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To Ride or Not Ride an Elephant in Thailand?

I didn’t honestly know much about Asian elephants and their situation before our trip to Anantara Golden Triangle to take part in their elephant researcher program. As our trip got closer, several blogger friends talked to me about a video they had seen of baby elephants being tortured in order for their mahouts to ride them. The graphic video certainly left me with a lot of questions, most nagging was if riding an elephant in Thailand was ethical.

Part of our elephant researcher program included sitting down on our first evening with Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) founder John Roberts and a team from Think Elephants International to discuss what we’d be seeing and doing over the next week. I no doubt surprised John and the team with some hard hitting questions. What Tim and I learned from working with the wonderful folks at Think Elephants International and GTAEF during our stay has been beyond thought provoking and has become a regular topic of conversation as we still try to sort out how it all left us feeling. That’s probably why this is one of the most challenging posts I’ve written to date…

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp

Mahouts out for a walk with their elephants

Captive Elephants and the History of Mahout-ing

One of the hardest things for me to come to terms with was seeing captive elephants. My parents owned horses when I was a kid, and Tim and I have rode camels in Jordan, so I wasn’t expecting elephants to be much different. When you see horses, they are fenced in a pasture. The camels roam the Arabian desert freely, though always return to their owners because they know that is where their food comes from. That’s because both horses and camels have been domesticated by humans.

What does that mean exactly? Dictionary.com defines domestication as “the process whereby a population of living organisms is changed at the genetic level, through generations of selective breeding, to accentuate traits that ultimately benefit humans.

Elephants have never been domesticated, but because even thousands of years ago they were recognized for their intelligence and learning abilities, they were trained for domestic purposes. Kings first used elephants to help fight wars through the dense jungles. Over time, elephants came to be used in the logging industry to destroy their own environment and eventually causing flooding to treeless areas.

It wasn’t until 1988 when Thailand suffered a disastrous flood and the worst in a century that the government realized exactly the harm that they were doing and on January 10, 1989 logging was banned. While undoubtedly a very wise choice as wild Asian elephants populations had greatly declined and deforestation caused the loss of lives and homes, the logging ban put about 20,000 captive Asian elephants and their mahouts out of work.

It was at this time that tourism started to boom in Thailand and mahouts realized they could earn a living through elephant tourism activities.

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp

An elephant in the grasslands at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp

So Why Not Just Release Elephants Back to the Wild?

If only it were that simple. Something undoubtedly agreed upon by John Roberts and every single person we interacted with at GTAEF and Think Elephants International is that we’d all like nothing more than to see every elephant live out its days as a wild elephant of its own free will. But there simply isn’t room for all of the Asian elephants.

The biggest threat to the Asian elephant are the loss of their habitat and the continually growing human population in tropical Asia. According to the WWF, “about 20% of the world’s human population lives in or near the present range of the Asian elephant”. The natural habitat is dwindling and migratory routes are cut off because of human settlements. As a result, elephant populations are small and unable to mingle.

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp

The grassland’s are part of Anantara Golden Triangle’s 160 acres where around 30 rescued elephants live

The Evolution of GTAEF

When John Roberts first started the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, he bought an elephant from a mahout in order to rescue it. A month later, the mahout was back with another elephant. It was at that point that John realized he needed a much bigger plan. Rescuing a few elephants from begging on the streets would only be helping those few elephants.

Now GTAEF helps elephants and their mahouts by providing jobs for both, education for mahouts’ children, and even their wives have opportunities to earn income and help support the family and elephant. Because captive Asian elephants have never been domesticated and their DNA strands remain the same as their wild counterparts, the scientists at Think Elephants International are able to study elephant cognitive and social behaviors that would otherwise be near impossible through trying to observe wild Asian elephants.

GTAEF does not buy any elephants. They simply provide a home for both the elephant and the mahout family. The mahout is free to decide which activities his elephant will participate in and both the family and elephant are well cared for.

As a result of these forward thinking initiatives at GTAEF and the financial support of Anantara, important strides are being made in teaching mahouts positive reinforcement techniques, providing education so that children of mahouts can have other career opportunities, and in understanding elephant behaviors that can in turn help with conservation efforts.

