November 4, 2019

What to know about elephants in Thailand

There's massive room for ethical error when you seek elephants in Thailand. To make a choice you're happy with, you have some reading to do...

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What to know about elephants in Thailand

Are you excited to fall in love with elephants in Thailand? If you have a smooshy heart and have ever watched an Attenborough documentary, you probably have a real soft spot for them. I do!

Cut to receiving this email from a customer of The Koh Samui Guide. She’s busy planning her second holiday to Thailand, and wondered about how to experience elephants in Thailand:

Reader question: Our boys age 11 and 8 are desperate to ride and experience [elephants in Thailand]. Do you have any other recommendations for the elephant experience, a sanctuary or something where the kids can be involved?

Elephants in Thailand

Elephants in Thailand? 4 Things You MUST Know About Elephants in Thailand

Visiting Thailand presents perhaps your first opportunity to touch, ride and play with elephants; something you really look forward to. But wait! There's massive room for ethical error when you seek elephants in Thailand. To make a choice you're happy with, you have some reading to do...

Quick facts:

Riding elephants in Thailand

Elephants in Thailand? 4 Things You MUST Know About Elephants in Thailand

I wish I'd known...

As a first-time visitor to Thailand myself, I paid for (and thus supported) an elephant-riding activity that – had I done my research – I would have completely avoided (see other mistakes made on that trip). Since then, I’ve read a lot on the subject of captive elephants for the tourist trade. It's not necessarily good news (some of it's promising), but I wish I'd known better 14 years ago.

Two schools of thought: There are two schools of thoughts on the ethics of elephant riding:

(A) Don't ride elephants - period

(B) Don't simplify a complex issue

(A) Don’t ride elephants - period

Elephants in Thailand? 4 Things You MUST Know About Elephants in Thailand

Animal welfare groups suggest avoiding elephant rides completely. Captive elephants may have been poached from the wild, “broken” through abusive means to accept riders and live in poor conditions as they are used for profit. In more detail:

Baby elephants

"[B]aby elephants are beaten into submission with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks, and simultaneously starved and deprived of sleep for many days." - source + graphic video + graphic photo

Torturous crush

"Any outfit that offers riding, circuses or paintings means [the elephants] have undergone horrific abuse in order to get them to where they are. Remember, all of these elephants have suffered through the abusive and torturous crush." – source

Scars and holes

"You may notice various scars on the elephants and holes in the ears from aggressive use of the bullhook during the domestication process. Mahouts carry the hook as a reminder to the elephant who is boss." – sourceThis article suggests that such abuse is the worst-case exception. Who can say? Apply any level of cynicism you see fit.

Instead of riding elephants, animal rights groups encourage visits/volunteering/donations to two of Thailand's elephant sanctuaries (details in point D - below).

Is that an easy, tidy answer? Wellllll, not exactly...

(B) Don’t simplify a complex issue

Elephants in Thailand? 4 Things You MUST Know About Elephants in Thailand

A second view tries to combine four realities into a “best of a bad situation” solution. It tries to balance the facts that:

1. Insufficient wild elephant habitat

Elephants in Thailand? 4 Things You MUST Know About Elephants in Thailand

Thailand’s captive elephant population exceeds the space available for both wild habitat and wild-ish sanctuary space.

2. Mahouts maintain their livelihood

People who depend on elephant tourism for their livelihoods – mainly Burmese migrant workers and their families – would be left impoverished and vulnerable.“Elephants need to eat 250 kilos per day and cost owners approximately $1,000 per month to house and feed. Without tourism, these elephants would have nowhere to go and no one to pay for their fodder." - source

"Mass tourism remains the only income source available to keep the majority of Thailand’s captive elephants fed and so cannot be abandoned or boycotted but it is important to work with business and mahout communities to modify welfare and sustainability aspects." - source

3. Elephant riding remains in high demand

Elephants in Thailand? 4 Things You MUST Know About Elephants in Thailand

Many tourists want to ride elephants no matter what. In sheer numbers, your adamant elephant-riding boycott means little as tourism from China continues to rise.

