Elephant trekking is a popular tourist activity in Thailand, one of the more popular ‘bucket list’ activities in the gap year industry in fact, but there are many reasons why you should scratch riding an elephant off that list immediately.
Trekking with or riding elephants obviously isn’t just limited to Thailand. Due to the popularity amongst tourists and the sheer amount of profit to be made it has become an extremely lucrative activity across Indonesia, India, Bali and many other countries, now more recently it has even started to be offered in parts of Africa due to the popularity in South East Asia.
But given how Thailand is one of the most popular destinations for gap year travellers and backpackers, the elephant trek industry has expanded exponentially over the last decade or so and continues to increase in popularity as the visitor numbers to the land of smiles keeps increasing. The fact is, trekking with elephants is hugely popular with travellers and tourists and the activity is a phenomenally misunderstood and often ignored problem, with many people not even realising what they are doing is wrong.
The truth is, elephant trekking harms the elephants and supports an industry that abuses and exploits these majestic animals.
I can understand peoples reasons for wanting to go on an elephant trek, I really can. In fact I used to be one of them!
When I first started backpacking over ten years ago I wasn’t as aware of as many issues as I am now, and there certainly wasn’t the same amount of research, knowledge or awareness of the issues, never mind the access to information as there is today (the internet was still dial up, mobile phones were just becoming popular and there was no such thing as a travel blogger!) So when I hit Thailand for the first time I was really no different than any other first time backpacker, I was excited, euphoric and looking forward to seeing and experiencing as much as I could. And that included going on an elephant trek. I have always been a passionate animal and wildlife lover, so when the chance came to get up close to elephants and even ride on them, I took it.
To my eternal shame, I rode an elephant on a trek.
Signing up for an extended jungle trek to visit hill tribes and have – what I thought at the time – was a little bit of adventure, I sat on the back of this beautiful animal and let it carry me – and all my considerable weight – through the jungle. I won’t go into specifics, but I learned a lot on that trip and it changed my perception on elephant trekking in a profound way. Ever since I climbed onto the elephants back, it just didn’t feel right, the things I saw, the feelings that were slowly simmering in the pit of my stomach. I still didn’t understand the full extent of the issues after that trek, but I was left with an overwhelming sense that something wasn’t right. Something was wrong.
Something had to be done.
In the decade since then I have gone on to learn all I can about the issue of elephant trekking and wildlife tourism in general. I learned of the abuse these majestic animals endure, I learned of the conditions they suffer in and I learned of the industry that harms and exploits these majestic animals in the name of profit. And it shames me to think I contributed to that, unknowingly or not.
Since that very first trip and as a result of my experience I have changed my own practices as much as I could, I have asked more questions, read the research, learned more, tried to engage in activities which were ethical and cared for the elephants – and other animals for that matter – and tried not to support businesses or parts of the tourism industry that would exploit or harm them.
I haven’t always got it right of course. There are so many grey areas within ethical tourism, so much green washing, so much obfuscation, that it can sometimes be hard to tell when you are actually supporting a true elephant sanctuary or one that just says it cares for the elephants. And I have on occasion got it wrong.
But the important thing is, despite my inauspicious start, on the whole I am now getting it right.
There is a lot of truth in the argument that tourists and travellers shouldn’t feel guilt about what they have done in the past, as long as that experience is used to inform and teach. I absolutely agree with that and don’t judge others who may have been on an elephant trek, provided that they are open to looking at the facts as they stand now and use them to make a fully informed ethical decision for the future. But no one can ever tell me I can’t feel guilt for how I contributed to that poor elephants treatment, however unwittingly or unintentionally. I do. I always will.
Elephants truly are magnificent animals in every sense of the word, and just like myself all those years ago many tourists and travellers actually have a genuine affection for them, they just want to get up close to them and often assume that the elephants are happy, content or are being well looked after and treated by being allowed to carry or entertain tourists in this way.
The problem is – just like I was on my first trip – they aren’t aware of the harm their actions and decisions are causing.
Apart from the physical harm to the elephant itself, what many people aren’t aware of is that by riding elephants or going on an elephant trek they are contributing to the harm and abuse that these elephants have to endure to support this popular and growing part of the tourism and gap year industries.
The problem is so many travellers and tourists simply aren’t aware of all the issues involved. Despite the fact that information now is far more easily accessible than it ever has been, despite the fact that there has been numerous studies and research, academic articles and campaigns to provide scientific weight and highlight these issues, there is still a complete lack of education and awareness on the problem.
