I cringe every time a tourist comes to Thailand and posts a picture atop an elephant with a caption like, “Riding an elephant was amazing!” It’s seen as something you have to do in Thailand. You can’t take 10 steps in Chiang Mai without seeing advertisements for elephant rides. I don’t doubt that many people may have good intentions when they choose to ride an elephant: you may love elephants, so you want an intimate experience with one. Unfortunately, ignorance is bliss in this situation.
If more people knew the heart-wrenching reality behind elephant trekking, I believe it would be removed from more bucket lists… because the truth is crushing. Literally.
Crushing an elephant’s spirit, known as Phajaan in Thai, is a sad excuse for a ritual. It’s a process in which elephants are physically and mentally broken through brutal training, torturing, and starvation. Elephants (preferably baby elephants) are chained and abused in various ways for days or weeks until they cannot even stand. Many don’t make it through the process. This trauma and brutality prepares an elephant for taking human commands. This graphic picture captured by Brent Lewin shows a baby elephant bracing for a hit.
Phajaan is so brutal and horrendous that elephants have taken their own lives during the process by stepping on their trunks and suffocating themselves. At a panel discussion for Animal Welfare in the Tourism Industry in Thailand (2016), Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park (ENP), added that now their trunks are often tied to a nearby tree or strong object to ensure that they don’t have this option.
The abuse doesn’t stop after the crush is over. At most places in Thailand where elephant rides are offered, you’ll find the mahouts using bullhooks, which are not a ‘guide’ as many tour companies claim. A bullhook is a sharp device used to show dominance over the elephants in order to keep them fearful and under control. Often times, it’s used on sensitive spots like behind the ears, where the skin is very thin, around the eyes, on the trunk, or on top of the head. Not only does a bullhook cause physical harm but psychological and emotional harm.
Yes, elephants are enormous creatures, but an elephant’s spine is not meant to support the weight of humans for as many as 8 hours every day- for years on end. This weight of the howdah (seat on top) plus multiple people can eventually lead to nerve damage, inflammation, and permanent spinal injuries. Furthermore, the constant rubbing of the howdah can cause open sores. Many claim that it’s better to ride an elephant on it’s neck, and this may be the lesser of 2 evils. However, riding an elephant leads back to #1 and #2. Humans are a heavy burden.
In this article, Edwin Wiek points out that mahouts who have purchased their elephants (a serious investment costing up to $50,000) are under financial pressure to pay off their elephant in addition to monthly park fees and feeding their own families. So, rest days are not an option for elephants or their mahouts.
Elephants carry multiple people on their backs for up to 8 hours every day, often without breaks and without adequate food and water. Then, there’s the intense heat in Thailand, which is especially unbearable in the hot season. In the wild, elephants cool their skin with a dip in the river or mud, and they cover themselves with dirt and mud for sun protection. However, trekking elephants spend a long time without protection from the sun, which can cause them to overheat, dehydrate, and develop sunburns and blisters. (Yes, elephants get sunburned.) With these factors at play, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when an elephant drops dead from sheer exhaustion.
When an elephant’s long work day is done, they spend long hours under restraints. Their legs are chained so that they can’t move more than a few inches (or feet, if they’re lucky). They’re often confined to areas with unnatural surfaces like pavement and concrete. These hard surfaces cause elephants’ foot pads to disintegrate, and other painful foot problems follow.
At the panel discussion mentioned in #1, Roger Lohanan, Founder of Thai Animal Guardians Association and Director at Animal Rescue Clinic, shared that captive elephants fall under Thailand’s Draught Animal Act, an outdated law from 1939, which is one of the shortest animal welfare laws. What does this mean for elephants? Domesticated elephants are classified as livestock; they have the same legal status as an oxen. There are no legal requirements for proper elephant care or veterinary services, which certainly doesn’t provide an incentive for mahouts or camps to provide proper care for their elephants.
An Elephant’s damaged foot with missing toenails is treated at ENP.
Many of the elephants used for trekking have been illegally captured and trafficked from Myanmar (Burma). In Overview of the Captive Elephant Situation in Thailand by the Elephant Nature Foundation, experts estimate that 150-200 baby elephants are smuggled over the Burmese border every year and put into captivity in the tourist industry. It’s a lucrative business, and it’s an easy feat considering the widespread corruption across Thailand and Myanmar, especially at the border; Thailand is a a notorious, international hub for the illegal wildlife and ivory trade. Poor enforcement of laws (and lack of adequate laws) takes over once the elephant is captive in Thailand.
But that’s not the worst part. In Lohanan’s plea for co-operation, he shares that for every 1 calf captured (in Myanmar), up to 4 adult elephants may be killed.