Here’s John Roberts on full-throttle elephant tourism boycotts:“[T]he ONLY result of … boycotting the camps that look after elephants properly is that the elephant owners will have no choice but to take a payrise and join the new camps that do not.” - source

As such, proponents of this view continue to offer elephant riding in as humane a way as possible.

4. Rent versus buying captive elephants

Further, this method rents rather than buys the elephant from its mahout, believing that this stops the cycle of commercial transaction (i.e., mahout sells elephant A, replaces him with elephant B, and soon you have twice the elephants in captivity).

"[W]hat do we know about a mahout with money in his pocket and no elephant? We know he buys another elephant. Which may be taken from the wild, may be split prematurely from it’s [sic] mother ... either way another elephant will be caught or bred to replace the one I bought and that will be more elephants in captivity." - source

How to find an elephant camp that practices this?

Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is at the fore of this system. Here's a little more on their philosophy:

"GTAEF strongly believes that in an ideal world all elephants would be wild. This is unfortunately not the case, so until we reach that point, GTAEF aims to assist captive elephants, improving their lives and welfare, while also taking part in conservation and wild elephant programs to ensure the survival of the wild herd. GTAEF at all times endeavours to ensure that net good is done and that our action in helping one elephant does not adversely affect others." - source

The foundation's camp in Chiang Rai has 22 elephants and offers activities for guests from two nearby hotels:

How to choose a good place/camp/sanctuary to visit elephants in Thailand?

GTAEF director John Roberts offers these suggestions.

What I like ... what I don't

I like the realism of GTAEF's approach. I have to raise an eyebrow, though, at the hotels’ marketing literature. To its detriment, it takes a breathless, majestic tone that seems at odds with the science and common sense on which their operation is founded.

(A) Fascinating:

Take this – from the director's blog – on their "Walking With Giants" elephant experience: "[W]e're still the only people who can ensure you're joined on your walk by an experienced Thai vet and/or a scientifically qualified expert on elephant behaviour, so that it's not just a 'walk with elephants' it's an enlightenment into how the eles are thinking.


(B) Yuck:

And compare with this – an enticement to elephant yoga: "Improve your asana flow with an inspirational experience that combines the mindful spirit of yoga with the slow, deliberate rhythm of an elephant. Observe your elephant’s movements and practice easy positions on your gentle giant’s neck. Dismount and enjoy a full yoga class in our rice paddy sala. Re-mount your elephant and try the poses again, discovering how your balance and posture have developed, before riding back to the resort."

Do we really need to do yoga on an endangered animal?

How to do your homework?

While this approach offers realistic solutions to tricky problems, it requires much more research on the part of the tourist. Not only more research but fact-from-fiction sorting skills when you're told only good things about a camp’s treatment of its elephants.

Note that odds aren't in your favour:

"Those of us trying this sort of business model currently look after a maximum of 200 of Thailand’s officially registered 4,614 elephants." - sourceNow, add a further complication about elephants in Thailand...

(C) Elephants are very big and very strong

Elephants in Thailand? 4 Things You MUST Know About Elephants in Thailand

Watch this before getting near an elephant: Watch this clip of an elephant throwing a girl into the air with a quick flick of its trunk. Somehow, she wasn't hurt – but, after seeing that, no way do I want to be that close to an elephant – no matter how much I love them.

Thailand has a few wide-open, chain-free sanctuaries (see below) that earn an A+ rating from animal rights groups. Yet, they too have critics who say humans shouldn’t be that close to unpredictable animals.

Here, GTAEF director John Roberts muses on the pros and cons of a free-roaming facility. Suddenly, Elephant Disneyland doesn't seem such a blanket fix.

