The life of a bathing elephant
Lack of enrichment and exercise
Elephants used for bathing spend their days being walked from their resting spot to the water, are washed by a group of tourists and walked back again, to wait for the next tourists. This is not very stimulating or enriching for the elephant. Lack of enrichment can lead to mental deterioration and negative behaviours prevalent in captive animals, such as head bobbing.
In the wild, elephants walk for long periods of time, covering vast areas. It's important for preventing obesity, aiding digestion and maintaining foot and joint health. They do not walk nearly as much when their job is to be bathed.
Lack of natural foraging
If elephants are only fed fruit and elephant grass during your visit and are not allowed time to forage naturally, then it's unlikely they are receiving a varied diet. In the wild, elephants forage for up to 18 hours a day and eat over 150 different species of vegetation. They don't get the opportunity to do this when being walked back and forth to bathe with tourists all day.
Lack of socialisation
Just like humans, socialising plays an important role in an elephant's well-being. Elephants communicate through a variety of touches, smells and calls. In many circumstances, elephants used for bathing aren’t given the opportunity to interact with their own species. Being denied physical kinship can lead to mental deterioration.
So, is riding better than bathing?
If riding is done properly (i.e. the elephant is ridden for short periods on their necks and without a saddle, in a shaded forest or grassland with an experienced mahout, being allowed to browse and forage, returning to base and being allowed to socialise with other elephants), an elephant is likely to be better enriched, fed, exercised and happier overall. It is important to note that many riding venues offer bathing as an activity following a ride.
Every venue will provide different living and activity conditions for their elephants, so one bathing-only venue may be better than a riding venue, but a riding venue could also be better than a bathing only venue. It is also important to note that venues offering 'bathing only' often hire their elephants out to riding venues when they are low on visitors, or offer riding activities to tour operators.
But I really want to wash an elephant!
So, do your research. Keep these points in mind:
- How many people are in the river/lake at any time?
- How loud and distressing does the situation appear to be?
- Does the elephant look sad/stressed?
- Are the elephants allowed to move around?
If bathing involves a few tourists gently splashing an elephant to help it cool down or get clean and doesn't seem intrusive, this is the only kind of bathing you should aim to do.
So if I shouldn't ride or bathe, what can I do?
You can hike with elephants into forests or grassland then sit back, relax and watch them simply be elephants.
We have a list of ethical venues that allow elephants to be elephants as much as possible, so you can feel confident about your choices when observing elephants in Thailand.