If you’re heading to South East Asia, chances are an elephant encounter is high on your list of Must Do’s. Elephant rides are one of the most popular items on many travellers lists. There’s just something about these gentle giants that capture our imagination, and given the chance, many of us would want to spend time with an elephant. In Thailand, there are many options that cater to visitors – elephant rides, elephant treks and elephant shows being very popular. Here are a few things to consider when choosing an ethical elephant encounter in Thailand.
Prior to visiting Thailand, I had conducted some research and what I found about the Thai process of phajaan, literally translated as “crush”, horrified me. Young elephants are taken away from their mothers, forced into a tiny cage then hit with sharp hooks, stabbed with heated iron and prodded with metal spikes. They are starved, sleep deprived and not allowed to lie down for a week in order to break their spirits and tame them to become beasts of burden, give elephant rides, be willing to work and perform tricks. You can spot an adult elephant that’s been through phajaan by the tell tale scars on its ears, head and trunk.
“Every captive elephant one sees in Thailand with the exception of those born on protected sanctuaries has more than likely gone through it. The ones begging in Bangkok, the ones in trekking camps, breeding camps, tourist camps, and zoos. At least more than half of them have gone through the Phajaan.” ~Asian Elephants Today~
There are plenty of disturbing videos of baby elephants being forced into a cage and then hurt with knives or hooks – the core of phajaan. This video has footage of phajaan as well as a report on elephant smuggling – please be warned that some images are quite graphic: Baby Elephant Smuggling Exposed.
Does tourism help or hinder?
In the wild, poachers will hunt and tranquillize a baby elephant, then shoot its mother and the rest of its herd, who linger by the fallen baby. The young elephant will then be taken to camps and passed off as the offspring of the captive elephants already there – with no one the wiser.
The tourism trade fuels the smuggling of wild elephants from Burma, one of the last healthy populations left, so avoiding all elephant tourism is the best way to ensure your dollars don’t inadvertently go towards poachers and the cruel practice of phajaan, but the issue is not quite as clear cut. There are still hundreds of adult elephants in captivity, many made redundant from the logging industry, others retired circus animals. A full out sanction on all elephant tourism activity would potentially see them reduced, again, to begging on city streets.
“Now while boycotting elephant tourism altogether to protest against the poor treatment of these magnificent creatures seems like the right thing to do the reality is that would severely impact local economy’s. In addition that would punish those operations that are run ethically.” ~Ecowise Travel~
So how can tourists walk the line between ethics and the desire to help elephants?
Ethical Elephant Encounters: Don’t ride them
The majority of elephant rides are given via a saddle which is strapped on the elephant’s back. It is heavy, cumbersome and elephants are often forced to wear these contraptions all day, with scarcely a break in between tourists. Furthermore, an elephant’s strength is not in it’s spine – and these types of saddles and rides can injure their backs. It goes without saying that day long treks on the back of an elephant will merely compound the problem – if you must ride on an elephant, stick to where the mahout usually goes – behind its ears, and for no more than 15-20 minutes.
Ethical Elephant Encounters: Don’t pay to see baby elephants
When we toured Kanchanaburi, I asked our guide if there were baby elephants at the camp we were going to. She gave a definitive no, to which I made it very clear that that was the answer I was hoping for and that if there had been any babies there, we would want our money back. Discouraging demand for baby elephants should hopefully reduce the incentive for poachers to steal them from their wild mothers, and maybe, just maybe, the practice of phajaan will eventually die out.
Ethical Elephant Encounters:Don’t buy ivory or elephant paintings
Ivory comes from dead elephants, and painting is not a natural activity to elephants – to reduce the demand for dead elephants and trained elephants, visitors should steer clear of all ivory products. There is no such thing as legal ivory, whether it comes from an Asian elephant or an African one. Both species are endangered. Elephant paintings are another variant on tricks, so try not to encourage that either.
Ethical Elephant Encounters: Ask for interaction, not entertainment
There are many glitzy, high end shows which incorporate elephants – just remember that each and every one of these creatures have been through phajaan. Instead of looking to be entertained by elephants, choose interaction – we paid a premium to spend some time bathing and feeding an elephant. We gave her fruits as treats, got close enough to stroke her skin, and brushed the top of her head while she tossed water at us in the river. You can also give your time and volunteer at an elephant camp – nothing quite like getting up close and personal with a tonne of raw intelligence and personality!
Ethical Elephant Encounters: Visit ethical camps and sanctuaries
I spoke to both our guide and our mahout during our elephant interaction session and asked about Full Moon, the elephant we spent an hour with. She was a retired circus animal, demoted to a camp after hurting her back performing a trick in which she had to stand on her head. She was gentle and compliant, but also had lots of personality. The mahout used verbal commands and his feet to prod her – no sticks or hooks at all, and when we rode her for a few minutes back to the holding area, he encouraged her on with bananas and veggies as treats, to move her along. We wanted to ensure that the camp was for retired animals only, that the elephants there were not made to work the whole day, and that only positive reinforcement training techniques were used.
A little research goes a long way, so if you’re thinking of choosing an ethical elephant camp in Thailand, these are some recommendations that I’ve found:
“A good rule to remember is that if a tourist outfit offers anything other than getting to spend time with elephants, it is not friendly to them. Any outfit that offers riding, circuses or paintings means they have undergone horrific abuse in order to get them to where they are. Remember, all of these elephants have suffered through the abusive and torturous crush.” ~World Nomads~