"Elephants have the capacity to be fatally dangerous to humans and other elephants in both captive and wild situations and must be managed accordingly." - source

Deaths and injuries by elephants in Thailand

"Financial pressures means that even elephants involved in deadly incidents are unlikely to be taken out of service…. [WFFFT founder Edwin] Wiek said this came as little surprise, with a performing elephant that killed [a British tourist] in April 2000 known to still be working in the tourism industry today." - source

So where does that you leave you – a well-intentioned animal lover who just wants to cuddle an elephant and make all the bad stuff go away?

With the time and inclination, I encourage you to read through all the articles linked here so you’re as informed as can be.

For my part, I’ve settled on a fourth point of view:

(D) Donate in lieu – with or without a visit

If you’ve emerged from your research where I have – that you personally don’t want to ride an elephant but that we’re a long way from a perfect solution – I encourage you to make a charitable donation to support elephants in Thailand.

As I encourage my readers in The Koh Samui Guide, you give your stance a lot more fire-power when using your tourist dollars.

Donate instead of riding an elephant: Throughout Thailand, elephant rides cost anywhere between 600 THB for a 20-minute “trek” to 6,000 THB for a full-day. That’s $17-$170 USD or £13-£138 GBP. Instead, you might make a one-time donation to a Thailand elephant organisation, or “adopt” an elephant with monthly or annual support.

Here are some registered foundations, many of which welcome visitors and volunteers. No matter where you fall on debates concerning renting-vs-buying rescued elephants, free-roaming vs chained, ride-no-ride and whether you're scared/not-scared of being close to large, strong and sometimes unpredictable animals, you'll find an organisation below that you'll be very happy to support.

As you've gathered by now – many of these organisations differ in their opinions, but... if I was a Thai elephant, I'd rather be in any of their care than not.

1. Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand

Since 2001, WFFT has rescued over 5,000 animals and operates much-needed projects for a variety of animals including tigers, sun bears, gibbons and more. WFFT’s elephant projects include a chain-free Elephant Refuge & Education Center (that you’re welcome to visit or volunteer for) and a Street Elephants Campaign. Registered Thai foundation.

2. Friends of the Asian Elephant

The world's first elephant hospital, offering "free care to any elephant, regardless of the circumstances." Projects include a mobile vets programme and an elephant prosthesis factory. Thai registered foundation.

3. Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation

Projects include training mahouts in positive reinforcement, community development for mahouts and their families, and conservation projects for wild elephant habitat. Thai registered foundation.

4. Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park will pick you up from any Chiang Mai hotel or guest house. Your options for visiting include: a single day, staying overnight or volunteering for a week. Here, elephants are treated like elephants and live within a herd – no riding, no tricks or performances.

5. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary

As at ENP, “there are no performances [at Boon Lott's]— just elephants”. Simple guesthouses allow a small number of visitors to stay overnight at the sanctuary. Book in advance to “share in all aspects of the elephants’ world at BLES. It is a hands-on experience that includes gathering their food, walking with them to release sites, and scrubbing them down. Plus, there is ample opportunity to observe the elephants in this indigenous setting”. Where to stay nearby? While they do offer shuttle service straight from the Sukhothai airport, you might extend your stay in the area to check out Sukhothai's ancient temples.

Best of luck in your research and decision – it's a lot to take in!

Elephants on Koh Samui?

Elephants in Thailand? 4 Things You MUST Know About Elephants in Thailand

Certainly, it's incredible (for us humans) to see elephants up close and their keepers are just making a living. However, Samui's elephants aren’t native to the island; they’re purely for tourists' enjoyment. Whether reports of abuse and various forms of neglect are true, the nature of their work means they likely don't lead "happy elephant lives".

Am I alone in thinking so? Apparently not, as evidenced in this TripAdvisor discussion.

Highly recommended

Love, Life, and Elephants by Dame Daphne Sheldrick

This incredible book has nothing to do with elephants in Thailand, and everything to do with African elephants. You'll forgive the leap – it's an astonishing story and an absolute must-read for any elephant-lover.

More Thailand questions?

More questions? I've compiled a list of the top 50 Thailand travel FAQs you might have – from trip-planning to Thai culture to what to wear. Enjoy!