Elephants are a fascinating species. They weigh between 4 and 6 tons, get old like a human, are intelligent and huge. And their looks! Those grey giants are simply adorable. Sadly, they are listed as threatened from extinction on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List.
The elephant situation in Thailand: an overview
It is a Thai tradition that elephants get trained as working animals, especially for logging. In 1989 many Thai forests have been put under protection, banning logging from those areas. Many working elephants became “unemployed” and were consequently transferred to “jobs” in the tourism industry.
It is important to understand, that an elephant is not a domesticated animal. Other species are called domesticated, because they have been bred to blend well into human life, e.g. cows or dogs. There exists no domesticated breed of elephants. All elephants are wild animals. They have to be forced to cooperate. The process of making an elephant cooperative for direct contact with humans is called “the crush” (in Thai “Phajaan”). It is as cruel as it sounds. It involves what would clearly be classified as torture if done to a human. The elephant undergoes “the crush” at very young age.
This said, after the elephant is trained, its owner has a strong interest in the elephant’s welfare. After all, it is a very valuable asset – easily the most valuable in the owner’s possession. However, most owners lack knowledge of how to treat the animal correctly.
The media and online coverage of this topic is a bit problematic. In my research, I often met a sheer repetition of the same shocking images and videos on many travel web pages. Yes, there is no doubt: The training methods used in Thailand are cruel. But is that the whole matter?
The official webpage of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Chiang Mai has a point when they say that stopping all elephant tourism is not bearable for the families whose income depends on it. It is neither for the animals themselves. In addition, elephant tourism gives the chance of raising attention to the alarming situation of this species.
Most of the touristic elephant camps intend to give shelter for abused elephants. Some of the camps do not have the animals’ welfare in mind. They see that tourists pay well for an elephant experience and just want to make money.
What is the right consequence? Should the “domestication” of elephants and associated touristic activities be prohibited?
Regarding the sheer numbers, domestication is not the major endangering cause for the species. Much more damage to the elephant population on earth is done via deforestation. It diminishes their natural habitat. Also, poachers still kill a significant number of elephants to harvest ivory.
Now, what can we do as a tourist? We can decide where and how to spend our money. It is the only real power we have. We have to make the right choice here.
How to choose the right Elephant Experience
I read several websites of Thai elephant sanctuaries, animal rights and nature protection groups, travel blogs and elephant information pages. We talked to several travel agencies in Chiang Mai. There is a huge variety of quality and price of elephant experiences. How to find the right one?
Here are some guidelines: First step is to check the web. Serious sanctuaries have a good web presence. And contact data. Second step is to contact the staff and ask questions:
- Does the staff know what “the crush” is and can they explain to you? If they say they do not know or it has not been applied to their elephants they certainly tell lies.
- Is a baby elephant in the sanctuary? Be skeptical. Captive elephants do not reproduce as often. More likely an illegal “fresh capture” (=fresh crush) has been added to the animal herd. Ask for pictures of the birth.
- Can they explain why the experience is so expensive? If they cannot say how much staff, maintenance and elephant food cost daily, maybe most of the money goes into their own pockets.
- Are the elephants performing tricks for you? Do not go. They are forced to do so.
- Can you ride an elephant there? Do not go. An elephant is not a horse. You hurt the elephant when riding him. If you really do not want to cross that experience off, make sure that
- You are not overweight
- You sit directly on the elephant’s neck. The neck is the least hurting place for him. No need to add additional weight from comfy chairs for fat people.
Reading so many DONTs is frustrating. Let’s better end this with some of the DOs:
- Feed the elephant. He is a hungry beast. Elephants eat up to 300kg of veggies and herbs daily.
- Get muddy and wash the elephant.
- Volunteer at an elephant camp for a day or a week and learn more on the matter.
- Stay with an elephant herd and watch them interact.
Elephants keep up a complex social system. They talk to each other. The herd’s individuals interact a lot with each other. Simply watching elephants in their natural behavior is fascinating.
- More on elephant awareness
- WWF Elephant fact sheet
- See here the IUCN red list entry for Asian elephant
- Seems a better option for an elephant experience (also offering awareness programs for elephant owners and a street dog sanctuary)
- Pretty old, but a disturbing picture
- More considerations on the complex matter of elephant tourism
- On African elephant reproduction rates in zoos and in wild life
- Thailand Country Overview (BBC)
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