An Elephant in Thailand

Swiss man creates elephant sanctuary in Phuket

Urs Fehr went to live in Thailand, where he has set up a sanctuary for abused pachyderms – sometimes boredom can lead to great projects. He has turned his lifelong passion into his profession.

“I was a bit bored in Switzerland,” says the 42-year-old from Lenzburg, canton Aargau, who used to work in security. “So my Thai partner and I decided to move to his home country for a change of scenery. That was in 2015. Urs Fehr was 36 years old.

With no concrete plans the couple started by renting a house in Phuket, “because it is a tourist region that offers more opportunities than the north, where my partner is from,” explains the Swiss man. The province of Phuket and its surroundings are popular and popular destinations for holidaymakers. In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, Thailand received 40 million tourists, 14 million in Phuket.

For the first two years Urs Fehr lived off his savings. In his spare time, and because he had “always admired elephants”, he went to see them two or three times a week. “I wanted to look beyond appearances and quickly realised that the animals were being mistreated.”

In Thailand, elephants were originally used in the logging industry, in agriculture or for military purposes. But when the government banned the exploitation of natural forests in 1989, thousands of owners and their animals were left without a source of income and turned to tourism.

Parks began to spring up where the main attraction was and is elephant rides. Some also offer shows with animals performing acrobatic stunts. However, the conditions in which they are trained and kept are often deplorable. When they are not riding with tourists on their backs, the mammals are tied to short chains that restrict their movements.

For training, mahouts (elephant handlers) use the phajaan technique, which involves breaking the animal’s temper to make it obey. They use a rod topped with a sharp metal tip to make the animal understand basic commands.

Urs Fehr witnessed this abuse and decided to set up a shelter.

His idea, however, soon turned into an obstacle course. “For a foreigner to open a shrine is ‘something that doesn’t go’ and it’s also competition,” he added. He began to receive threats and some neighbours put up large banners in front of his house asking him to leave.

Fortunately for him, Urs Fehr was able to count on the support of his landlord, a former Thai army pilot, who backed him up and helped him make the necessary arrangements with the authorities.

The Swiss man then started looking for a suitable site. He soon found a 40,000 m2 plot of land for rent on the edge of the jungle.

The only thing missing were the elephants. But again, the fact that he was a “farang” (a term used in Thailand for white Westerners) complicated the process.

“So at first I struggled to find owners who were willing to sell me their animals”. But that didn’t discourage Urs Fehr and, with the help of his partner, he scoured the country in search of abused elephants he could buy back.

“I opened the sanctuary with five pachyderms. I spent all my savings on them. Gradually the park made a profit, which I immediately invested in rescuing new animals.”

An elephant costs an average of two million Thai Baht, about 57,000 Swiss Francs. Today the Green Elephant Sanctuary Park has fifteen residents and employs 63 people.

-Thailand News (TN)


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