Elephant activities in Thailand – ok or not ok?
Elephant bathing, feeding elephants, elephant riding are all very popular tourist activities in Thailand. As conscientious travelers we have to deal with the issue of what we support and don’t support in every destination. Elephant activities are one of those conundrums that recently came onto my radar.
The morality issue
You know when you first learn about an issue and you collect information, finally form an opinion and feel pretty comfortable with your standpoint. And then you read something from the other side and suddenly find yourself having to readjust your position? Personally, I love that feeling, because it is growth and learning. Even if it is a little uncomfortable because I may have been wrong about something I felt fairly certain about. This is what happened to me with the subject of riding elephants in Thailand. I thought I had a position. But now I am not sure. Here is why:
Domesticated elephants in Thailand
In Thailand, centuries ago, elephants were domesticated. They did all kinds of work, soldiers even went to war on elephants. But then the time came when society no longer needed elephants to do these jobs. Now there are thousands of domesticated “unemployed” elephants. But the jungles disappeared due to logging. So elephants have no natural habitat to return to.
The popular view on elephant activities
Contemporary articles in the social networks and on blogs are fairly clear. Citing animal protection organizations they take a stand against riding elephants. G Adventures banned all of these activities from guided tours in the region. Their animal welfare policy states that riding elephants is not ok. And they encourage travelers to visit animals in their natural habitat or in a genuine sanctuary.
If you are passing through Chiang Mai on your Thailand trip and would like to visit an elephant sanctuary there, check out this post on a 4 day Chiang Mai itinerary including Elephant Nature Park.
The other side of the argument
But then I read a great article in a GEO Special magazine about Thailand that is a few years old now. It was an interview with a Thai man. He feels responsible for these abandoned elephants and built a home for them. As they need around 200kg of food and 125l of water a day, they are expensive to maintain. So they have to earn their living. They work in different jobs with tourists, posing in armor, offering rides. Some of them get gigs in movies. He sells elephant babies to zoos.
Cruelty or no cruelty?
Riding elephants brings in a big chunk of the money. If this activity discontinues, what would those elephants do? Who will support them? What else are they all supposed to do? Apparently it is not necessary to use cruelty when taming elephants. There are men in Thailand who have mastered this skill, called Mahouts. Once elephants are tame, or working animals, like in the logging industry, how are they different from domesticated horses? Why is it ok to ride horses?
Short term vs long term animal welfare
The general consensus seems to be that riding elephants is unacceptable and sanctuaries are good. However, sanctuaries are full of retired elephants that used to work in the tourism industry. In the long run, is that really something sustainable? Or shouldn’t we be working towards no animal attractions whatsoever, so there will never be retired working elephants to begin with?
An inside scoop
After a long internal struggle, I decided to book a visit to an elephant sanctuary. At Elephant Love & Care, up until three years ago, they offered trekking. Now, it’s a sanctuary. The elephants looked happy and clean. Their mahouts did not inflict any visible pain on them. Our guide (forgive me, I cannot spell his name) says now European tourist don’t want to ride elephants anymore. Why? Because of internet content. Here’s to travel bloggers changing the world! He says the animals live a better life now then before.
What will happen in the future, I asked him. His vision is a national park big enough for all the elephants. So they wouldn’t live in captivity but be free. The tourists could come on safari.
But it seems, now we are in the transition period. Between riding and safari. Elephants are working animals here, like horses or camels are in other parts of the world. I understand the argument against any activity involving animals in captivity. Just, where do we draw the line? Zoos? Circuses? Non-vegetarian restaurants? Leather products? It seems to me we have quite a few things to clean up at home before we can accuse others of animal cruelty. But we have to start somewhere, right?
And if one more day as a vegetarian or one less tourist riding elephants helps, then let’s help.
What is your point of view? Do you have any further aspects to this story I have not yet mentioned? Please comment below!