Wittaya Taweeros, the owner of Pang Chang Kamala Elephant Camp, confirmed the news, adding that he had experienced a significant increase in the number of tourists registering to visit the park after the Lunar New Year this weekend.
Wittaya added that the elephants had been brought in to meet demand while also being used to welcome visitors to the park.
Available activities for visitors to undertake with the elephants at the Pang Chang camp include bareback riding, jungle trekking, feeding sessions and showering with the mammals. Additionally, there is the option to partake in elephant shows, conduct model and wedding photography sessions and engage the mammals in ceremonies and events.
Wittaya also confirmed that the park have introduced a series of new programmes, including one called ‘Elephant Care’ which allows participants to learn “how to be ‘An Elephant Keeper’”.
The six new additions to the camp brings the total number of elephants there to 25 overall, Wittaya said, meaning the capacity for tourists can increase from 200 to 300 a day.
Wittaya said he hopes that number can increase furthermore in time as more tourists arrive on the island, predominantly from China which recently reopened its borders and has confirmed tour groups will be resuming as of Feb 6. Wittaya added that his company is using the same travel agent service to facilitate bookings from the China market as was used prior to the COVID-19 pandemic bringing an abrupt halt to tourism in early 2020.
The welfare of elephants in captivity in Phuket came acutely under the microscope during the pandemic as reports surfaced of them struggling to survive due to the drop off in tourist numbers, with many camps across the island relying on donations. Many owners faced the challenge of no income and had run out of savings to buy food for their elephants, resulting in international registered charity organisers stepping in to help.
Furthermore, there has always been a strong backlash from critics who argue that the conditions in elephant camps are unacceptable and the way many of the elephants are treated is inhumane (although, it must be noted, no such complaints have officially been made against Pang Chang Camp in Kamala). In March 2020 the Phuket office of the Department of Livestock Development (DLD) issued a formal warning to an elephant camp in Rawai following photo evidence surfacing over the elephant being overly restrained by chains while in its infancy.
This followed a story in May 2019 of a three-year-old baby Jumbo at Phuket Zoo who died from a digestive tract infection despite an international campaign calling for him to be taken into care for better protection.
Many had hoped that the disruption brought about by COVID-19 would offer chance for pause, reflection and a possible reassement on how these majestic creatures are utilised and treated when in captivity in the hope that any exploitation would be reduced, if not eliminated altogether.
However, this now appears unlikely, with Chinese tourists returning en masse and up to 1.5 million expected in Phuket alone this year, suggesting we are going right back to where we were three years ago and have seemingly leant or changed very little.