In Planning, Trips & Tips, Uncategorized on
May 25, 2016

Choose Ethical Tourism and Care For Our Gentle Giants

top ten reasons to holiday in thailand baby elephant

I want to preface this post with by no means am I an ethical tourism professional. This is based off what I have learned and experienced during my three weeks in Thailand and why travelers should choose ethical tourism, opt to not ride elephants, and engage in elephant nature camps. 

Elephant camps and tourism are a sensitive subject in South East Asia. So when it came time to plan our trip to Thailand and all of our extracurricular activities, I was unsure if I even wanted to participate in elephant camps. There was something about the whole concept that didn’t feel quite right. I knew that my gut was telling me something and a woman should never discredit her intuition. However, I knew there had to be ethical companies out there that were doing the right thing by protecting these sweet and gentle animals.  

So with that glimmer of hope, I dove into research. I was determined to find an elephant camp that aimed to protect elephants and rescue them from dire situations. The best option? A nature camp with a reputable company who uses resources to preserve the elephant population and provide a safe haven for them. 

elephant jungle sanctuary family picture

elephants at elephant jungle sanctuary

elephant sanctuary

top ten reasons to holiday in thailand baby elephant elephant jungle sanctuary

So what is a nature camp?

A nature camp is when travelers and volunteers spend time with elephants that have been rescued from dire situations. They get the chance of interacting with the elephants by feeding, playing, and bathing with them. Not only do you get close interaction, but you learn about their diets, life spans, health, procreation (there was a newborn and a prego elephant), behaviors and quirks. Not to mention, mahouts go into detail about the history and symbolism of the elephants in Thailand, which is also really cool because you feel as if the experience comes full circle knowing so much about these gentle giants. In addition to having this be such a cool experience, nature camps do not tolerate animal cruelty and provide a safe haven for these sweet animals. They give them a safe home. Ultimately, by participating at a reputable elephant nature camp, you are engaging in ethical tourism. You know that your money is going further to provide homes and resources for rescued elephants and many more to come. 

elephant jungle sanctuary play in river

elephant play

Should I ride an elephant? 

To put it bluntly, the answer is no, no matter how reputable the company you are booking with. The most ethical choice is to not ride an elephant at all.

Sadly, the elephant population is dramatically dwindling in not just Thailand, but in all of South East Asia. According to WWF Global, Asian elephants are believed to once have a population of 100,000 elephants spanning the continent of Asia. They were able to freely roam, go about their day, and spend time with their families. Unfortunately, poaching for tusks/meat/skin and captivity for elephant tourism in Thailand (and throughout Asia), has posed a threat of endangerment for elephants. In fact, it’s not just a threat, it’s reality. Elephants are facing extinction. Sadly, the numbers of elephants has significantly dropped by half across continental Asia. And of that number, 3,000-4,000 wild elephants are able to roam freely in Thailand and about the same number are held in captivity for elephant tourism. 

Once elephants are taken into captivity, they are completely broken down through a process called the phajaan, or “the crush”. The process breaks the elephants spirit in order to tame them. You see, wild elephants will not allow humans to ride them. It just isn’t natural. Nor is it comfortable for them. I spoke to a few mahouts in regards to this and anatomically speaking, the elephant spine isn’t built like horses or donkeys. Riding them hurts them point black. So back to the point, during the crush process, elephants are beaten down and stripped of their sprit by being confined to a small area and beaten until they are weak and or pierced by bull hooks as a means of intimidation or “correcting” certain behaviors. When I say correcting in quotes, it’s more or less a fear tactic used by their trainers (or as I call them, their captors). Once the crush period is over, the elephants then begin to train the riding process. 

Additionally, a lot of elephants that are kept for riding purposes or treks are not living or treated in the best of conditions. They are overworked, dehydrated, malnourished, and mistreated. So simply funding companies or treks that allow their elephants in these conditions is going to drive them to obtain more elephants or make their current elephants work even harder. This brings me to the points of why choosing ethical tourism and nature camps is so important.

So why choose ethical tourism?

If tourism continues to demand the need of elephant rides, the vicious cycle continues which poses as a threat to the population of elephants. As travelers, we can educate ourselves and choose to visit elephants through an ethical company that aims to protect and provide a safe haven. I cannot stress this enough, I’d much rather spend a little bit more money to an organization that has their heart in the right place then to a dirty, sideways company just looking to make a quick buck off of poor animals. Not to mention, many of these elephants held captive for elephant tourism are in extremely dire living conditions. They are overworked, malnourished, dehydrated and exhausted. Simply funding these companies will only lead to more elephant capturing and mistreatment of animals. 

