Updates to this post surrounding the controversial topic about riding elephants in Thailand was updated in August 2018, to reflect the ongoing plight of the Asian elephant as it continues to be affected by this abusive tourism practice. Together, by raising awareness of why riding an elephant is wrong, we can help to end this form of entertainment.
There are a multitude of reasons why you shouldn’t be riding elephants in Thailand and visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai quickly enlightens you as to why. It remains one of my biggest and most valuable lessons in travel about wildlife tourism in South East Asia.
You will never RIDE an elephant, anywhere, EVER again.
I’m a responsible traveller and do my best to adhere to best practice and highlight topical issues when it comes to community and conservation in relation to tourism. I aim to practice what I preach; dedicate time to long-term volunteering and projects close to my heart; support local people and community enterprise and be aware of how and where my money is spent.
But I’m also guilty. While I never visit poorly run zoos, cage dive with animals or give money for a picture with a dancing monkey, I have engaged in bad tourism practice when it come to the treatment of elephants in Thailand and Asia generally.
In India I was used to elephants wandering the streets as if they had as much right to roam as a local, a goat or a cow; almost majestic in their presence. Three years ago in Thailand, a country symbolic of everything elephant related, my curiosity got the better of me. I was riding an elephant through a small area of jungle outside of Chiang Mai at what was, and still is, promoted as a conservation park. Last year in Chitwan National Park in Nepal I embarked on an ‘elephant safari’ following a rhino through the dense jungle while four of us sat in a large square wooden hold strapped to the elephant’s back. The next day I sat on an elephant as it bathed and almost instantly it tried to throw me off.
Only then did the sheer unhappiness of these creatures strike me. The realisation that while us humans pale in comparison to the size of an elephant, this kind of contact violates their personal freedom and makes them unhappy. I vowed never to engage in such practices ever again.
As a firm believer in karma, I’ve always felt guilty about what I have done. I tell people not to ride elephants or bathe with them as a means of counter-acting my own actions. I want to educate people about why you shouldn’t ride elephants in Thailand, or anywhere else in the world in fact.
I listen to people respond that they are going to do it anyway because it’s the only means of interaction they have found available to them. But if you take away these cliché tourist experiences it doesn’t mean you CAN’T have contact with these magnificent creatures.
- 1 The Truth About Elephant Riding
- 2 Chose an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
- 3 Responsible Interaction with Elephants in Thailand
- 4 Elephant Feeding Time
- 5 Elephant Bathing Time
- 6 Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand
- 7 Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand – Pin It!
The Truth About Elephant Riding
Elephant tourism in Thailand exists because there is still a high demand from travellers looking for places to ride and bathe with elephants for entertainment. This exploitation of elephants began following the changes in Thailand’s logging industry where elephants were the main source of labour.
In 1989 logging was banned in Thailand, putting working elephants out of a job. Many were sold to neighbouring countries such as Burma and those elephants left were seen as pests. The population of elephants in Thailand quickly declined but those that remained were left with one legal option – working in tourism. Without it, many elephants were (and still are) abandoned or left to die.
Except to work in tourism, elephants are subjected to a horrifying and abusive ‘training’ process called “the crush”. Living in cruel living conditions, shackled and beaten, the elephants suffer extreme psychological and psychical abuse as part of a method to get them to submit to humans and basic commands.
While tourism has given elephants a new lifeline, there are no strict penalties for abuse and no extensive measures in place to avoid mistreatment.
Only half of the Thai elephant population is considered endangered – and that’s the wild ones. The rest, in accordance to Thai traditions, are seen as livestock or ‘domesticated’ and are therefore not protected.
Elephants are highly intelligent and social animals and this means of taming them produces nothing more than one of the cruelest shows on earth where you become more than just a spectator, but a participant.
Chose an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai I researched, collected promotional leaflets and looked at treks, tours and day trips from local providers. All offered itineraries that included riding elephants – exactly the kind of ill practice I was trying to avoid.
Except at Elephant Nature Park. This sanctuary is a home for the elephants, not a place where they are forced to work. Established by award-winning conservationist, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert over 16 years ago, it’s a project which not only rescues injured and mistreated elephants but which educates tourists about responsible practice.