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp

Rewarding baby Am with sunflower seeds for a job well done during her research study

Elephant Tourism

About 95% of Thailand’s captive elephants (there are around 2000 total) are privately owned. They are quite valuable, estimated at around 2 million baht (about $60,000 US) per elephant and are quite expensive to care for. Most simply put, without work in elephant tourism mahouts would have no means to care for their elephants.

Circling back to the aforementioned video of baby elephants being tortured and that these tourism activities promote cruelty, well…it isn’t black and white. Clearly the elephant in the video is being tortured, but this doesn’t mean that all elephants are tortured. Think about how some people torture and beat dogs…and horses…and chickens…and probably camels. There are jackasses no matter where in the world you go. Thai people are intrinsically known for being kind and humane. And their elephants are simply too valuable to abuse.

Chains and the Bullhook

Unlike domesticated dogs, cats, horses, and even camels, captive elephants are still wild animals and most would likely be able to survive if released back into the wild (sadly, because of the logging there just isn’t space for them all though). Elephants are extremely strong and they have also live in a social structure. Captive elephants living in camps are living in unnatural herds and fights can break out. One elephant could easily kill or very badly injure another. They could also kill or very badly injure people. Because of this, mahouts use several tools to help train and control their captive elephants.

One thing I couldn’t get used to, though came to understand, was the elephants being chained. But they are wild animals and without the chains, they could seriously injure themselves or one another. Elephants are so strong, there are few things that can actually contain an elephant, like an electric fence would contain a horse or a fenced in yard would contain a dog. The chains should be long enough to give the elephants ample room to maneuver and the elephants should get plenty of exercise each day.

The bullhook probably looks like the most cruel tool, but when used properly it is the equivalent of carrying a knife or other form of protection. When we went dog sledding and on a snowmobile safari in Svalbard, it was necessary to carry a high-powered rifle in case a polar bear were to attack. The bullhook can be used similarly should something go wrong when working with an elephant.

The bullhook is often also used to smack away the huge biting flies that penetrate the elephant’s thick skin and leave a welt or even make it bleed.

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp

Dining with baby elephants

Safe Elephant Tourism Activities

If you do decide to take part in elephant tourism activities, the camp you select should be done so carefully. There are a number of elephant tourism activities that are both safe for the elephant to take part in and ethical for you to do.

Elephant painting, where the elephants uses its trunk to hold a paintbrush and create a work of art for you to take home is a perfectly safe activity. The elephant’s trunk is an elongation of their upper lip and contains around 40,000 muscles but no bones. They use their trunk like a hand to pick up things, feel, throw dirt on themselves, and even put food into their mouths. Using their trunk to hold a paintbrush and paint is a natural action they can do with their trunks.

One of the most enjoyable elephant activities we did was dining with baby elephants. We had a private dinner prepared on-site by a chef and served by wait staff to our table in a tree house-like structure at the Anantara Golden Triangle baby elephant camp. While our dinner was being prepared, we fed three baby elephants sugar cane. Greedy little buggers, they’d hold four or five pieces with their trunks while munching on another stick. Their mahouts couldn’t chop up the sugar cane fast enough!  As we ate, the elephants played and did what elephants do – tossing dirt onto their backs and curiously touching everything in sight with their trunks.

And we did decide to ride elephants, which can also be a perfectly safe elephant activity when done properly. Riding at Anantara Golden Triangle is done after completing the Mahout Experience program in which you learn commands, how to ride on the neck bareback without the chair, and positive reinforcement.

For more safe elephant tourism activities, read Elephant Encounters at Anantara Golden Triangle.

Activities that are not safe for elephants to take part in are things that make them do behaviors unnatural to them, like performing head stands where they are forced to stand on their two front legs. Mahouts that have to eat their lunch on their elephant are also sign of an unethical camp that forces their elephants to work long hours.

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp

Hey, you! Yeah, I’m talking to you!

How You Can Help

The reality is that in as little as 50 years, the Asian elephant will probably be extinct. It’s sad to think that in our lifetime, these gentle giants will cease to walk the earth. But there are some things you can do to help:

If you’re headed to Asia and riding an elephant is on your bucket list, you don’t have to scratch it off. But, I would encourage you to educate yourself on the issues and be selective in where you chose to take part in elephant tourism activities. Do your research and please visit places like Anantara Golden Triangle, where your tourism dollars directly benefit not only the rescued elephants there but are also important in the much larger picture of elephant conservation.