So, for the love of animals, spend the day at a nature camp. Spending the day at a nature camp (twice!) was absolutely incredible. It was so memorable to feed them yummy fruits, bathe them in the river, and play with the babies. Gimmicks aside, I learned about the importance and symbolism of the elephant in Thailand, which I deeply appreciated because you feel more connected to the experience. 

Most importantly, I knew in my heart that my money was going to a good place that will better ensure a safe haven and protection for these beautiful animals to flourish. Not to mention, the more these programs and camps are funded, the more financial means they have to purchase elephants from dire situations and can be placed in a safe home. As travelers, we can choose how we spend our money while we are abroad. To be able to contribute to a company that has the end goal of rescuing and saving elephants is a winner in my book. While these companies may be a little bit more money, the investment is far more worth it in the end. 

elephant jungle sanctuary with baby elephant in chiang mai

Take away tips…

  • Elephant tourism in Thailand is controversial, so make sure you do your research before booking your tour. Better yet, wait to book until you’re in Thailand. I learned so much from speaking with other travelers who experienced riding elephants. Speaking to travelers who have been there, done that helps aide in the deciding process. When I was traveling solo, I spoke to numerous travelers who did ride and felt awful after. They mentioned that you can tell the mistreatment and health of the elephant more closely once your riding it.
  • Keep in mind, elephants are not anatomically built to support the weight of humans (or anything over 150 kilos/330 pounds). Unlike horses or donkeys, who can support human weight and can be ridden without discomfort. Just something to keep in mind that riding elephants isn’t as pleasant for you as it may be for them.
  • Wild elephants are not meant to be ridden, so they are broken down by the phajaan, or “the crush”. Ultimately, it is used to remove the spirit of the elephant and follow orders from their trainers. 
  • Point blank, do your research and come to your own conclusions. Do more than just read a review on Trip Advisor by following it up by reading various articles online and visiting the site itself. Have a wealth of knowledge, my friends. 
  • A nature camp does not offer rides. It is an experience where travelers and volunteers spend time nurturing the elephants by feeding, bathing, and interacting with them. And it was hands down such an incredible and heartwarming experience.
  • Please whatever you do, do not ride an elephant with a trekking chair. The adult elephant can really only support 150 kilos/330 pounds on it’s back. So once you consider you, possibly your plus one, and the mahout riding on the the neck behind the ears, you’re posing a very uncomfortable burden on the elephant.
  • We all have different moral codes and fibers so I can’t tell you what is right or wrong. I just hope to shine a light on how elephants are treated since a good amount of travelers do not know themselves. I learnt a good amount before arriving in Thailand and learned a great deal more once I got there. 

choose ethical tourism

Who to book your nature camp with:

Elephant Nature Park – This Chiang Mai company is highly revered and respected. Excellent half-day, full-day, and volunteer (they are in desperate need!) programs. 

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – As well as operated out of Chiang Mai, this was the company that I did my full day experience with. It is a little out of the way (over an hour outside of city center), but the goal is the same as the Elephant Nature Park. The elephants are free to roam (very important) and are very social. The elephants all exhibited healthy signs (swinging of the ears to keep cool, swishing of the tail to keep flies off) and were running up to us to play, interact, and be fed. 

Patara Elephant Farm – Another well respected Chiang Mai company that solely focuses on the wellbeing of elephants. Travelers and volunteers who participate in the Patara experience learn a wealth of knowledge about the elephants. Another bonus: free from any gimmicks or circus acts. 

Additional blog posts and articles

Since this is my opinion, I also gathered some excellent blog posts on the matter in case mine may appear too “one-sided”. I wanted this to be as informative as possible so I hope these articles help you as wel. 

Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants By Expert Vagabond

If You Love Elephants, Don’t Ever Ride Them by The Dodo

If You Love Animals, Here Are 5 You Shouldn’t Ride by The Huff Post

How to Play, Feed, Bathe, and Protect the Elephants in Thailand by Nomadic Matt

Conclusion…

I know this may appear to be an animal interest piece and that’s because it is. I’ve always been a huge animal lover and seeing the treatment of animals around the world only makes me want to come home to hug my dog, Phoebe, that much tighter. Each country imposes various problems and I’ve seen it a lot in my travels: the stray cat epidemic in Morocco, the dwindling Panda population in China, and now the treatment of elephants in Thailand. 

I hope that this article shines a light on animal ethics and the importance of choosing the right way to go about spending time with elephants during your travels. If you would like further information or would like to send me a direct message on the matter, please message me directly. 

As always, thanks again for stopping by!

Xo, 

Chloe

ethical tourism

 

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  • Great post Chloe! I’m working on a post about ethical elephant tourism and the various sanctuaries/parks/orphanages you can visit. Would love to embed one of your Instagram photos in the post and link to this article! Let me know if that sounds good 🙂

    • Hey Flo!

