McCort.  He was brought in to check up on the elephants and the conditions at the camp as he will be doing on an annual basis.  Many camps have onsite veterinarians but we felt that the elephants here would benefit from an outside expert opinion.  After his visit, Dr. McCort gave the camp high marks for the general health of the elephants as well as for the food and care provided to them.  However, he did suggest some basic improvements for the facility as well as suggestions for proper care of the one bull elephant on the grounds.  Of foremost importance in terms of improvements of the facility was the shallowing of the elephant pool, expanding the play area of the elephants, and building a roof over a portion of the center to provide increased shade during the hotter days.  These changes were all implemented over the past year with funding from the AEACP.

As for the bull elephant, he has become quite moody and dangerous to handle.  Because of this, he is not being used in trekking activities and does not receive enough attention and exercise.  After meetings between Mr. Flakelar and representatives of Kandang Gajah Camp, it was decided that the bull would be better off at Way Kambas National Park on the island of Sumatra, which is just to the north of Java.  Here the tusker can live out his life with a minimum of human contact and so will not injure himself or others.  AEACP funding is being used for the transfer of this tusker to ensure that he has a better life.

Despite the recent natural disasters in the area, Central Java is really a lovely place to visit.  Depending upon your budget, there are two main locations to stay at when visiting the temple.  There are modest yet comfortable accommodations to be found on the temple grounds or for a bit more luxurious accommodations, we suggest the Amanjiwo Resort.  Also, if you do plan to visit, please contact Mr. Robertus Sutopo and his brother, Augustino, who were born on the Borobudur grounds and know more about the place than anyone you’ll find.  Plus, if you are lucky you may even get to meet their beautiful family, hear Robertus’s children play classical music, and peruse his own artwork which adorn the walls of his home. Some of Robertus and Augustino’s artwork will in fact be auctioned off at The Trunk Show, with the proceeds in part going to help their children make it to the local University.

We would like to sincerely thank Sean Flakelar and his staff at the Amanjiwo, Robertus Sutopo and his family, Augustino, the owner Rajasa Hotel, Sela’s team of mahouts, and of course Sela herself.  Fantastic work is being done here at the Borobudur Temple and we are all very excited about the limitless possibilities of this larger than life animal artist.  Sela did some amazing work on some exquisite Indonesian silk for The Trunk Show. We can not wait to share the pieces in the form of finished garments with the world.

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