What I have learned about elephants in Thailand
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Thailand right now is more popular than ever! It is a must visit for every backpacker and I am not an exception, my first ever backpacking trip was in Thailand as well. I love this country, beautiful landscapes, delicious food, diverse culture, kind and friendly people…. BUT what is happening to the animal kingdom in this country is absolutely unacceptable.
But let's not blame locals for bad animal treatment, let's blame ourselves, as locals are only doing what we want, to get some extra money to feed their families. It is because of us- tourists, tigers are drugged and chained, so we can take home cute selfies, monkeys and loris are spending days on hot streets without water and elephants are beaten and equipped with heavy boxes, so we can have fun riding them.
What is an excuse for people who ride elephants? I think that there are two reasons. First, is that people don't know how terrible and harmful this practice is for elephants, even though right now there are plenty awarenesses, studies, campaigns, and documentaries. Second, people know about it, but don't care...but how can people be so heartless to know what is happening and still participate?
Now confession time...I am not an angel...7 years ago I was volunteering at a safari park in Thailand, the park was offering elephant rides for tourists to make money; to feed the animals...I had no idea about "behind the scenes", so one of the days I rode an elephant and posted those pictures online...I didn't even enjoy the fact being on the elephant, it is not as cool as you think, it is slow, you are shaken from side to side, you don't even see the elephant itself from that angle, the only part I really enjoyed was watching it and it’s behavior from the ground.
I was young and stupid which is never an excuse, I was an absolutely terrible and irresponsible traveler and I hate myself for those times when my silly young persona just didn't care enough to do research. The worst part about it was not only that I rode an elephant, as I was working there and saw that they were treated with love, but myself participating in promoting this terrible industry to my friends and others.
But since then I changed, I never visit any place without spending days and hours googling everything about it, as my visit and money that I pay directly contribute towards developing and supporting this cruel industry. Now my goal is to help to promote ethical animal encounters and help people to learn from my mistakes that we just shouldn't be doing those things.
1. Elephants are very sensitive and intelligent animals, they mate for life, they are able to get depression and even die from grief after their partner passed away. Due to their wild nature and physical power, it is harder to train them, which means that animals undergo starvation, torture to break their wild spirit.
2. Elephants that are used in entertainment are often chained and don’t have enough exercise except moving in small circles while carrying humans on their backs, which lead to intense psychological distress, disorders and repetitive behaviors.
3. Baby elephants are taken away from their mothers at the very young stage and “training” begins immediately. Calves are tied and beaten with hooks until their spirits are broken.
4. Elephants work for up to 12 hours a day, carrying up to 4 people and a heavy box on their backs with little or no breaks. When they aren’t working, the animals are usually kept in sheds or shacks—often with concrete floors that damage their legs—and they’re bound by chains that can be so tight, they can barely move.
5. Due to elephant riding being pretty cheap attraction some of the riding camps don't have enough money to provide elephants with nutritious food (elephants eat up to 300kg of food per day), adequate water, and needed veterinary care, especially for their feet. Most of the elephants suffer from arthritis, and back injuries. Most captive elephants die decades short of their normal lifespan.
First things first, let's talk about why elephant riding is bad.
Now let's answer some of the popular questions and destroy some myths.
Elephants are part of the Asian culture, you cannot just take that away.
Elephants were working for humans already from 2000 BC to carry heavy loads and soldiers. However let's not forget that this was all before the machinery, and why would you still use an elephant when cars and electronic equipment are cheaper and more convenient. Right now elephants are mainly used in entertainment for tourists not for locals, except some of the rare ceremonies. Elephants indeed were part of the culture back in the days, but also some time ago slavery and cannibalism used to be acceptable as well. The times are changing and the most important thing is to change tourists' minds and locals will change as well.
So what is the difference between riding elephants and horses, camels, donkeys?
I believe that riding any animals is just unnecessary and I do not want to support any of those. However there is a slight difference, for example, it is easier and more affordable to care for horses, camels, and donkeys as they simply require less food and water. Elephants have skin on their feet which is appropriate only for their own weight when they carry over 300 extra kg on their backs, it wears out their skin and causes infection. Sitting on an elephant’s back, rather than their neck, causes physical harm to the elephant. They may be enormous, but they have not been bred to be ridden. Their spine is damaged, their growth stunted, and internal organs may be affected. The chairs used to carry tourists add yet more weight, causing more spinal pressure and sores.
Elephants are more smart and complex animals and it takes longer to train them, which causes more torture. For example, it takes days to train donkeys, weeks to train camels and horses and months to train elephants. Also there are a lot of regulations about horses husbandry, especially in Europe, but in Asia there are no welfare standards and no criteria for riding. This means they can be ridden all day, chained all day, they can carry as many tourists will fit on their back, and they can be hit with bull hooks to control them.
So what if I ride an elephant without the box, just on his neck is that okay?
