Most people would agree that elephants are some of the most majestic, graceful, intelligent, and revered animals on the planet.
Then why is it that these beautiful creatures are tortured and abused, in many cases for the sake of tourism?
Why should I say no to elephant riding?
You’ve probably met many people who have ridden elephants while on holiday in countries like Thailand. It certainly seems like a fantastic way to spend a day, lumbering through the forest on the back of a magnificent animal. But I wonder if you (and them) know the history of the elephants that are ridden by tourists. We didn’t – like many other first-time travellers to that part of the world. Originally, we were keen to ride elephants in Thailand on our first trip there in 2009. Thankfully we did some research before our trip, because we decided then that we would never ride an elephant.
We hope that this post will raise awareness about the issues surrounding elephant riding in Southeast Asia, as we believe many travellers are unaware of the abuse that they may unknowingly be supporting by riding these beautiful animals. If you choose to ride an elephant, of course that is up to you, but we hope that you make an educated decision.
The mistreatment of elephants
Elephants are not domestic animals, they are wild. So in order for humans to work with them and for tourists to ride them, they are taught to obey their owner. This happens when they are very young, and is known as the ‘crush’ or Phajaan – the crushing of the elephants’ spirit. The baby elephants are often captured from the wild (where, in Southeast Asia, only a few thousand elephants remain) and separated from their mothers. They are trapped in a small cage or tied to wooden stakes, beaten and poked with sharp sticks and bullhooks, starved, and deprived of sleep (this awful photo will bring tears to your eyes) . This is carried out so that they will forever be submissive and afraid of their owners. Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals, and they do not forget.
In addition, if this was not bad enough already, a person riding an elephant puts intense pressure on their spine, as well as harming their skin. Elephants are not built to hold multiple people and an uncomfortable chair on their back all day, every day. Imagine carrying around a huge, poorly fitting hiking pack day after day! You would probably be feeling pretty awful and may have some lasting damage.
Read this article from just last week about an elephant that died of exhaustion in Vietnam – it collapsed with tourists on its back.
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
These discoveries we made while planning our trip completely put us off riding elephants in Thailand. However, we still wanted to interact with these amazing animals without getting on their backs and supporting this terrible practice. But where could we go? Fortunately we came across Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. ENP is a reserve that is home to many elephants that have been rescued from tourism companies, as well as from logging and other industrial operations.
Phew. We were elated that we would get to see elephants in a happy setting! After doing a bit more research we booked a day trip there during our time in Chiang Mai, which involved round-trip transfers from our hotel.
During our day at Elephant Nature Park, we learned about the individual elephants living there, as well as how they had come to be at the park. We remember one heartbreaking story of a female elephant that had been rescued a few years previously. She had given birth to a baby that had died, and would not work because she was in mourning. Her owner became angry and so he poked the elephant’s eyes out as punishment, which made her blind. Fortunately, she was rescued by Lek, Elephant Nature Park’s founder, and she now lives happily at the park. It was lovely to see another elephant, her buddy, leading her around with her trunk holding the buddy’s tail as a guide.
This was just one of the sad stories that we heard during the day, along with a graphic video which showed the awful conditions some of these elephants had been rescued from. Unfortunately, many elephants outside the park remain in these terrible conditions today.
In contrast, the elephants at Elephant Nature Park looked happy – as far as we could tell, anyway (we aren’t elephant mind-readers!). There were a couple of tiny babies that shyly peeked out from behind their mothers, and a cheeky young elephant that kept chasing some of the volunteers around a table.
Part of the Elephant Nature Park experience, because you don’t ride them, is to interact with the elephants in different ways. We got to feed the elephants twice, where we had huge buckets of pumpkins and cabbages, and we held the vegetables out for the hairy, muscular trunk to wrap around and take the food to the elephant’s mouth.
Our favourite activity of the day was bathing the elephants, which we also got to do twice. Getting into the water and standing right next to these huge animals, scrubbing them with a brush, and tossing buckets of water at them, was an experience that we will remember for life. We had the biggest grins on our faces for the rest of the day, if not the rest of our trip!
The day trip also includes a delicious lunch at the park, where you can look over the elephants roaming around the grounds. You can also volunteer at the park for multiple days or weeks – unfortunately we didn’t have time to volunteer on this particular trip, but we hope to return some day!
We hope that this article has shed some light on the issues surrounding elephant riding in Southeast Asia, and that you may now think twice about riding elephants. We hope that you visit the wonderful Elephant Nature Park on your next trip to Thailand instead. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below – we want to get a discussion going and keep raising awareness!
Thailand Elephants has a directory of the more ethical elephant camps in Thailand. If you’re heading to Thailand and want to interact with elephants in a positive environment, check out where you can go on their site!
. . .
Have you been elephant riding? Were you aware of the issues surrounding the industry?