Experiencing Thailand’s Wild Side with the Eco-friendly WFFT
For better or worse, riding an elephant is a popular tourist activity in Thailand. Unfortunately, more often than not, the animals are subject to abuse and torture in order to train them to accept riders or perform in shows—and even the act of riding may cause these social creatures physical and emotional distress. Elephants don’t have very strong backs; provided they have enough food, water, and shade, they shouldn’t be carrying more than 150 kilograms for more than four hours. But with visitors flooding trekking camps and glorified zoos each day, the noble beasts often work eight-hour shifts in order to support their mahouts, usually toting two riders at a time in heavy metal seats strapped to their backs.
Fortunately, slowly but surely, a growing number of refuge centres throughout the country are reversing the ills. Among those is Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), an animal sanctuary founded 15 years ago by Dutch-born Edwin Wiek. Having its own wildlife hospital, the WFFT is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals previously mistreated, neglected, or exploited as pets or used to make profit within the tourist industry.
Located around 40 kilometres from Hua Hin, the centre is built on 29 hectares of temple land in Petchaburi, giving shelter to 400 animals that range from the aforementioned elephants, macaques, gibbons, civets, and slow loris to big cats (e.g. leopards, tigers), bears, crocodiles, and exotic birds. The sanctuary provides enclosures as close to nature as possible and, where possible, tries to reintroduce the animals to the wild. “It varies from species to species. Sometimes [they stay with us for] a few weeks, sometimes months, and sometimes animals need lifelong care,” says Tom Taylor, Assistant Director of the WFFT.
The foundation also aims to educate the uninformed as a means to curb cruelty to animals and campaign against the illegal trade of wildlife for the pet or entertainment industry. In order to prevent hunting, as well, the WFFT teaches locals and tourists about animals and their natural habitats, providing much-needed information on ways to prevent harm to them.
Currently, the WFFT runs several projects in Thailand, including medical care, rehabilitation, research (marine mammals, included), and the release of animals back into the wild.
One of the biggest challenges the WFFT faces is sourcing enough funds, however. “Most of our donations arrive from volunteers and international supporters,” Taylor explains. “Currently, we have approximately 50 people working full-time and 50 volunteers.” Yet the foundation grows, making elephantine strides in the right direction toward sustainability.
Anyone who wants to get involved can volunteer a minimum of one week, working on any of the many projects. Those short on time, but interested in Thailand’s wildlife, are welcome to join a one-day experience to learn about wildlife conservation, animal welfare, and the rescued creatures living at the Rescue Centre and Elephant Refuge. Also, visitors get the chance to see some of the animals in their natural habitat and get close with elephants in a cruelty-free, non-exploitative way by taking them for a walk and later giving the gentle giants a bath and a good scrub. Other ways of supporting the WFFT are donating, adopting an animal, or adding to a public wish list. For more information, visit wfft.org.