Don’t buy ivory products. The illegal poaching of male elephants (only males grow tusks in the Asian elephant population) for the illegal ivory trade is still a huge problem and threat to the survival of Asian elephants. So as tempting as it might be to own your very own piece of ivory, find a different souvenir – or better yet, experience – to spend your money on.

Make a tax deductible donation to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. 100% of your donation goes directly to the project.

Stay at any Anantara in Thailand. Even if the remote and lush green mountains of Northern Thailand aren’t your ideal holiday, you can head to the beautiful Thai beaches at Anantara Koh Samui, have a remote escape a la Leonardo Dicaprio in The Beach at Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan, visit one of Thailand’s most famous islands at Anantara Phuket, or even explore bustling Bangkok at Anantara Bangkok Riverside or Anantara Sathorn. No matter which of Anantara’s 12 (as of January 2014) Thailand properties you choose, you have the option of as least $1 per night of your stay being donated to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.

To learn more about the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and their projects, visit their website. To learn more about the research studies being conducted by Think Elephants International, visit their website.

Jennifer Dombrowski

Jennifer Dombrowski is a location independent globe trotter who is based in Prata di Pordenone, Italy. She works as a social media and communications strategist and is an award-winning travel writer. She is also a travel correspondent on Traveling on the American Forces Radio Network. Jdomb's Travels was named one of the top travel blogs to watch by the Huffington Post and has been featured by top publications such as CNN, Buzzfeed , and The Telegraph. Her iPhoneograpy has also been featured on publications such as USA Today and Travel + Leisure. Google+

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  1. Greg Vaughn

    A very well thought out and written article. It’s great that you took the time to research and consider both sides of the story, and that you encourage visitors to choose wisely. Another excellent facility that exists for the benefit of the elephants is Patara Elephant Farm near Chiang Mai. http://www.pataraelephantfarm.com/ . I spent a day there and was really impressed with their operation and conservation focus.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks for sharing about Patara, Greg. I’ll have to read up on it.

    [Reply]

    Dogmama Reply:

    Seconding the vote for Patara. We were also concerned about feeding an industry that would ultimately hurt the elephants we love so we looked for both eco-friendly and conservation minded places. Patara spends time educating their guests/customers so that we learned something about the normal health of the elephants over the course of our day with them and learned that our riding them was part of their exercise that healthy elephants need.
    They do rehab work and address the problem with the declining elephant population.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Education is power. Thanks for sharing your experience at Patara.

  2. Gina

    Thank you so much for sharing this, Jennifer! I rode an elephant in Thailand and then felt guilty months later when I learned about their plight. I think you make a good point that – as with most things – there are extremes and that’s why it’s so important to do research first before deciding where to ride an elephant if it’s a bucket list item you don’t want to erase. I wish I’d researched more about elephants before leaving for my trip. Hope to get back one day now and volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Asia.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Riding an elephant was never really top of my bucket list – or on it at all. When we rode camels in Jordan from the Bedouin camp back to the village, we were literally about 10 minutes into the ride and so incredibly uncomfortable that I would have rather walked back. But we were literally in the middle of no where and 2 hours from the village. We had no choice at that point. I’ll never ride a camel again because it left my physically scarred!

    I imagined riding an elephant would actually be much the same as the experience with the camel. Granted, we rode the elephants for a very short distance that it took them about 30 minutes to walk. It wasn’t really uncomfortable and I walked nearly the same trek we did with the elephants in about 10 minutes just the day before. Would I ride an elephant again though? Probably not. But I am glad I got to experience first hand training of the elephants to follow commands using positive reinforcement.

    [Reply]

  3. Stef

    Well written Jennifer! This is really a very controversial topic and hard to write about but you perfectly dealt with it. I can only agree with it. I don’t know whether I’d ride an elephant in Thailand but I would definitely look for a reliable company and everyone should do so.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I think it’s a decision you have to make for yourself. I had actually made up my mind that I was against riding before I went based on what other people had told me. What changed my mind was not that I really wanted to ride an elephant, but that I wanted to experience commanding an elephant first hand and to see that it could be – and is in fact done at GTAEF – through positive reinforcement techniques.

