When visiting Thailand, one of the activities many visitors most wish to tick off their bucket list is a chance to interact with elephants. Elephants have a special significance in Thai culture and have long worked alongside its people, but for years now, they have been banned from the logging trade in which they traditionally worked. Seeking an alternative means of income, many of their mahouts have turned to the tourism business.
While this has allowed Thailand to conserve the species by maintaining a large captive population, not all elephant parks treat these gentle giants with the same level of care, and many employ exploitative and cruel practices. If interacting with elephants is on your list of must-do activities, educate yourself and be sure to choose an ethical elephant experience in Thailand with these five things to look out for.
While this practice is unfortunately still commonplace, it is extremely harmful to the health of elephants. Elephants may be capable beasts of burden, but they were never meant to carry full-grown adults and a heavy metal saddle for hours day in and day out. The most careless of elephant camps may even leave the saddles on overnight, leading to severe back problems for the poor elephants. While some camps and sanctuaries will allow you to ride the elephant bareback, the conditions under which this is done varies; it’s best to avoid riding them at all. Pet them, bathe them, let them muss your hair with their trunks…there are many ways to enjoy their company without mounting them!
In order to tame such a large creature and make it submit to the demands of a small human, violent methods are used to “break” them, often from a very young age, in order to make the elephants submit. Any elephants which engage in unnatural behaviours, even those as innocent as waving a paintbrush, have likely been through this cruel process known as “the crush.” Any experience where elephants can be seen performing for audiences by crossing tightropes or playing soccer should, therefore, be avoided.
One of the ways in which an elephant is “broken” or reprimanded is through the use of a bullhook. This large metal hook is used to stab the elephant, often in tender areas such as behind its ears, to instill a fear of humans and make it more compliant. Any elephant experiences which make use of bullhooks are likely coercing the elephants to behave unnaturally and should, therefore, be avoided. If you are interacting with an elephant and notice broken skin or open sores, this may indicate that a bullhook has been used. Superficial scratches on the elephant’s skin are common, however, and the product of passing through dense forest cover or liberal use of a tree as a back-scratcher (a charming and highly relatable sight).
In the wild, elephants spend most of their day foraging because their primary diet is of leaves and grasses, which are very low in nutrients. In captivity, bananas, sugarcane and other fruits often supplement their diets, but these basically amount to elephant junk food. An ethical elephant camp will give the elephants access to the environment for most of the day so that they may adequately forage. Elephants typically don’t sleep much, and nighttime is valuable time for eating and socialising. Those that responsibly care for their elephants will not chain them up in a concrete pen, but rather loosely chain them so that have access to grazing at night but are still prevented from wandering into the neighbour’s garden to gorge themselves on stolen bananas.
Elephants are highly intelligent creatures with complex emotions and strong social bonds. Socialising and maintaining friendships is an important part of an elephant’s welfare, so an elephant which is chained up or isolated from its fellows will not be emotionally healthy. Experiences which keep an elephant alone or separated from its fellows should, therefore, be avoided. Young calves should also not be separated from their mothers, and any baby elephants found on their own are likely poached from the wild. Be sure to patronise elephant experiences which let their elephants spend time socialising, playing and just being elephants.
Elephants are majestic creatures, and for all their size, can be incredibly sweet and tender beasts. No one can be faulted for wanting to see and interact with these gentle giants, but it is important to do your research and participate ethically. Tourism is what allows Thailand to maintain a large population of elephants since there are inadequate wild spaces for them to live, so it is an important part of this species’ conservation.
You can rest assured that any elephant experiences organised through Diethelm Travel will be ethically responsible and support elephant conservation. Our 3-Day Elephants in the Wild private tour outside of Chiang Mai even allows you to visit and ‘glamp’ in the elephants’ natural habitat, marvelling at the magnificent creatures while allowing them to still thrive in natural surroundings. For reservation or more information. Please contract us here.