Written Dec 2015
When you first arrive in Thailand, one of the things that will strike you is the amount of advertisements for elephant trekking, it is everywhere! You will see hundreds of Elephant camps with flyers promoting elephant riding, shows, mahout training, mud and river bathing and feeding.
There are two options with elephant riding, most camps offering it with the saddle on the back as this enables them to accommodate more tourists and therefore bring in more money. Although this may offer a more comfortable experience for the tourist, if the saddle (or howdah as it is known by the locals) is placed incorrectly, not enough padding is given or if the elephants work too many hours, it can cause many back problems for the elephants,crippling them for life!
Bareback riding is a much better alternative, however this type of interaction is just as intrusive to the elephant. Elephants only allow humans on their back because of fear and essentially turn into machines as soon as they see a bullhook. Having spoken to many mahouts working in camps and asking them why they need to use the hook, they simply reply that the elephant will not allow the tourists on their back without it.
In the last two years, there has been an increasing number of small self-claimed ‘sanctuaries’ popping up, offering visitors the chance to have a mud bath with the elephants, followed by washing in the river. Although this is a less intrusive program for the elephants, in many of these sites the elephants do not get to spend enough time (if any) in the forest, are quite often chained on site with no enrichment and do not have much freedom to roam.
So what is the best option? There is nothing better for captive elephants than visiting them in their natural environment where they are free to roam and socialise as much as possible; and there are a few places in Thailand that offer this such as Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, GVI Thailand Elephant Reintroduction Programme, BEES and BLES.
Due to high amounts of deforestation in Thailand, there is not enough forest to return all captive elephants to the wild. Because of this, there is no perfect option for elephants in captivity and the best that we can hope for is for all sanctuaries, camps and foundations to give their elephants the highest standards of care by giving them as much freedom to socialise and forage as possible, make them work minimal hours, spend a large portion of their day/night in the forest and have medical care readily available.
Elephant tourism has been Thailand’s main money maker for many years but its popularity is in decline due to many tourists avoiding elephant venues for fear of choosing one that involves cruelty. This has had a huge effect on many families whose income depends on their elephants. By doing your research and choosing an ethical elephant venue you are not only helping to feed a family, but you are also educating the elephant camps that they don’t need to over-work or stress out their elephants in order to earn an living.
As someone who has been living and working in Thailand for 2 and a half years and who has also worked with and visited many elephant foundations, sanctuaries and camps; I wanted to share my experiences to enlighten current and future tourists on the different options available within elephant tourism in Thailand and the effect of these types of interactions have on the elephants.