Thai elephant tourism is a huge economic driver in the country. In fact, there are literally dozens of elephant related activities advertised to tourists across the country. Everything from elephant trekking & rides, watching them paint, and taking photos with baby calves to getting your yoga on on-top of an elephant (I mean, do you really HAVE to do that?) the ridiculous list goes on and on.
Tourists are led to believe that these activities are normal, safe, and humane. That the animals enjoy it even. But in our connected world people are becoming less naïve about such activities. Let’s call them what they are, a part of the dark and sinister world of animal exploitation, and dare I say it, animal abuse?
So… How can you visit an elephant in Thailand without adding to the problem? Read on to find out!
Facts about Asian Elephants in Thailand
- Asian Elephants are considered an endangered species.
- Many of Thailand’s captive elephants have been illegally and cruelly poached from the wild.
- There are approximately only 2000 wild elephants left in Thailand.
- Captive elephants make up 60% of the elephant population in Thailand and a whopping 65% of those are used for tourism purposes.
The Downside of Animal Tourism
Elephants are wild animals. For them to end up submissive, compliant & calm they must be trained to be so. And a calm, controllable animal is a necessity for elephant trekking and rides. No business would survive—even in Thailand—if people were getting hurt by these animals. To ensure this the animals are broken in.
“Breaking” is a practice that zoos all around the world use to domesticate their animals. In thailand it’s no different. Unfortunately, beating the animals is one of the most common & effective ways to break them. Denying them food or interaction with their herd and even a cruel separation of mothers from their calves are other methods often employed.
Keeping them chained in solitary confinement is also an effective trick as elephants are incredibly social by nature and live happier as part of their herd. Denying them of this daily social interaction is similar to putting inmates in solitary confinement and denying them of any other human contact, eventually they’ll either do whatever you want or go crazy.
Lastly, the separation of mother and calf. In the human world, separating a mother from her infant is an outrageous feat that would cause an uproar. Here to it should be an appalling act. Elephant calves are extremely attached to their mother, staying close to her for around 16 years of their life (much like humans). Their large size shouldn’t take away from the fact that they are indeed babies, needing their mothers love and guidance in their early stages of life. This delicate bond between mother and calve is broken sometimes at only 6 months old.
I’m sure you can agree, none of this sounds particularly appealing for the animals. It’s not something i’d want to support! But,
Silver lining… It is not so bad everywhere you go.
This is not to say that I believe you should engage in these activities. But I have personally witnessed elephant keepers (mahouts) give their animals a refreshing bath with a hose. I have also witnessed a mahout keep the mother and child together and have them both trek side by side (the baby was attached to the mother by a rope and was walking next to her while she was trekking). I’ve even witnessed them sleeping next to their elephants in makeshift tents as they do their best to calm and comfort them.
There is some love there yes, and one I feel I must report!
Mahouts are elephant owners and trainers who form very close relationships with their animals. Usually from poor backgrounds, they are often forced to join trekking companies to help feed not only for their families but also their elephants—an expensive feat, considering the average elephant roughly consumes 10% of their weight in food every day. Of course, this not only consumes a large amount of natural resources but it also requires a LOT of money. Nearly $80 per day, a fortune for most Thai’s! It’s one of the main reasons many cannot afford to take care of their elephants without engaging in animal tourism. But there are ethical options…
An Ethical Elephant Experience
From Chiang Mai to Phuket, elephant sanctuaries are doing there best to help these creatures and the Elephant Retirement Park is a breath of fresh air! This elephant sanctuary in Phuket essentially provides hope that things are finally starting to change for the better. That we, as a global community, are taking a strong stance against animal abuse and that we refuse to finance it any further.
Elephants here, live free from profiteering and neglect. The parks primary focus is to promote the elephants well-bring and happiness. Secondly they raise awareness of the plight of these working animals within south east Asian countries.
In the Phuket Elephant Retirement Park, you get to interact closely with the elephants, yes. But bear in mind that all the elephants here are rescues and have therefore all endured the ‘’breaking’’ process that no longer makes them wild. This essentially means that they are used to people and you as a tourist can rest easy knowing you haven’t contributed to their abuse.
In this verdant safe haven, you can feed, bathe and play with the elephants in their natural habitat – the great outdoors. No chains, no tricks, no riding & no abuse. These elephants are all rescues from various difficult and abusive backgrounds but here these gentle & friendly giants will simply take your breath away!
During your visit, you will find out their individual story; their age, sex and temperament, where they were rescued from and the kind of foods they love. You can feel how loved the animals are, and how respectful the caregivers are towards them – a truly touching thing to witness!
You get to bottle feed the baby elephants – an experience I will personally cherish forever. You get to give them a fresh water bath with a hose, feed them, walk with them through the jungle. Of course you’ll also take a mud bath with them! During the jungle walk, you learn why they pick and choose specific plants to eat, and the medicinal purposes of each dietary choice they make – it’s truly fascinating.
You will witness them sometimes lying and rolling around in the dirt – and while this first looks like an insanely large puppy playing, you’ll soon learn that this is actually done to protect their skin from the sun – as are mud baths. Mud, dirt and dust are their natural SPF remedy. Contrary to popular belief, their skin is actually quite delicate and prone to sunburn and blisters. This is just another reason why elephant trekking is harmful. During treks they are not typically allowed engage in these activities to protect their skin. And with the majority of the day spent carrying multiple people on their backs under the scorching Thai sun burns can be a problem.
I spent a month exploring Thailand, and this is an experience I will never forget – getting close to these gentle giants and creating lifetime memories all while practicing responsible, ethical tourism and staying FAR away from animal exploitation and abuse. Hands down, the best money I spent in Phuket! An experience you simply cannot miss!
Hope on the horizon
The Thai government has introduced new laws concerning animal welfare and while there’s a long road ahead the future is looking bright! Change is a slow process. But so long as we are moving in the right direction I remain optimistic for the future of these animals. Enforcement of these laws will help ween tourist dollars away from unethical organizations throughout Thailand.
A Video From A Elephant Sanctuary in PhuketHow can we write about these gentle giants and show you only photos? Josh Glavin put together this great quick video about the elephant retirement park in Phuket!
The Take Away
While there are still MANY tours that include working animals all over Thailand – there are now more options and tours than ever for people not wanting to engage in any part of the animal exploitation and abuse. The continued pressure of tourists voting with their wallets is forcing a revolution in animal welfare inside of Thailand.
Trekking & rides cost anywhere from 20 to 170 dollars depending on the duration. Instead of taking part in those activities consider donating this sum to an Elephant Sanctuary organization of your choice and know that your money would be put to good use! Do your part by supporting only ethical elephant sanctuaries in Phuket & Thailand as a whole.
For more information about activities in and around Phuket you can visit my blog
Tia Does Travel ~ xoxo