      Sorry took me so long to get back to comment you! I’m so glad you reached out on Insta! haha! I loved your post, all the info and pictures came out beautifully!! Can’t wait to see what you post on this weekend’s #FlyAwayFriday linkup! Xo

  • This is such an important post! It’s become so common for travelers to ride elephants when they visit SE Asia, because they see others doing it in pictures and “oh that looks neat”–but it’s just another form of animal cruelty. A lot of travelers don’t realize how harmful it is though, which is why it’s important to spread the word–as you are here! Thank you. 🙂

    • Hi Courtney!

      Ya I agree, not many know that it hurts them. I spoke with a couple from Australia who had been to Thailand before for a wedding and one of the activities were to go on a trek and ride elephants. They said no one in the group had any idea it hurt them until they got home to Australia. I can definitely see the appeal, just being such an animal person I wanted to give my money to the right people and companies who aim to protect them. Thank you for stopping by and can’t wait to see what you post on #FlyAwayFriday!

  • Real interesting and so important to get this message out. It’s good to know there are ethical ways to visit and see elephants though. So many tourists still have no idea about the harm of elephant riding. Good article!

    • Thank you! I know there are some good articles out there about this, just hope the more knowledge, the better 🙂

  • I think nowadays there is more information about this important issue. I went to Thailand many years ago and I did some research before visiting places where animals reside. To be honest, I couldn’t find articles explaining the bad situation of elephants in certain camps were they can be ridden. I asked my guide about the situation and she said “No elephants are hurt in Thailand. The international media just want to throw dirt at us.” That generalization got me suspect. It is great that bloggers and media outlets such as The Huff Post write about this issue. There are countries were a lot of the current events and realities concerning the citizens are controlled by the government.

    • Ya, I can kinda see that the guide said that sadly. Fortunately the guide at the sanctuary was really honest about the whole situation and how few elephants are left in the wild. It breaks my heart. However, on the bright side, it’s great to see nature camps and sanctuaries “buying out” abused elephants from animal tourism companies to give them safe haven.

  • This is such an important post and I really appreciate the sentiment of it. I would never ride an elephant but I do think a lot of people do it without realising just how much harm it causes the animals and if they knew they wouldn’t do it. Your photos are beautiful too!

    • I agree, I don’t think many know even when they go in with the best intentions. That was kind of my hope of at least the more info on this, the better. xoxo

  • Hi co-host!! 🙂 I’ve actually read this already but I wanted to say I love it! The pictures of you with the elephants are adorable. Plus it really is so important to choose ethical experiences!!! xo

    • Aww thank you!! I have so many more on my phone/computer that its insane! I just love them so much and wish I could’ve taken them home with me!!

  • nattiekaf

    Love this! I’m in Thailand right now and researching elephant sanctuaries to go volunteer at!

    • Omg, I’m so jealous you’re in Thailand!! There are some really great choices in Chiang Mai. I listed a couple here and I hope you had a fabulous time! It’s definitely a once in a lifetime experience 🙂

  • Love C and D

    We’re up in Chiang Mai at the moment, and this is so true. It’s obviously up to every individual how they spend their money, but I won’t be spending anything on elephant, tiger or alligator attractions without doing A LOT of research into how the animals are treated first.

    It’s so great that you’re highlighting some places where animals are treated ethically, and not just in the pursuit of profit

    Thanks!

    • Ya, it’s totally different when you do a little research. I’m just such a huge animal lover, I just had to share and hopefully give some insight to animal tourism!! thank you for the sweet comment and can’t wait to see what you guys have in store for this weekend’s #FlyAwayFriday!

  • This sounds like such a rewarding experience and a much better way to meet the elephants than through the usual tourist route. I didn’t know about pain riding elephants causes them so thanks for the information. It’s not something I’ve had the opportunity to do and I certainly won’t be now #flyawayfriday

    • Ya, before going, I really wanted to ride them and I can no doubt see the appeal of it. But it was so fun to play with them and bathe them. I enjoyed it so much that I went twice, even when I was low on funds I don’t regret it one bit. It’s highly rewarding and I hope you have the chance to experience it!! Thank you for stopping by and can’t wait to see your post tomorrow on #FlyAwayFriday!! Xo

  • Sima Greenfield

    I’m planning a trip to Thailand and have been back and forth about whether or not to participate in the elephant tours. This was a great resource. Thank you!

    • Hi Sima! I was conflicted too before I went and I’m so happy I did the nature camps (not riding). It’s so rewarding, especially if you go to a reputable sanctuary. From experience and research, Elephant Nature Park is the best. I highly suggest booking before going considering they book up quickly. I’m glad this helped you and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any additional questions 🙂 Chloe

  • Thanks for sharing this. We have heard lots of stories about these camps, especially in Thailand, that we opted not to visit any there. Instead, we went o Cambodia and experienced some great times there.
    Thanks again!

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