The truth about elephant training.
Many people don’t know that to be able to be ridden or perform for tourists, elephants have to go through rigorous and abusive training. This training is known as the Phajaan in Thailand, or more colloquially as ‘the crush’, because of the way it crushes the elephants spirit and forces them to be more pliable and submissive.
The elephants are forcibly taken away from their mothers when still very young – an act in and of itself that is obviously extremely distressing – and this is a trend that is increasing year on year, with a lot of evidence being gathered that the illegal elephant smuggling trade is booming in order to fulfil the demand by the tourist industry.
Once the young elephants have been taken, they are held in confined cages or pits which allows for no movement. Then they are tortured and beaten constantly for an extended period with bull hooks, bamboo stick and even cattle prods. They are starved, sleep deprived and mentally and physically tortured and abused.
Any elephant you see performing a show or carrying huge tourist filled saddles on its back has gone through this process. Just think about that the next time you think about going on an elephant trek.
If you don’t believe any of this at this point the information on the crush is freely available, although I warn you in advance the videos on you tube are sickening and extremely distressing.
Trekking harms the elephants physically, psychologically and emotionally.
Despite the sheer size and seeming power of an elephant they are not indestructible, and giving treks to tourists and travellers can actually cause them a lot of physical harm.
Elephants spines were never built to take the weight of carrying people all day, especially when they are often forced to do it constantly, every single day with nowhere near enough time to rest or even eat. The fact of the matter is that despite their size riding an elephant can really hurt their backs, not to mention the heavy wooden saddles strapped to their backs they are forced to carry which can cause a variety of skin and tissue damage. Imagine if you were forced to carry heavy loads on your back all day every day, wouldn’t that hurt you?
Elephants spines are made up of long, bony protrusions that extend upward from their spine, and according to Elephant Aid International, are particularly vulnerable to weight and pressure. The delicate tissue and bone structure of an elephants spine is not built to carry weight, but instead support the weight of their body below. This is why when elephants are forced to carry people, saddles or any type of weight for long periods it not only causes significant soft tissue damage but spinal damage too.
This alone is bad enough, the simple fact that elephants are being forced to endure constant pain and hard physical labour should be enough to make you want to never think about riding an elephant again, but the damage done can also have much longer lasting and seriously negative effects on the elephants long term health. Quite simply, elephants can end up with permanent spinal injuries or even crippled from these activities.
This is not scaremongering for the sake of sensationalist campaigning, this is proven fact.
Unfortunately the damage goes far deeper than physical pain and injury however. The training methods they endure – the crush – leaves them psychologically scarred. It conditions elephants to fear pain when they see the bullhook, which is why they comply with their trainers. Their working conditions quite often leave them alone and separated from other elephants for long periods of time – sometimes even chained up – which for highly social animals like elephants can leave them completely isolated and depressed.
What can be done to stop this?
This aspect of the travel and gap year industries only exists because there is profit in it. If tourists stop supporting it, it will stop. It is as simple as that.
The demand for elephant rides and treks still remains absolutely huge, with so many people remaining unaware of the harm and abuse they are supporting, and no real support or change will come from the tourism industry or the government of Thailand or any other country where elephant trekking is popular until the profit goes away.
Interacting with elephants in an ethical way.
Fortunately there are alternatives to elephant trekking to those travellers who still want to see and interact with these majestic animals in an ethical way. There are ways travellers can get up close to elephants without harming them or contributing and supporting the industry that does. There are truly genuine conservation efforts throughout Thailand that allow travellers and even limited volunteers to see and interact with elephants in a responsible and ethical way, in a way that doesn’t harm them and actually cares for their welfare.
The Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand is one such place. A true sanctuary where elephants are rescued and cared for with no tourist shows, no elephant treks or riding elephants and no type of interaction that doesn’t put the elephants welfare first.
You can still see elephants up close, feed them watch them play and interact with each other, walk alongside them and even help bathe them. But you certainly won’t be doing anything to harm them or support those businesses that do. Your money and your time will be going to a place that truly helps and cares for the elephants.
It is places like this that more travellers should support. It is about making the ethical choice the more economically viable one. It really is that simple.
Be careful of the green washed ‘sanctuaries’.
Unfortunately there are many so called ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘rehabilitation centres’ that are happy to use the conservation facade, but still abuse and exploit the elephants as much as anywhere else.
