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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!