    [Reply]

  4. Becki | Backpacker Becki

    I have to completely disagree. There is plenty of information out there now about responsible tourism regarding elephants and the educational drives of fantastic organisations such as the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. I am disappointed that this post dismisses acts of cruelty (elephants are not born to paint and entertain) and advises readers that it is OK to ride elephants providing they find the right ‘camp’. It is NOT ok to ride elephants, full stop and whilst I know you worked with these guys, it’s actually OK to call out the practices or people and organisations sometimes.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    My opinion is fully based upon what I learned from working with scientists and has nothing to do with the hotel that hosted us during our stay.

    I whole heartedly agree that the way to help elephants is to look at the bigger picture.

    I haven’t been to Elephant Nature Park, but I have certainly read a ton from all the bloggers that go. I do NOT agree with buying an elephant from the mahout. They will only turn around to acquire another elephant. It’s exactly what happened when GTAEF was founded. Sadly, the only elephants being helped are then those 30 or so elephants at that park.

    There is plenty of evidence that the tortured elephants are isolated cases and I myself witnessed and engaged in positive reinforcement training techniques. I can share more details once Think Elephants International publishes their research study, but for now it is an ongoing study that I cannot fully discuss.

    We are simply going to have to agree to disagree on this topic, Becki. I did my research beyond just what both Think Elephants International and Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation told us.

    [Reply]

  5. Barbara Weibel

    Although I made a personal commitment to never again ride an elephant after seeing how they were mistreated in Cambodia, I was willing to approach this subject with an open mind. But when I got to the point in your article that states it is acceptable to use bull hooks, I was appalled. In my opinion, it is NEVER acceptable to use bull hooks. Quite often, they are used to pierce a hole in the elephant’s ear, then inserted and pulled on the make the elephant perform in a desired manner. The bottom line is that tools like this are intended to train the elephant to accept riders, so riding on the back of an elephant, for me, is akin to abuse. As for chains, I realize there are times when it is necessary to use a chain, for instance in the case of an adult male in ‘must’ that could harm the other elephants, however this is also a tool that is regularly abused. In Nepal I witnessed BABY elephants chained to poles, with very little room to move. They had been separated from their mothers at a young age for ‘training’ and spent the day rocking back in forth from one foot to another, which experts tell us is a sign of extreme stress. This is not a black and white issue and everyone has to make their own decision, hopefully after doing some research and educating themselves on the issues.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks for sharing, Barbara. I’m not saying that the use of tools isn’t abused. I certainly wish all the elephants were wild and am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that they are captive. I amused that they were domesticated before I learned otherwise.

    That said, captive elephants are a reality and part of a thousands-of-years-old culture. I am glad that foundations like GTAEF exist in order to teach mahouts better methods. GTAEF doesn’t own any of the elephants. They essentially “rent” them from the mahouts by providing jobs, healthcare for both mahouts (and their families) and their elephants, and schooling for the mahouts’ children. But with this comes rules that the mahouts will not be abusive to their elephants and use the positive reinforcement techniques.

    We did not observe any of the elephants at GTAEF to have holes in their ears where the hook would be used to pull. We actually never saw a mahout do anything with their hook other than to carry it in their hand or slung over their shoulder.

    [Reply]

  6. Becki | Backpacker Becki

    We will sadly have to disagree on a camp linked to the 4 star hotel and which is in partnership with the Thai government. You can also play polo on elephants here. If that doesn’t scream exploitation, I don’t know what else to say.

    [Reply]

  7. Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    Oh Jennifer. I like you, and I like your blog, but I have to wholeheartedly disagree with you on this one. I’m no expert, but I’d say elephants are probably pretty capable of swatting flies away under their own steam. The bull-hook is what it is — a tool to dominate, intimidate, and torture an animal into submission. Organizations like this one would be better served (and better well-received) if they allowed washing and feeding of elephants only. I hope there’s a SeaWorld type exposé one day on the treatment of these magnificent beasts. Until then I guess we’ll just have to buy their paintings so they can earn their keep. Because that doesn’t seem exploitive at all. ;)

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Just to clarify, Anantara does not offer elephant painting. This is just an activity discussed with the scientists at Think Elephants International as being one that elephants can do safely.

    It seems from several of the comments that there are really two issues to be addressed: exploitation and abuse. While I certainly wish that no elephants were privately owned, there are around 2000 of them in Thailand alone that are. It is my view that without jobs, mahouts will not be able to care for their elephants. That is when we are left with elephants begging on the streets and in danger of being hit by cars, malnutrition, and assorted other problems.

