Like many people visiting Thailand, riding elephants was at the top of our family’s list of things to experience in the country. Even before we’d booked tickets for Bangkok we were already researching the various elephant trekking adventures offered in both the northern and southern regions. The more we learned, the more discouraged we became – especially our three animal-loving kids. As it turns out, many of the things we humans do with elephants are painful, traumatic and sometimes fatal for these intelligent, gentle creatures.
Elephants have been an important part of economic development in Thailand for centuries. Before the advent of modern vehicles, their brute strength was instrumental in erecting buildings, hauling materials, logging timber and transporting people. Due to their great contributions and value, elephants have always been highly esteemed in the Southeast Asian culture. You can barely walk a city block without seeing a statue or piece of artwork depicting the Asian elephant.
Yet, despite this revered status, the elephant population declined rapidly over the last 150 years due to poaching, abuse and habitat loss. Today, an estimated 2000 wild elephants and 2700 domestic elephants live in Thailand, down from over 100,000 in 1850. While those numbers are back on the rise due to the efforts of conservation groups and new government policies, many domesticated and wild elephants still lead difficult lives in Thailand.
As hard as it may be to believe given their massive size, elephants’ skeletal structures aren’t meant to do some of the things we humans force on them. Those popular trekking adventures with bench seating placed in the middle of the elephants’ backs have drastic effects on their health. Not only are these elephants usually walking constantly with heavy loads 6-8 hours a day, but their bodies aren’t built to support that much weight in the middle of their spines.
Elephants can also be found on the streets of major cities getting fed by tourists who buy small bags of food from their mahouts. Technically, this is an illegal activity in Thailand as elephants and other domesticated livestock are not allowed on city streets. However, this law is minimally enforced and the fines are small so it doesn’t serve as a deterrent. As a result, traffic accidents involving these “begging elephants” leave the animals maimed, with broken legs and dislocated hips.
At a sanctuary in Northern Thailand, our family saw the sad results of our human impact on elephants. Years of trekking left many elephants with flattened backs, the result of repeated fractures and growth malformations caused by the heavy weight of benches and tourists. Other elephants limped on severely deformed legs and permanently dislocated hips resulting from traffic and logging accidents. The feet of several animals had been destroyed by land mines planted near Thailand’s disputed borders. Elephants new to the sanctuary were grossly malnourished because prior owners hadn’t provided them with enough food.
Below: Elephants with flattened and fractured backs resulting from years of trekking tourists on heavy benches
Elephants maimed from stepping on land mines
Young elephant whose front foot was caught in a tiger trap
Bathing an elephant who lives with a permanent hip dislocation due to a traffic accident
The good news is a number of people are taking great efforts to improve conditions for the treasured pachyderms of Thailand. Sanctuaries give elephants a refuge after their years of hard work. In vast green spaces with ponds and rivers, they socialize with other elephants and live similarly to how they would in the wild. Thailand also recently passed a law on elephant cruelty, stating the government can remove an elephant from the owner’s possession and place it with an approved sanctuary if it’s found to be mistreated. Slowly but surely, life for Thailand’s elephants gets better each day.
To satisfy the demands of the elephant tourism industry, which provides thousands of jobs and brings millions of dollars into the Thai economy each year, several organizations offer elephant riding experiences visitors can feel good about. These more humane trekking companies allow only bareback elephant treks with the riders positioned on the elephants’ necks and shoulders, the strongest part of their skeletal frames. They also limit the amount of time an elephant can be ridden to just a short period each day.
Visitors to Thailand can play a strong role in improving the lives of these massive, yet gentle creatures. First, don’t support elephant mistreatment with your tourism dollars. While it might sound fun to take that two-hour elephant jungle trek offered through your hotel, if the company uses bench seating, don’t sign up for it. There are much more humane and enjoyable options out there. And even though buying that little bag of bananas and feeding them to an elephant on the street in Bangkok could make for a great photo, please hold out for a more authentic experience with these creatures. As long as people are willing to pay the money, elephants will continue to be put into unhealthy and unsafe situations.
Secondly, speak up for elephants. If you go on a bareback elephant trekking excursion, use your voice to help improve life for the animals. Thailand is in a period of broadening awareness when it comes to the treatment of their beloved and respected elephants. While some locals fight for improved practices, others, even the mahouts who truly love the elephants in their care, have learned within the old system which reinforces the regular use of bullhooks and teaching of tricks using punitive discipline. The feedback you give your tour company will provide insight on the experience tourists really want to have. If you see mahouts using bullhooks unnecessarily, let the management know. If the elephants are chained and not allowed time to interact naturally with one other, ask why. Don’t be afraid to speak up for these animals. A number of organizations in Thailand, like the Elephant Nature Park, provide amazing experiences to both the elephants and the tourists. The more other companies can be encouraged to follow these same practices, the better life will be for both the animals and the many Thai people who derive their livelihoods from the elephant tourism industry.