Elephant Tourism in Thailand
While ever-more popular in Thailand, there is something you should know about elephant tourism. In fact, there is a lot to know about elephant tourism. By now, most people know (or should know) that elephant riding is unethical and irresponsible. But there is a much bigger picture that you should be aware of.
The Dark Side of Thailand Elephant Tourism
Elephants are used in the logging business (illegally now, since the 80’s), trekking business, riding, elephant shows, and street begging. They sustain injuries from pulling logs, weight-bearing activities, and undergo emotional & mental trauma from being forced into shows/circuses and street begging.
Trekking and Riding
Elephants spines are not meant to bear extra weight, which makes riding them uncomfortable and dangerous for the elephants’ physical health. Even riding an elephants neck area, which some companies claim “doesn’t hurt” should be avoided, because it requires forcing the animal to do something unnatural. These companies beat their elephants using a bull hook, that you will see all mahoots (elephant trainers) carrying, to force the animal to allow you to ride them.
Elephants can’t paint by themselves. They don’t dance naturally. They don’t walk on two legs. Do you want to know how they learn to do these things? I’ll give you a hint: It involves pain.
Don’t support this behavior.
If you see an elephant in a night market or other open air market, don’t give money to its owner. These people purposefully starve the elephant to keep it skinny, and then tell people they cannot afford to feed him/her. These people are lying to you, and the only thing your dollars are going to feed is the cycle.
Compassion for Elephants
I had the opportunity to listen to the founder of SaveElephant.Org & Elephant Nature Park give a speech about her lifes’ work with elephants. Known as “the elephant whisperer”, Lek Chailert is a vivacious Thai woman who claims that her elephants are her children. Over a two-hour lecture, I saw photos and videos she has taken over 20 years related to her efforts liberating elephants. Most of these photos she cannot release due to Thailands’ martial law. She is being sued by companies that wish to keep mistreating elephants, and has faced jailtime in the past. Despite having such intense opposition, Ms. Chailert has created a movement. She works with multiple parks across Thailand that all try to provide ethical elephant encounters.
Elephant Nature Park now has over 71 elephants on its premises. It also contains a large herd of water buffalo, a few horses, a large hog, and thousands of dogs and cats that are up for adoption. I even saw a spider the size of my head. (Eek!) While the park is filled to the brim with rescued animals, there is one thing you won’t see here, EVER:
Lek Chailert rehabilitates these elephants, both physically and mentally, and makes sure that they are never chained up again. You will see elephants of different families roaming the grounds freely, doing what they please and enjoying a life of luxury. Elderly elephants are hand-fed rice balls when they lose their teeth. (Did you know they have 6 sets?) They enjoy baskets filled with treats while visitors and volunteers shower them with buckets of river-water. Others roll in the mud or lazily scratch themselves with corn stalks and fan away misquitoes.
One elephant even has a pet dog, who always lays around nearby as she eats or sleeps.
While you can see these happy elephants at the nature park, you will also see reminders of the cruel pasts they all endure: Feet wrapped in plastic as it heals from landmine explosions. A young elephant with severe cataracts from flash-photography. A poorly-healed broken leg, twisted at odd angles. Bald eyelids from previous owners cutting and selling elephant eyelashes. Holes in ears from hooks. Large scars all over elephants’ bodies from human-induced injuries.
All of these things are a reminder of the type of behavior that we are capable of. But there is one thing we can do to stop it: Vote.
As tourists, we vote with our dollars. By starving these industries, we can force change in the community and help to liberate the elephants. If you wish to have an elephant encounter, make it one that matters. Don’t support elephant shows. Don’t ride an elephant. Don’t give money to keepers of elephants that street beg.
Instead, research any organization before you give them money. Make sure that you are supporting something worth voting for!
Check out my blog post on the best elephant parks/sanctuaries in Thailand here.
Have you had an encounter with elephants in S.E. Asia? What was your experience?