    So yes, I would much rather that a mahout have his elephant paint or give rides than to probably die because of inability to care for the animal.

    [Reply]

  8. Dylan Lowe

    Upon inspecting a title such as that of this article, there I was interpreting it as invitation to an inquisition of morality. What bitter note am I to be left with having read it; I, as reader, am misled and falsely promised a balanced argument, only to be fed anecdote of a singular event, sporadic ‘scientific’ info-dumps based on an even scarer quantities of research bodies, dispelling of masochistic acts by denial rather than debate, all so woefully woven together to hardly merit the addressing of an issue as ethically and sociologically complex as elephant tourism.

    “If you’re headed to Asia and riding an elephant is on your bucket list, you don’t have to scratch it off” – such is the conclusion drawn from your contextual rushing to the defence of Anantara, while merely pardoning the greater travesty with mentions of small acts of mercy. You address elephants as wild elephants, yet nowhere have you raised the notion of breaking, or taming, processes required to subjugate the animal and thrust it beyond the mental threshold that renders it servile, as in slavery. You encourage readers to make educated decisions themselves, yet, based on the ‘example’ so debaucherously centred on solely your own experiences with animals and your own amusement, how flawed and misleading must your imploration be?

    And just how is carrying a rifle on dog sledding comparable to utilising bullhooks around elephants?

    I may concur on reasons why elephant riding prevails as a tourist attraction worldwide, and the cruelty elephants suffer as a result: poverty of mahouts coercing them to maximise their lucrative ‘properties’ in desperation, while their sadism may be attributed to their own misfortunes, or that brutality is necessary in taming the animal – but all aforementioned subjects are absent in prose. These are all sociological phenomena that, during my visit to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, were present in conversations exposing the full extent of elephant tourism, rather than overlooking them – as it is in this article.

    “To ride or not ride an elephant in Thailand?” – a conflicted question of such gravity burdens its author with the responsibility of enlightening masses. All this post has achieved is an individual justifying one’s actions.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I welcome debate on this issue as it is an important one to be discussed. If you can do that without personal attacks against my intelligence and character, feel free to continue the discussion. If not, well no one has forced you to read this blog or to comment.

    Many elephants today have been born in captivity. Scientists also believe through observation and studies that they speak to one another. Typically around the age of 3 or 4 years, babies are taken from their mothers and corralled with other baby elephants. This begins a well-documented 7 year training process in which the mahout teaches their elephant a variety of commands using a combination of vocal commands and applying pressure in sensitive areas such as behind the ears. They receive food rewards when they’ve completed an action. They do these actions over and over.

    Horses, though domesticated, aren’t born just allowing people to ride them either. We’re not screaming that every single horse in the world has been tortured to allow people to ride them. And there are people that abuse horses too, just as I have no doubt that there are people that abuse elephants.

    [Reply]

  9. Heather

    I’m glad you wrote this, though I know you are going to get a firestorm of comments. I spent a day at Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai as part of their Elephant Owner for a day program. We learned all about the animals and how the mahouts care for them. We scrubbed their skin, bathed them, fed them, examined their poop – it was exhausting work! After all that was done, we were shown how to carefully get on the elephant’s back (one person per elephant, no chair) and we rode them through the jungle. Once we came to a clearing, the elephants got a rest while we ate lunch, then we bathed them again in the river. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life! The elephants at the farm were healthy and looked pretty happy to me. I never saw a single bull hook the entire day. The Thai owner nearly cried when he told us about the negative things people from the two big non-riding rescue camps say about his farm and his breeding program. It was clear that he loved his elephants and his staff and was committed to ensuring this special animal doesn’t become extinct. Like you, I did a lot of research before I chose which elephant program to participate in and I am very confident in my decision. You can read about my elephant adventure here: http://www.ferretingoutthefun.com/2012/12/16/playing-with-baby-elephants-in-thailand/

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Surprisingly, there isn’t the firestorm of comments I was anticipating. And, I absolutely do not mind a debate on the issue as long as it does not involve any personal attacks.

    Thanks for sharing your experience at Patara, Heather. You are the second one to also recommend them.

    I’ve only been to GTAEF, which does not own any of the elephants that stay there. The monies from activities at both Anantara and Four Seasons go toward caring for the elephants, providing an on-site elephant veterinarian, and providing the mahouts and families with a salary, health care and education.

