The elephant tourism industry is one of Thailand’s biggest attractions pulling in 40% of tourists annually. This works out to 13 million people. After all, what could be cooler than being up and personal with the planet’s biggest land creature? It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and not something that everybody does. However, when it comes to seeing elephants in Thailand, there are definitely ways that are more ethical than others.
The unethical Way
Elephant riding is absolutely the wrong way to see elephants. Social media is full of Western and Eastern tourists riding on top of these mighty creatures. Elephant riding is marketed as one of the must-do activities in Thailand, but it is cruel, unethical and moronic.
For you to be able to ride an elephant, it needs to be broken in. And by broken in, I mean tortured and abused. Calves are ripped from their mothers and kept prisoner in dreadful conditions. Once they’ve grown up, they are continuously bullied into submission through bullhooks, chains and spears. They are made to saddle great metal chairs to support tourists.
To control them, they’re pulled along with bullhooks that are embedded in their ears, their mouths or even their anuses. These bullhooks can double up as cattleprods too. I don’t know about you but having an electrified hook up my backside sounds horrific. Other elephants have chains around their feet. I saw all of this in Thailand and my immediate thought was that these elephants are slaves. They also had pink, blotchy, drying skin. A telltale sign they were being abused.
It is no secret that elephants are some of the strongest, most powerful animals on earth, so people underestimate just how painful elephant riding is for them. And this is the biggest reason why elephants can die while working. On top of the mental trauma, they’re worked to exhaustion, forced to carry tourists in the sweltering Thai heat. Although their skin is thick, it is very sensitive and bleeds easily.
While education about the mistreatment of elephants is increasing, this abuse continues because there is always a demand. Where there is demand, where people are prepared to pay a lot of money, there will always be supply. The elephant sanctuary I attended charged 5000 Thai baht. While this works out to £120, which isn’t that much, 5000 baht is a lot of money for the locals running these camps.
The ethical Way
As the dark secrets behind elephant tourism have become exposed, there have been a greater rise in ethical elephant sanctuaries. And these sanctuaries are the best ways to see elephants. The one I attended had a great reputation for their ethical practices and for the most part, this reputation was well-earned.
There was none of the horrific bullhooks, chains or stupid metal chairs. Instead we we fed to the elephants with big bags of bananas. This was so much fun. We discovered just how intelligent the elephants are. It didn’t take them long to figure out where the bananas were coming from and to start sneaking their great trunks into our bags.
We also saw an adorable little calf and were able to feed it as well. After this, we gave the elephants mud baths. In the local river, we covered them with mud and then washed them off. These are the ethical ways to engage with elephants. And if you’re looking for ethical sanctuaries that work with rescued elephants, click this link or this link.
In the interests of being completely transparent, I was a little disappointed to discover that my elephant sanctuary did offer elephant riding. It was only bareback – none of the horrors above, but I still adamantly refused. I didn’t want to ride an elephant in any capacity. And that’s something to remember. If you discover your elephant sanctuary does offer riding, then don’t feel pressured to accept.
Another thing to remember is to not purchase ivory. The ivory trade is illegal in Thailand. However, it still exists as the demand still exists, so don’t buy ivory in any form. To do so risks a hefty fine or even imprisonment.
One final thing to remember is that even in ethical elephant sanctuaries, the elephants will have had to have been broken in some capacity. However, there is a vast difference in breaking in an animal with care and compassion or with torture and abuse. It is up to you to do your research and be discerning about what elephant sanctuary you attend. Remember there is a right and a wrong way to see elephants. Choose the ethical way.
Originally published on Hungry Little Travellers.