An Ethical Elephant Experience

I wrote this post almost 5 years ago now after a solo trip to Thailand and Cambodia. Wow, how time flies! This was such a memorable experience for me, and I’ve been enjoying reflecting and reminiscing on past travels during this period of uncertainty and stillness. I hope you enjoy reading about my experience visiting elephants in Thailand!

When I started telling friends and family that I was planning a trip to Thailand, a question I got asked many times was whether I was going to ride elephants. I hadn’t thought too much about it before, I love animals and I think elephants are incredible, majestic creatures so was certainly looking forward to having an elephant encounter. However, the more that I began to research various elephant experiences in Thailand, the more I learned about the abuse that many elephants go through in order to serve the tourism industry. While the first part of my post cautions against visiting particular elephant tourist experiences due to their questionable treatment of the animals under their care, I also want to encourage and promote ethical elephant tourism in Thailand.

Ethical Elephant Camps & Parks = Happy and Healthy Elephants!
Ethical Elephant Camps & Parks = Happy and Healthy Elephants!

Unethical Treatment of Elephants in the Tourism Industry

What many travelers don’t realize is that the majority of elephant tours in Thailand, while provide some great photo ops, are ethically problematic. In order to train an elephant for the tourism industry (either for riding, doing circus tricks etc.), young elephants are removed from their mothers, kept in small confines, beaten with bull-hooks and sticks spiked with nails, all in order to force them into submission to humans. Furthermore, the skeletal build of elephants are not designed to carry large amounts of weight on their spines. The power of elephants actually is primarily in their shoulders, better designed for pulling or pushing motions. The spine on the back of an elephant is noticeably curved, but if forced to constantly carry large amounts of weight (endless tourists sitting in a Howdah – a large wooden chair or basket) on their backs, their spine will be crushed inwards which leads to great pain and rapid deterioration of health.’

These travesties committed against elephants in Thailand’s tourism industry are not isolated incidents, and even the Humane Society of the US has spoken out against riding elephants. Furthermore, I witnessed firsthand the heartbreaking effects of abuse on these elephants during my stay in Chiang Mai. A 2-year old elephant at a park that I visited anxiously paced back and forth in a small circle. It was explained to us that the young elephant was recently rescued from a camp where he was kept in a tiny cage, forced to pace back and forth, and was still recovering from the mental trauma of the experience. Other elephants I saw had numerous and noticeable scars and gashes in their tough flesh caused by bull-hooks.

Ecocentric vs Antropocentric Elephant Parks

I hope you have reconsidered any plans you may have had to ride elephants while travelling through SE Asia. I know this has been quite a “doom and gloom” post so far-  however, the good news is there are many ethical elephant experiences available which I guarantee you will enjoy much, MUCH more than the alternative! Over the past several years there has been a rise in what is referred to as ecocentric elephant tourism experiences. Historically, elephant tourism industry has been largely anthropocentric, in that it is geared toward providing experiences that cater solely for the enjoyment of humans and include activities such as elephant riding, long treks, and circus style tricks. Ecocentric philosophy sees elephants (and the environment in general) as intrinsically valuable, regardless of their utility to humans (other than bringing us pure joy!).

Elephant Retirement Park
Elephants are intelligent and emotional creatures

There are a growing number of ecocentric elephant conservation parks popping up around Chiang Mai (and other parts of SE Asia), which focus on educating their clientele on care and respect for elephants. Most of these parks are either conservation or rehabilitation parks (or a combination of the two). The park that I chose to visit while in Chiang Mai was the Elephant Retirement Park. When I was there, they currently had 4.5 elephants under their care  (one was pregnant hence the .5), all which had previously worked under less than ideal conditions in the tourism industry.

Meeting 'Momma Elephant'
Meeting ‘Big Momma’ Elephant and her baby-to-be

My Personal ‘Ethical Elephant Experience’

The day I spent with these majestic creatures at the Elephant Retirement Park was one of the most memorable experiences I had during my trip. The mahouts (the term for an elephant caretaker) truly love the elephants under their care. The park is completely free of any sort of ‘taming’ devices such as hooks and rods. There are also no cages and the elephants are free to roam about the spacious ground, and finally, no riding of the elephants is allowed.