Even a neighbouring elephant camp has decided to try out the Elephant Nature Park’s concept of care and retire their female elephants from tourism treks.
You can visit Elephant Nature Park for one day (2,500 ฿), as I did, or do an overnight stay (5,800 ฿), multi-night and volunteer weeks (12,000 ฿). All visits include the transport to the project site from the ENP city office, bus station or the hotel you are staying at. You can find an overview of the visit and volunteering packages here.
The elephants at Elephant Nature Park come largely from abusive pasts including being overworked in trekking camps, forced breeding and street begging to name a few, which have left them with permanent injuries from the horrific torture they had to endure at the hands of their owners who use a practice known as ‘phajaan’ or the ‘crush’. Tied up in a small cell-like structure for three days and nights, the elephant is beaten and subjected to sleep deprivation and hunger to break their spirit and conform to demands. Except for the elephants born at the park, all bear the scars of this tragic past.
Responsible Interaction with Elephants in Thailand
At the park you spend the entire day interacting, observing and assisting with the feeding of the animals. As soon as you arrive and are given a quick orientation tour you are straight out in the vast green 250 acres of landscape these elephants get to call home. With dense park land, a river and a mud bath to choose from, the elephants are allowed to roam freely and do as they please.
With a guide with you at all times, you will be taken to the best viewing spots, whether that is via the walking platforms or out in the open where you can interact with the elephants freely, alongside each of their caretakers. I’ve never seen elephants so cheeky, happy and eager to give hugs and sloppy, trunk-slurping, kisses to their caretakers and visitors.
What you immediately notice here is that there is no hitting, shouting, or the use of tools from which inflict pain to force action; the park does not have forced breeding or the use of chains (something I have seen all too often at other parks); there are also no shows, no rides, and no gimmicks like elephant painting. Instead, all that radiates from the elephants and everyone that works here is love, trust and positive reinforcement.
Elephant Feeding Time
Everyone is encouraged to get involved with feeding time. As the elephants arrive you are overwhelmed by the throng of trucks swooping up and sniffing all around for their eagerly awaited treats. Placing a bug chunk of fruit or a small bunch of bananas at the end of the elephant’s trunk, it’s in their mouth and swallowed quicker than you can reach into the basket for the next piece. The cheeky ones even find a way to out-do you, reaching their trucks into the empty food basket just to hoover up every last bit.
Getting so close to the elephants takes a bit of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, it’s an incredibly humbling experience to have such close interaction with them for such a long period of time.
Elephant Bathing Time
Do you really think an elephant loves shooting water at you through its trunk while you jump around on its back while the mahout continues to hit it throughout the ‘performance’? Hell no! You certainly won’t be seeing that here – not even the caretakers climb on the animals!
As you walk down to the river, you are given a plastic bucket for what is one of the most fun parts of the day – bath time! Everyone, including the caretaker, swoops up bucket after bucket of water and throws it over the elephant as it leisurely enjoys being cooled down in the baking northern Thailand heat. You know you’ve done a good job when the elephant trunk-hugs its caretaker in delight.
Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand
Elephant Nature Park promotes a core education and awareness programme that is helping to overcome about a huge problem that exists with tourists riding elephants in Thailand.
After a hearty lunch and a wander around the site you get to learn more about elephant conservation and the problems that exist in Thailand and much of Asia, with a video of “the crush” process that is both graphic and heartbreaking.
The videos explain how the industry exists now following the time elephants were used for logging. You will never think to ride an elephant, bathe with an elephant, take an elephant safari ride, or support any project that sees elephants painting or performing… anywhere in the world, ever again.
Lek is hoping to change all that with her project, where tourism can move away from exploitation and towards bringing elephants back to their natural environment through rehabilitation and education.
After all, what would Thailand be without its elephants?
For more information about Elephant Nature Park, visit this website.
Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand – Pin It!
The Elephant Nature Park invited me on a one-day visit, to experience the incredible work that is being done here and help raise awareness of the plight of the endangered Asian elephant. They did not asked me to write a favorable review and all opinions in this article remain my own based on what I saw, felt and learned.