This is a huge problem across Thailand, and many other countries in fact. Many travellers who see the word sanctuary or rehab centre automatically assume that by supporting these businesses that their actions are ethical. They assume that any trek or activity must be okay, because of the positive connotations the monikers ‘sanctuary’ or ‘rehabilitation centre’ have. Many visitors to these so called conservation camps may even assume they are helping the elephants.
The fact of the matter is that if you are doing anything involving riding an elephant, watching them perform or do anything other than simply being with them, then it will be doing them harm.
Another problem with this is that a slightly murky grey area has emerged in the sense that whilst most of the camps that offer exploitative activities like this are simply out for profit and care little if anything about the elephants welfare, there are some that are actually genuinely trying to care for the animals but either through lack of awareness or a lack of education, get it wrong as they try to earn a living and make money.
Some businesses genuinely try to look after the elephants and do so to an extent, certainly more so than others, but still offer harmful elephant treks or other activities because that is what they have always done. This is where so much confusion comes in for tourists and travellers, who see animals that are to the untrained eye well looked after. They may not be subjected to bull hooks, and the elephants may be well fed and washed and seem happy, but they are still fundamentally mistreated in a variety of other ways.
This is why you hear of sanctuaries, rehab centres or conservation camps that still offer elephant trekking or still chain the elephants up when they aren’t ‘entertaining’ the tourists.
Whilst many businesses and tours that offer elephant treks are simply profit driven, there is hope that some of them at the very least can change their ways and still earn a living within the tourism industry but drop the activities that harm the elephants in their care. In many ways it is these businesses that with a little education, training and support can make a change to truly look after the elephants in their care.
One of the biggest arguments coming from the traditional wildlife tourism industry who are often against boycotting elephant treks in Thailand, is the paradigm that a boycott would lead to money and livelihoods being taken away from traditional communities who rely on their elephants as a source of income, leading to a host of other social and economic problems.
This simply isn’t the case.
My argument against that is that by operating in an ethical and responsible way they can still earn a living – perhaps even a better one – from the tourists and travellers who do want to see and interact with elephants, but truly want the option to do so in a way that will help and care for them. It is all about raising awareness, education and retraining the current ideology where elephants are seen as a means to earn money, and profit is more important than the animal’s welfare.
Unfortunately doing the right, ethical thing simply isn’t enough in many people’s eyes. They need to be shown doing the right thing can benefit them too.
Local communities can still earn a living – and the tourism industry still make a profit – by looking after their elephants and offering experiences to travellers that put an emphasis on caring for the elephants and treating them ethically and responsibly. Harmful elephant treks and exploitative shows are not the only way to make a living from the elephant tourism sector.
Established travel and gap year companies like Intrepid or STA travel, and popular ethical elephant sanctuaries like the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai are already proving that moving toward an ethical, sustainable and responsible business model is not only just as profitable, but in the long term may prove to be even more so. By dropping the activities and tours that give travellers the chance to go on an elephant trek, and instead offering activities that are more ethically responsible, companies like this are leading the way in responsible tourism but still maintaining their core ethos of making money. It is all about increasing awareness and giving people an ethical choice. That way if those involved in the traditional elephant trekking industry in Thailand can see that it is not just in the elephants best interests to look after and care for them in a responsible way, but their own as well, then we may finally start to see some real change.
The choice is yours.
Many of the travellers and tourists who take part in elephant trekking activities aren’t aware of the damage they are doing when they support the industries that exploit and abuse elephants for profit, but as long as tourists keep supplying the industry with profit, the industry has no incentive to change.
But you can make a difference. You can make that change.
You can choose to not support the industry by not going on an elephant trek or not visiting any business that offers trekking with elephants as part of their activities. You can choose to instead support the parts of the industry that are getting it right, give your custom and support to the businesses that allow the elephants to live their lives in relative peace and comfort, go to the camps, parks and sanctuaries that allow you to observe the elephants and assist with their upkeep and care, avoid the businesses that charge you for riding the elephants or force them to perform. Choose to support the ones that are genuinely caring for the animals and have their welfare at heart and starve the abusive and exploitative parts of the industry of profit.
I urge you, now that you know the facts behind the elephant tourism industry, do some more research, read up on it, there is so much information out there now. Increase your own awareness and spread the word. Change your own practices and urge others to do the same.
If everyone did that, then maybe one day soon abusive and exploitative elephant activities will no longer be part of any tourist itinerary.
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*Important note: This post was in no way sponsored by the Elephant Nature Park, and no incentives at all were given to mention it. I mentioned it simply as an example of a great facility that is getting it right when it comes to wildlife tourism.