A Mahout at the park feeding a young elephant
A Mahout at the park feeding a young elephant

The day was spent first learning about the history of elephants in Thailand and the importance of ethical elephant care. We then got to meet the family of elephants residing at the park and fed them copious amounts of bananas (an adult elephant eats around 300 lbs of food in a single day!) in exchange for hugs and joops (joop the Thai word for kiss) from our new elephant friends! After a delicious home-cooked lunch, we bathed the elephants and the day concluded with a huge mud bath (which turned into a mud fight of epic proportions!) with the elephants and mahouts.

Elephant hugs are the best hugs!
Elephant hugs are the best hugs!
Our delicious home cooked lunch
Our delicious home cooked lunch

In particular, interacting with the matriarch elephant of the camp who was pregnant at the time of my visit was a personal highlight. After interacting with the younger elephants, I met ‘Big Momma’ and was completely awestruck by her size. At first I was a little bit intimidated and very cautious when approaching her, but after some bonding with bananas and joops, I felt like we became fast friends. In between ear scratches and trunk rubs, the two of us had a great conversation about travelling, animal welfare, and even boys! I swear it was all in her eyes – I could tell she understood that we were having a very important and deep conversation (at least for me!)

Getting a big wet joop!
Getting a big wet joop!

Obviously, the day was insanely fun, but what I really took away from the experience was a new-found respect and love for elephants. I’ve always been an animal lover, but there is something very special about interacting directly with such amazing creatures that makes you realize that these are highly intelligent and emotional beings who deserve the utmost love and care.

"So Big Momma, do you like bananas or mangoes more? I really like mangoes personally!"
“So Big Momma, do you like bananas or mangoes more? P.S. your mahout is pretty cute, he can feed me bananas any day!”

Other Considerations

Some animal activists may argue that ethically-run elephant tourist parks are still not enough and that these elephants should be allowed to roam free in the wild and removed from human interaction entirely. While this is a lovely sentiment to have, it is unfortunately not practical for a large majority of Thailand’s’ elephant population. Firstly, it is estimated that the total Asian elephant population is below 30,000 and only 3-4,000 elephants in Thailand (compared to over 100,000 in Thailand at the start of the 20th century) meaning that conservation efforts are more important than ever. The main reason for such a dramatic decrease in the Asian elephant population is due to a combination of the destruction of their natural habitat as humans continue to encroach on their territory, illegal logging, and poaching for ivory or sport. Furthermore, the elephants at these parks are already domesticated either as a result from being involved in the logging or tourist industry, they have not been directly removed from the wild. Domesticated elephants have extremely limited options for work outside of the tourism industry outside of wandering the streets or being taken illegally into the logging industry and life for these elephants would surely be worse in the absence of the economic value added by the tourism industry. Not only is this beneficial for domesticated elephants, but also for the mahouts who care for them, by providing a sustainable income for them and their families.

Elephant Retirement Park provides livelihood for both elephants and the workers
Elephant Retirement Park provides livelihood for both elephants and local workers

Parks to Visit

I hope that if you travel to Thailand, you get the chance to experience the beauty of elephants, but in the right setting. There are a number of other parks that are ecocentric but still be sure to do your research and make sure that things like small cages, bull-hooks, riding in wooden chairs and circus style performances are not part of the program. I highly (and independently) recommend Elephant Retirement Park, but there are several others that come highly recommended from other tourists I encountered (and Trip Advisor of course!) which also provide excellent experiences for the visitors who come to the park, but more importantly for the elephants who live there.

Elephant Nature Park

Baan Chang Elephant Park

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary

I've never been quite this dirty, or this happy!
I’ve never been quite this dirty, or this happy!

Hugs and Joops!

Christina Free


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