There are a lot of camps in Asia that provide 'ethical rides', so elephants only do few rides a day and you go without the box just on its neck, it is probably better for them, but still what is the point? Why people so desperately want to ride them, even if it less harm, it is still harm, so why do it. Also, a big reason why I would say NO to any way of riding elephants is pictures on social media. Imagine, you have done your research and picked the best place available for 'ethical elephants ride', you went there and had a great time, saw that elephants were not tortured, cared with love…great! Now, you posted a picture on social media, where you were on the elephant. Your family and friends will see it, want to do it as well, but they won't care enough to do research to pick a right place, they will go to any place available and contribute to the wrong cause. So anyone, who is posting pictures of elephant riding promotes this industry. New 'camps' are opening up almost weekly in the beach resorts and islands of Thailand as well as spreading to our Asian neighbors. Let's not promote this industry, let's report all pictures on social media where people are sitting on elephants as ‘animal abuse’ or ‘violence or harm’.
As much as I want all animals to be free, all zoos and animal attractions to be banned, I don't think that it will ever be possible. People want interactions with animals and they will always pay for that. Instead of just preaching STOP ANIMAL ABUSE and stop elephant riding I think it is important to show people an alternative. People who care less, would not spend hours doing research about animal places before visiting like I do it.
In Thailand, there are 8 places that are approved by several conservation centres. Those places are doing an amazing job of showing tourists a different way of interacting with those creatures including walking with them through a real jungle, having a picnic while watching them playing in the river, bathing them in the river, having dinner while looking at them having dinner.
List of the places where you can have ethical encounters with Elephants:
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai. This sanctuary acts as a “retirement home” for rescued elephants. It does not promote elephant riding or performances, and is considered a pioneer in the treatment of captive elephants.
Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, Lampang. The first elephant hospital of its kind in Thailand, it pioneers new methods and technologies to heal sick or wounded elephants and even has its own prosthetics centre.
Elephant Hills, Khao Sok. One of the few completely chain free elephant parks in Southeast Asia. It’s a luxury tented jungle camp offering ‘natural’ encounters with elephants but no riding or performances.
WFFT Thai Elephant Refuge, Tha Mai Ruak. WFFT takes an active stance against elephant exploitation.
Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), Sukhothai. All profits from this sanctuary are reinvested into elephant conservation. Guest numbers are kept low and elephant welfare is put first.
Elephant Valley, Chang Rai. Run by the people behind the award winning Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, which adheres to strict ethical animal welfare standards.
Anantara Golden Triangle Camp, Chiang Rai. This luxury hotel has an onsite elephant camp/mahout village. It does not offer rides, but instead organises various "experiences" with the elephants, including dinner, picnics and sunset tours. (Visited myself)
Elephant Valley Project, Mondulkiri, Cambodia. This registered Cambodian NGO leads the way when it comes to setting high ethical animal welfare standards in Southeast Asia. They put elephants first and the only experience they offer is ‘watching elephants being real elephants’.
Elephant Conservation and Care Center, Mathura. India’s first chain-free camp with generous open space and well run visits.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Nairobi. A well run orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program with a high success rate of releasing elephants and rhinos back into the wild. Visited Myself
Mwaluagnje Elephant Sanctuary. A community-owned conservation project.
Elephant Human Relations Aid. EHRA offers well run volunteer projects working with wild elephants & communities. Winner of the 2012 World Responsible Tourism Awards.
Tiger Tops Elephant Camp. A tented camp with elephants. No chains and no repetitive day to day routines. Offers walk with the elephants through the jungle and guests can observe them interacting.
Green Hill Valley Elephant Park. A family owned refuge for ex working elephants. Visitors can wash the elephants but their wellbeing and care is central to the operation. Also a reforestation centre tackling the issue of habitat loss.
Space for Elephants Foundation. No direct interaction with elephants but offers educational experiences and community projects aimed at re-establishing lost migratory corridors.
Elephant Transit Home. Supported by the Born Free Foundation, there is no direct interaction but orphaned elephants can be viewed from a platform at feeding times before roaming back into the park. (Visited Myself)
Elephant Freedom Project. This sanctuary shelters just a handful of elephants, including one who is rented from her owner in order to prevent him from leasing her out to a trekking camp or zoo.
What to look for when looking for ethical place
Read Reviews. Before visiting any animal park, make sure to do your research. Google the park, search for it on Trip Advisor, and be prepared to find bad reviews. You should be looking for: Reputable animal parks have set feeding times and would never allow animals to be fed outside of those hours to attract tourists.
Education? The purpose of any animals collection or rescue centre is education- not getting money from tourists! Does the park has right information on the website about the species, is there information centre, is there staff that can answer questions about animals? Try to learn the story of the park and understand what its purpose is. Providing educational information about each species should be the main purpose of every park — it is better to visit rehabilitation centers and parks that exist to repopulate and protect species.
Number of Animals! Pay attention to the type and number of animals in the park. If there are too many babies, but not enough parents, there is a likelihood that the park has no set breeding program and that adult animals can end up being sold.
Instagram! Use the location tag on Instagram to find the most recent pictures of visitors. Remember that a trustworthy park would never allow riding, touching, or taking pictures with animals, so if you see photos like that, it is better to think twice about visiting.
Research the park’s support. If there are organizations such as the Born Free Foundation, Peta, Four Paws, CAPS, Animal Aid, or others including words like conservation, environment, wildlife, or foundation in their title, then the place was approved by the world’s best environmental companies. People start getting aware of cruelty to captive elephants, so many places are trying to attract tourists by adding words such as “sanctuary,” “rescue center,” “refuge,” and “retirement facility” to their names. But it does not mean that they don't use abusive training methods. Always do research before visiting!