    I can’t speak to the practices of any other camp/sanctuary/rescue or whatever you want to call it. But I will say that not a single individual we dealt with at Anantara, GTAEF or Think Elephants was willing to bash or bad mouth any other camp. They simply taught us the signs of things to look for to determine the treatment of the elephants.

    For me, the professionalism, the conservation efforts, and the scientific research that is going on all make this a stand-up organization I fully support.

    [Reply]

  10. marlene

    great educational article thanks for taking the time to tell the real story

    [Reply]

  11. Mindy

    Although I can agree with some of your points in this post, the majority of this post horrifies me. You apparently paraphrased some of your “facts” from the website of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. I do agree with your restatement of WWF explaining why it’s difficult to release captive elephants back into their wild habitat, however.

    If you had continued reading on the WWF site, you would have come across this: “The illegal trade in live elephants, ivory and hides across the Thai-Myanmar border has also become a serious conservation problem.”

    In my opinion, it is this simple fact that is missing from your post. In 1989, when there were all these mahouts in Thailand who could no longer exploit their elephant to make money, many animals died because their proper care was too expensive for their owners. Some business-minded mahouts, however, capitalized on the growing tourist industry, and realized they had a golden ticket. It came in the shape of an elephant that could be trained to do pretty much anything: allow people on their backs; dip a brush into paint and place it strategically on a piece of paper and call it painting; move their body parts in random ways and call it dancing; kick a ball and call it soccer; do a headstand; and more.

    After a quarter century, the elephant tourism industry in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia is still going strong. It sounds like GTAEF runs a similar model to the Surin Elephant Study Center in the village of Baan Tha Klang, Thailand. Mahouts are provided with a place to live and way to support their families and, of course, their elephant. In that sense, it’s wonderful. However, if it allows riding, shows, painting, and so on, it remains a way to exploit elephants. It promotes the idea that it is ok to use elephants for our own entertainment.

    You mention in your post that the Asian elephant species likely won’t last another 50 years, a statement I completely agree with. If the elephant tourism industry continues on the same path, I actually give the species less time than that before it goes extinct. Regardless of how an elephant is treated at a place where they are exploited, when it dies, the owner of the elephant camp will look at their bottom line. If there is still a demand for tourists to ride elephants, that owner will buy another elephant. This perpetuates the wildlife trade, most likely illegal, which WWF has noted.

    To conclude, it is my opinion (and hopefully one of others as well), that if tourists want to have an elephant experience in Thailand, they should visit sanctuaries. Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary near Sukothai or Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai are a couple of options. Of course, there will be some people who argue that these places are just another place that exploit elephants, and there is a big part of me that agrees with them. However, what makes a sanctuary different from a trekking camp, is the simple fact that when an elephant dies, the number of tourists who visit does not influence whether the owner can support another one. A sanctuary can be as successful with 3 elephants as it would be with 30.

    Day by day, we must start to change the belief that exploiting elephants, and horses and camels and all other animals, is ok.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mindy. The thing I have had the biggest struggle coming to terms with is that we are in the situation that thousands of elephants are captive elephants. And without safe tourism activities, there simply isn’t a way for their owners to care for them. In a perfect world, I wish all the elephants were free.

    But we destroyed their environment and there just isn’t room for them all. Additionally, if there were room, elephants live to around 80 years of age in captivity and though never domesticated, couldn’t really be returned to the wild and reintegrate. It’s sad, but true.

    As I mentioned to another commenter, my biggest issue with Elephant Nature Park is that they buy elephants and breed. This perpetuates the cycle of captive elephants because the mahout, who knows no other profession, will go get another elephant probably illegally from Myanmar as you mentioned. It also only helps those 36 elephants, or whatever the number is that they have there at ENP.

    That’s what I like most about and why I support Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. The children of mahouts are getting an education to learn other skills to grow up to be something other than a mahout. Think Elephants International did an informal survey of both mahouts and their children. Mahouts said that they don’t want their children to grow up to become mahouts and the children said they don’t want to be mahouts.

    It’s this type of work that will help to eventually end having captive elephants as the profession dies out.

