Elephant riding in Thailand is an extremely popular activity for tourists and every tour shop in major areas will have brochures of various companies offering this ‘unique experience’. Whilst previously travelling in Thailand, Chris and I took up the offer of riding through the jungle on the back of these 3000Kg + beauties and it is one of my biggest regrets since understanding this dark side of Thailand’s tourism business.
Since logging in Thailand has been outlawed, elephants have gone from working long hours in horrendous conditions in the jungle to begging in the city streets, performing tricks or giving joy rides to tourists. Whatever profession these elephants occupy, the training process is inhumane, disgusting and heart breaking.
For centuries, baby elephants have been ripped away from their mothers and the training session of ‘breaking their sprits’ begins. It is here the elephants are forced into a bamboo cage called the ‘crush’ not much bigger than the elephant itself. They are beaten, starved and tortured for days on end until the elephant finally surrenders and gives into the mahouts. The elephant is left severely wounded, not to mention mentally scarred and terrified.
Once tamed the elephant is then put to work. Although outlawed in most of Thailand, begging with elephants through the busy streets, along the beach or in some resorts can still be seen in several cities. The mahout walks with the elephant, often a young baby, through the concrete jungle for tourists to feed them and take photos along side them for a fee. Some perform tricks or wear outfits to entice tourists. The elephant is often seen swaying in distress as the noises, lights and crowds surround them. But this is often overlooked, as many tourists are excited to see these beautiful creatures up close.
Following an evening of work, these elephants are often found squatting with their owners in roadside camps in an urban environment so far removed from their natural habitat. There are regular car accidents (one reason why elephant street begging is being outlawed), which not only injures the drivers and pedestrians, but also the elephant themselves.
Other elephants find themselves in parks offering travellers an opportunity to take a ride through the jungle with the mahouts. Although these animals are incredibly big, they are not built for the weight of one, let alone two or three people on their backs. The stronger part of the elephant for riding is it’s neck, not their back, and the task can be extremely painful resulting in long term injury. As this is a profitable business for the mahouts, in many cases they are looked after reasonably well, but in some camps the mistreatment continues with elephants being controlled by sticks with nails in the end and those injured or ill not receiving proper medical treatment.
While the Thai government is making some inroads into the conservation of these animals, it is unlikely there will be any move to outlaw elephant riding in the near future as it is such a big money earner for the tourism industry. The government has however, set up a training facility for mahouts to be educated in working with elephants in a more humane way with voice commands rather than weapons. I can’t help but think the ‘breaking their spirits’ tradition will continue in many villages throughout the country.
The logging industry is still legal in the neighboring country Burma and on a daily basis these elephants are being abused and tortured to work for man. On a recent trip to the Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai, I witnessed many injured animals that had arrived with wounds from land mines, blind from sticks or sling shots to the eyes and broken limbs or back from years of abuse. For these animals who are injured and unable to work, their future is grim unless they are saved by elephant conservationists, like Lek from the Elephant Nature Park.
But saving these elephants is a difficult and costly exercise. An adult elephant with a foot blown apart by a landmine can cost up to $US10,000 to rescue. And a healthy baby elephant can cost up to $US35,000 to purchase from it’s owner. Then there is the cost of medical treatment, food and ongoing care. It takes a dedicated, special person to take on the fight of saving these elephants and as tourists we should be supporting their cause.
The demand of elephant rides is huge in Thailand and many people (like I was) are completely unaware of how they are trained or treated. Tour companies will continue to offer elephant riding as long as there is demand. Hopefully as the public is educated and better informed, more support will be given to saving these elephants from harms way.
I speak from experience, the opportunity to wash an elephant in a river or walk with a free roaming elephant beats a 30min ride on an elephant hands down!