Elephants are highly intelligent (thought to be some of the most intelligent creatures in the world) and emotional creatures with strong family bonds and social structures. When ripped away from their families and put into captivity, chained, abused, and confined, they are deprived of those strong, loyal bonds that are essential to their nature. Elephants have a well-developed hippocampus, which, like humans, allows them to have a range of emotions and great memory. Elephants celebrate births, mourn and bury the dead, shed tears, have social play, display a sense of humor, show empathy to each other in stressful situations, and react to another elephants’ distress by caressing and consoling.
I don’t believe it’s too far out there to say that elephants can feel emotions like loss, grief, compassion, and comfort just as poignantly as humans can. These creatures, so capable of loving and feeling, deserve our respect. Why do we feel the need to exploit these gentle, majestic creatures by sitting on top of them?
Ask yourself: is it necessary for me to sit atop an endangered animal? The Asian elephant is on IUCN’s Red List of endangered species, and it’s estimated that the Asian Elephant population has declined over 50% in the last 75 years due to habitat loss and poaching for the elephant and ivory trade, as mentioned in #6. Elephants will continue to be captured and needlessly killed from Myanmar as long as tourists continue to pay for elephant rides.
In an Assessment of the Live Elephant Trade in Thailand, it’s estimated that there are as few as 40,000 Asian Elephants left in the world, though many would consider that a generous estimate. (In comparison, there are at least 470,000 African Elephants.) In Thailand alone, there are only 3,000-4,000 Asian elephants, but half are captive elephants used in the tourism industry, which includes trekking, street begging, performances, etc.
The solution is not as simple as putting captive elephants back into the wild. There is very little wild left for them. As for a small starting point for elephant conservation in Thailand, many would like to see captive elephants put under the Wildlife Animal Reservation and Protection Act, which would require more careful registration and tracking of captive elephants and heavier penalties for illegal capturing and killing.
In the 3 years that I’ve been living in Thailand, there have been multiple tourists and mahouts killed by elephants while trekking. Like this one. And this one. (P.S. Those elephants are still giving treks today!) At the panel discussion (#1), Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, estimated that there have been at least 44 human fatalities (mahouts, Thai public, and tourists) from captive elephants in the last 10 years alone. After having been overworked and systematically abused for the entirety of their lives can you blame them?
Many of these deaths are caused by male elephants experiencing Mustha. During this time in a young, male elephant’s life, they become aggressive and uncontrollable, as huge amounts of testosterone surge through their bodies. Louise Rogerson points out another concerning safety factor in this article: Many mahouts in the industry are inexperienced, young men from Myanmar (expendable migrants) who aren’t as well-trained and familiar with elephant behavior as previous generations of mahouts. Pair this with an elephant entering Mustha, and it could be dangerous for everyone involved.
And no, this does not include watching them paint pictures, play elephant polo, or perform circus tricks. These are also unnatural and cruel practices that harm an elephant’s emotional and physical wellbeing.
As difficult as it is to see these creatures in a completely natural setting in Thailand, as their habitats are rapidly destroyed, there are beautiful alternatives. There are several reputable elephant sanctuaries/organizations in Thailand run by persistent, dedicated people who are fighting for change in the tourism industry on behalf of elephants. They work tirelessly to ensure that these pachyderms receive the care, space, and love they need.
I recently spent a day at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where elephants have been rescued from logging, street begging, and trekking. They now receive the care they so deserve, and they live a better life with room to roam.
Other organizations in Thailand that operate on these principles of ethics, love, and compassion are: Wildlife Friends of Thailand- Elephant Sanctuary (Petchaburi), Surin Project (Surin), Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (Sukhothai), and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (Chiang Mai).
Always do your research before booking an ethical elephant experience to make sure there are no chains, bullhooks, and riding involved- even if the organization has the word sanctuary or conservation in their name.
When looking at these facts, I can’t help but feel emotional, overwhelmed, and outraged. Elephant care and conservation is a huge challenge- especially when looking at the inefficient and corrupt systems in place in Thailand. Yet, I believe that positive change is happening. Responsible, travel-focused companies like Intrepid Travel, and many others, have completely excluded elephant rides from their Thailand tours. Tourists and residents of Thailand can foster positive change by supporting responsible organizations who care for elephants in natural, healthy environments.
Watch the documentary An Elephant Never Forgets, and read other great posts about elephant riding from trusted bloggers:
♦Diana Edelman of d travels ’round writes an informative piece The Truth about Riding Elephants in Thailand.
♦Matt Karsten of Expert Vagabond writes Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand.
♦Matt Long of LandLopers interviews Diana Edelman in No Elephant Rides: Expert Shares Responsible Wildlife Travel Trips.
♦Michael Huxley of Bemused Backpacker writes The Elephant in the Room: Why You Shouldn’t go on an Elephant Trek In Thailand.
♦Chris and Angela from Tieland to Thailand share their experience at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
The point of this article is to educate and inform, NOT to make you feel bad if you’ve ridden an elephant.