    [Reply]

    Mindy Reply:

    Your argument of “what will happen to the current captive elephants if we don’t exploit them?” is one I’ve heard many times before. Their fate, like all living creatures, is the same in captivity as it would be if they were to be released: death. The only issue is how long will they survive. I agree that they would live longer being exploited in the tourist industry, but ask yourself this: if you had the choice to live a long time as a prisoner forced to perform unnatural behavior for 40 more years, or to be released into the wild and live in freedom for as long as you could, what would you choose?

    Also, if the elephant tourism industry were to stop altogether overnight, we’d be looking at about 2000-3000 deaths in perhaps the next month, next year and next decade. BUT the future generations of those wild elephants living in the jungle would have a much better shot at continuing the species.

    In regards to Elephant Nature Park, where are you getting your (mis)information? I am extremely close with the ENP family and know for a fact that when a new elephant is rescued, it is for much less than the market price and often it’s an elephant that is no longer able to work. They are blind, have broken hips and/or legs, are too old and/or weak to carry tourists around, etc. The owners selling these elephants are often desperate to sell, thereby driving the price lower, and since in Thailand elephant sales are pretty much like selling a house or a car, if you sell below market value you lose money and certainly won’t be able to go and purchase a better/bigger item.

    Additionally, many of the mahouts and their families at ENP are refugees from Myanmar. The men are employed as mahouts, the women have jobs in housekeeping, the kitchen, the gift shop or giving massages. The children have the opportunity to go to school. It sounds as if ENP is similar to GTAEF in this way, and that’s a wonderful thing!

    And finally, your claim that ENP has a breeding program. That is absolutely false! What they have are free-roaming elephants that sometimes enjoy each other’s company, just like many consenting adults. Again, why are you making statements you cannot back up? If you take a look at my comment, I did not attack any statements you made that related to GTAEF or the practices there. I simply questioned your statements regarding the Asian elephant species.

    I will be the first to admit that many elephant camps spew propaganda in order to get clients. But when one place openly slanders another, I have to ask why. Shouldn’t we all be working together to solve this problem? Imagine the progress that could be made if all like-minded, true elephant conservation attractions came together and brainstormed.

    As a vegan, I now live my life constantly asking myself the question: By doing this (whatever “this” may be), am I negatively impacting the life of an animal or forcing it to do something that is unnatural for it?

    I only want a world that is full of compassion. That’s all.

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  12. James Prior

    I can’t speak for the conditions in the country, but what makes me sick is to see elephants in the city. Its obviously uncomfortable for them, and I’ve seen large elephants cooped up in pens so bad that their skin was raw in various places where they had rubbed up against the cage trying to find room. I encourage tourists to not give in and ride them or otherwise hand over money to people who bring elephants into downtown Bangkok.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    I absolutely agree, James. Not only do the elephants not have nearly enough space or get the exercise they need living in the city, it is also incredibly bad for the elephants to trek too much on pavement. It damages their feet and toenails and causes injuries.

    It’s very sad how we got to this point and that mahouts feel they have no choice but to beg with their elephants.

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  13. Claudia

    Before travelling to Thailand, I was wondering the same thing; is elephant trekking okay or not. After a lot of research, I found that the answer was no. At least not the rides with the heavy seats that accommodate two people; that means there are three people on the elephant (as the mahout travels with you) and it’s actually uncomfortable for an elephant to carry even one person. Dutch travel agencies actually stop offering elephant rides, because of all the abuse that goes on there.

    So, in the end, I decided to visit Elephant Nature Park (near Chiang Mai) instead. It is a refuge for abused and out of work logging elephants and it was the best experience of my life. There is nothing more special than seeing these animals walk around in a beautiful valley with no fences or chains to constrict them (at night, they are kept in closed areas for their own protection and two of the bulls are chained to keep everybody safe). At the moment they have close to 40 elephants walking around and each of them has their own mahout – and none of them carry a bullhook! It’s the closest thing to seeing elephants in their natural habitat I suppose.
    They showed us videos of how elephants were trained (or rather, how their spirits are broken) and it was absolutely heartbreaking. There were so many elephants in the park that had broken bones and blinded eyes from years of abuse (and to think, these animals are supposed to be worshipped by the Thai…)

    So, if you want to see elephants, please visit this park, where you will see happy elephants and stop supporting the abuse of the beautiful creatures!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Claudia. My biggest issue with Elephant Nature Park is that they buy elephants and breed. This perpetuates the cycle of captive elephants because the mahout, who knows no other profession, will go get another elephant probably illegally. It also only helps those 36 elephants, or whatever the number is that they have there.

