Mar 7, 2011

The Royal Elephant Karaal, Ayutthaya

Some of the elephants at the karaal
Back at the end of 2001, Jim and I read about the Royal Elephant Karaal in Ayutthaya and had a chance to visit.  We remembered it as a special place where it was very low key, un-touristy and best of all, you could get up close and personal with these amazing animals.  So on this trip, we wanted to share this with the girls. We rented some bicycles in Ayutthaya and rode the 3km or so out to the karaal.  The elephant karaal was just as we’d remembered it, but even better.

The elephant karaal is a privately owned not-for-profit property but it once was part of the King’s empire.  The owner is a Thai who is the single largest private owner of elephants in the world.  His love of the animals has inspired him to initially create this sanctuary for old retired working elephants, like a retirement village for elephants!  Elephants were once instrumental in the Thai logging industry up until the 1980’s, when a ban on logging gave elephants no way of making an income.  Keeping an elephant is expensive and elephants can live to their 50’s in the wild.  So many were abused and neglected.  But to add to this, the amount of natural jungle in Thailand is diminishing to the point of barely being able to sustain the approximately 3,000 elephants left in the wild.  So the people at the karaal believe that one of the only ways to prolong the species is through domestication and also through breeding programs. 

The karaal has successfully bred 43 baby elephants in nearly 10yrs.  And on this visit, we were thrilled to be able to interact with and observe the two latest additions to the ‘nursery’!  One was just 6 days old and the other was 10 days.  It was indescribable watching the ‘little’ one walk and tries to ‘find its legs’, taking quite unsteady steps and occasionally getting tangled up in its own feet and even stumbling.  Then there was observing him experiment with his trunk, first retrieving the bit of cucumber that we threw on the ground, then trying to get it into his mouth.  It was quite funny to watch and it took him several attempts before he could enjoy the taste of it!  But best of all was being able to witness the two infants breastfeeding on demand from the mothers.  The 2 seemed to be able to interchange their feeding between the two nursing mothers, who just continued to eat leaves while this was going on.  While the mothers were chained, as are all the other elephants, the new babies were allowed to explore freely.

The Nursery
Nursing 6-Day Old
The Two Newest Additions and 1 Mamma
The 6-day old

Also while we were at the karaal, we met a group of people who were participating in their Elephant Stay program.  For a minimum of 3 days and 2 nights they were able to get a hands on experience to ‘live, work and play with elephants’.  We watched on as they took their elephants into the river for the first time and also observed a training session where they learned how to control the animals with basic commands.  The Elephant Stay program is fairly new (November 2010?) and is overseen by a couple of Aussies, one of whom is an ex-senior zoo keeper with Melbourne Zoo.  Money from this program goes directly to the ongoing maintenance of the elephants, particularly for their food, medicines and their mahouts (handlers).  It was unfortunate that there wasn’t more information on-site about this great program and facility—we only learned more after we left and checked out their website on

Elephant Stay Program Participants

Ayutthaya is a 1.5hr train ride north of Bangkok.  It once played a principle role in ancient Thai history and ‘defined the country’s ascendance to regional domination’.  It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Site.  The Royal Elephant Karaal is approximately 3km northeast of the town and entry is free.  Many visitors usually do a day trip to Ayutthaya to see the many ruins of the old city, but we chose to spend a few days here and we’re glad we did.  Spending time at the Royal Elephant Karaal/Elephant Stay has been an incredible experience that we wouldn’t have had at home!


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