Thai Elephant trekking. Not!

Monday, May 09, 2016 Wildlife and Animal Trekking by Kate Rutkovskaya

When it comes to anything connected with animals and their treatment in non-wild conditions, I become very picky and meticulous.

When I was looking for a topic for my next blog post, I thought that elephant trekking as one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand might work out into a nice article with bright pictures of smiling elephants and their happy riders.

So I started digging into this topic, looking for best providers of elephant tours and trying to define those features that can make your meeting with elephants most memorable.

But guess what!

I watched hundreds of videos and read thousands of articles, as well as talked to a dozen of locals to find out that the way elephants are brought up, treated and prepared for the tough job like that is horrifying!

But first things first.

Setting emotions aside let me try to lead you through the story of the Thai Elephant.

National Symbol

Thai elephant is an official national symbol of Thailand and it has served various roles throughout Thai history, particularly they have been used in manual labour, as soldiers, then the royal symbol, and finally the object of the tourism industry.

Elephants are portrayed as sacred animals by Thai Buddhism, which is the substantial part of Thai culture.

Hence they are widely used in many artworks, literature and even provincial seals and flags.

Official seal of Bangkok
The official seal of Bangkok

An interesting fact is that originally there were no elephants on the islands. They were brought to Phuket, Samui and others to satisfy agricultural, and then tourist and entertainment industry needs.

But the worst part is yet to come.

All these unnatural ways of elephants’ application in Thais’ everyday life turned out to be disastrous for the whole species.

Not only the number of elephants dropped but also those that survived have been treated very poorly.

Today The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Animals lists Asian elephants (which is the species Thai elephants belong to) as endangered.

There are only about 50,000 animals living in 13 Asian countries nowadays.

5,000 of them live in Thailand.

And 80% of them are kept captive.

75% of captive adult elephants used for tourism entertainment have been taken directly from the wild.

Thai elephant

Elephant trekking

…is not what I encourage you to do!

Nevertheless, it’s a very popular activity for families coming to Thailand for vacation.

Despite the fact that this experience might take your life away – and it does every year kill people – parents of kids of all ages are still willing to place their kids on top of a wild animal and go riding it through the jungle.

Let’s now look deeper into an elephant’s life in an entertainment camp.

A baby elephant is taken from the mother as soon as he can walk or even earlier and out into a small cage where he can hardly move.

Chained to a pole or fence, the little kid is slowly deprived of his normal wildlife habits, normal amount of food, communication with his mother or even sleep.

They’re pierced with sharp bull-hooks and tamed in the end.

What does it take to break a child’s spirit? Not much, right. And what is done is more than enough for that.

There’s even a special term for that process – Phajaan, which means “the crush”.

Thai elephant torture

But besides all the above-mentioned tortures, riding elephants can actually cause serious long-term problems with their health.

Their spines are not made to support the weight of humans.

Surprisingly enough elephants inspire such different feelings and attitude in people from different parts of the world.

Tourists from western civilisation normally admire and care for the big ‘kind-hearted’ (according to their imagination) animals.

Whereas the people who share the same habitat with elephants find them aggressive and dangerous creatures that they have to subordinate.

No wonder there’re cases when elephants express their wild behaviour. You can’t fight nature.

When the time of the mating cycle (“musth”) comes you can’t control the testosterone-fueled aggression rising in this huge animal’s body.

Hot weather doesn’t help calm this unstable beast down.

Unfortunately, mahouts – people who take care of elephants – are not always attentive or careful enough to prevent elephants from meeting with tourists during these periods.

Thai elephant trekkingElephants refuse to follow their mahout’s instructions and can actually throw tourists off their back.

The recent incident shows vividly that improper treatment of elephants in camps can lead to human victims. A British citizen was trampled and gored by an elephant in front of his daughter during an elephant trekking tour.

Now,

Remember the famous belief that “Elephants never forget”?

Well, they don’t indeed.

Even if a mistreated elephant gets proper care later in his life, he can never get back to the wildlife anyway. He might though live a longer and healthier life.

And that’s what multiple charities and organisations are trying to provide for.

But now when you know the truth, here’s my plea to you.

Do you still want your dream vacation to turn into a nightmare?

Unfortunately, despite all said above, millions of tourists come to elephant camps every year to ride an elephant.

What they should do with those beautiful animals instead is bathe them, feed them and make donations.

And leave them alone in their natural habitat.

An average elephant needs 250-400 kg of food per day. It costs about 1000 Baht a day to properly feed one elephant.

Btw, their favourite food is tamarind – in case you want to give them more than just food.

But what if I do care about elephants?

With all my ethical objections taken into consideration, I’ve chosen Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai as the most caring centre.

Chiang Mai is also home to Thai Elephant Conservation Center.

It’s Thailand’s only government-owned elephant camp. Founded in 1993 under Royal Patronage, the Center cares for more than 50 Asian elephants in a beautiful forest conveniently located near the city of Chiang Mai.

There’s also an Elephant Retirement Park established to create a haven for retired elephants.

Thai elephant

Recently Phuket, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, has also joined the team saving and supporting captive elephants in Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Millions of tourists come to Phuket every year, and thousands of them go on elephant trekking not even knowing that there’s an ethical alternative.

Special attention must be paid to Surin project.

With a truly unique and innovative concept, the project is aimed at improving the living conditions of captive Asian elephants by providing economic sustainability for their owners through responsible volunteer tourism.

Yes, they do accept volunteers to actually help the owners of the captive animals treat them wisely.

They immerse volunteers in the local Gwi culture in the remote village of Ban Tha Klang.

Most importantly volunteers get a chance to go out on daily walks to observe the Surin Project elephants interacting with each other in a more natural setting.

But what strikes me most is that during their stay in the village volunteers experience such a huge attack on their senses and see the realities of how captive elephants can be used in the area.

And I hope one day we all understand one crucial thing:

No wild animal is meant to work in fields or be ridden or serve as an entertainer in a circus.

And as long as we encourage those activities we’re jeopardising our own lives and safety.

Love and Peace!