    That’s what I like most about and why I support Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. The children of mahouts are getting an education to learn other skills to grow up to be something other than a mahout. Think Elephants International did an informal survey of both mahouts and their children. Mahouts said that they don’t want their children to grow up to become mahouts and the children said they don’t want to be mahouts.

    It’s this type of work that will help to eventually end having captive elephants as the profession dies out.

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    Claudia Reply:

    Thanks for your reply. If I ever travel to Thailand again, I’ll definitely look into visiting GTAEF, it sounds like a very good project.

    [Reply]

  14. Neil

    Really well considered article. I have to admit I did ride one in South Africa a few years ago and it was incredible (horrendously uncomfortable though) but it does make you reflect on what they have to go through. Amazing animals. Having read Lawrence Anthony’s Elephant Whisperer book gave me some great insight into their level of depth as well, can reccommend. Thanks for sharing the article!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks for the reading recommendation, Neil! I’ll have to check it out.

    [Reply]

  15. Diana Edelman

    I’ve been reading your post and comments on other sites with interest. As you know based on my comment to you on another blog, I work for ENP (full disclosure). I would just like to point out that there are other options for mahouts to make money other than riding elephants. Setting aside the discussion about abuse, or whether or not riding can injure an elephant and cause long-lasting damage (it can), if people want to help the elephants and still be able to enjoy them, an ethical way to do so, and one that does not make them “work”, would be to simply spend time with them. There are projects — some come to mind immediately — Boon Lotts, WFFT, Pamper a Pachyderm and the Surin Project — that allow guests to interact with elephants via feeding, bathing and walking instead of making them give rides. These programs were put in place to show mahouts and camps that they CAN make money and be able to provide for their families and elephants without exploiting these animals to the extent they have been exploited. If more writers and more readers would take the time to learn more about responsible and sustainable travel, we could all make a difference in the lives of not only elephants, but other animals being exploited in the name of our bucket lists.

    [Reply]

  16. Diana Edelman

    Let’s try this again since perhaps the last comment was not received by you …

    I’ve been reading your post and comments on other sites with interest. As you know based on my comment to you on another blog, I work for ENP (full disclosure). I would just like to point out that there are other options for mahouts to make money other than riding elephants. Setting aside the discussion about abuse, or whether or not riding can injure an elephant and cause long-lasting damage (it can), if people want to help the elephants and still be able to enjoy them, an ethical way to do so, and one that does not make them “work”, would be to simply spend time with them. There are projects — some come to mind immediately — Boon Lotts, WFFT, Pamper a Pachyderm and the Surin Project — that allow guests to interact with elephants via feeding, bathing and walking instead of making them give rides. These programs were put in place to show mahouts and camps that they CAN make money and be able to provide for their families and elephants without exploiting these animals to the extent they have been exploited. If more writers and more readers would take the time to learn more about responsible and sustainable travel, we could all make a difference in the lives of not only elephants, but other animals being exploited in the name of our bucket lists.

    [Reply]

  17. Charlie

    It’s awful that elephants are being treated that way, and such a shame that people just aren’t aware. I’ve also experienced unethical treatment of elephants on my recent trip to Vietnam (http://bit.ly/1feHPvK) and I hope that people are becoming more aware of what’s right and wrong.

    It’s such a relief that people are raising awareness about these issues and that there are sanctuaries and reserves making a difference to the welfare of elephants.

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  18. Rhonda Mix

    I can definitely understand where the author is coming from. Elephants are in crisis worldwide. I would much rather see an elephant at a sanctuary that allows rides (bareback, on the neck) than struggling to survive on the streets. A few years back, I spent some time at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center as I love elephants and wanted to experience being close to them. I was on alert for any signs of abuse, and did not see any. The center has had mixed reviews, but I had a great time and learned a lot about elephant conservation.

    In my opinion, with the state of the world being as it is for elephants, if a place seems to truly love and take care of their elephants, but offers rides, people should not be so quick to judge. I am sure the elephant would prefer that life to a life on the streets, in the circus, in the zoo, or with a constant threat of poaching. I have mixed feelings about this subject, but a strong passion for elephants. And I say, people should be joining together to try and support organizations that are trying to help this dying species, instead of fighting over whether a conservation center should offer rides or not.

    [Reply]

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