Elephant Tourism: Ever Dreamed of Riding an Elephant in Thailand?

We’ve all been there, everyone wants to ride an elephant when they come to Asia. It’s that bucket list dream many want to experience when holidaying. The thought of climbing on these huge beasts while traipsing through the green lush jungle provokes feelings of excitement, adventure and joy.

As a young adventurer I did it. I ignorantly booked the cheapest day tour I could to fulfill this dream. I had no idea on how these animals came to be where they were on that day and I’d done no research on the background or what training it took to get them to the stage they were where I was able to jump up on their back and ride them.

Fast track to today, here I am in a remote island in Thailand.  I see the brochures selling that dream experience – but I ain’t buying!  The somewhat older and ‘wiser’ me refuses to support this dark side of elephant tourism that many people do not seem aware of.

As I explore the island on my step through motor bike, I come across two of these exploited elephants.  They are chained up and unable to move more than a few feet.  They sway back and forth in boredom and have a blank stare.  They are not in their natural environment and are living a life they did not choose.

ON THIS ISLAND IN THAILAND, THEY ARE USED PURELY FOR HUMAN ENTERTAINMENT.

THE TOURIST DOLLAR MAKES IT IRRESISTIBLE FOR THE POACHERS AND BUSINESS OWNERS NOT TO PARTAKE IN THIS HORRIFIC TRADE.

When you see elephants in their natural environment you get to watch in awe and you see and feel the depth of their emotional intelligence.  They are magnificent creatures. Elephants are extraordinarily intelligent with a brain three times the size of a human’s.  They are emotional, empathetic and known to experience post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Here’s some background on what it takes to get these giants to the place they are, to the moment where you are about to climb on board and fulfil that dream.

THE DILEMMA OF THE ASIAN ELEPHANT

It is believed there are less than 2000 elephants living in Thailand, this put them on the list of endangered species.  The population continues to decline due to

a) loss of habitat and

b) the illegal capture and trade for use in the tourism industry.

And the illegal capture and trade industry is thriving.  The lure of the dollar and tourists wanting to watch animals do tricks, ride them and pay good money for the privilege means there is an ever present demand for elephants, and many other animals, to be ‘trained’ for animal tourism.

So how are these animals trained to be ready for participation in the tourism industry?

The training is done when the elephant is very young and is a brutally cruel and heart wrenching process.

LET THE TORTURE BEGIN.

Have you or anyone you know ever ridden a wild elephant?  Probably not, because I can’t imagine a wild elephant having any part of having someone or something on its back.   To get the animal to allow this, it is tortured as a baby so it’s spirit is completely broken.

The baby elephant is usually taken from its mother and kept caged or has its movement constricted so its unable to move.

IT’S THEN IT IS BEATEN TO SUBMISSION AND ITS SPIRIT COMPLETELY BROKEN BY STABBING IT CONTINUOUSLY WITH SHARP BULL HOOKS AND CLUBS AND AT THE SAME TIME, IT IS STARVED AND DEPRIVED OF SLEEP FOR DAYS.

Well known photographer Brent Lewin was awarded the Science and Natural History award for his haunting photo of the torture of a baby elephant.  If you  want to see the image CLICK HERE. (Warning: image may disturb some readers.)  There are also multiple videos of the torture on social channels that show the horrific treatment.

The torture does not stop when the elephant is tamed either. Many continue to torture by using bull hooks to control the animal.  Being so intelligent, the elephant has a deep fear and long lasting memory of being stabbed with these hooks and this motivates them to work.  We’ve all seen those documentaries showing the deep emotion and how elephants never forget.

Regardless of how an elephant attraction claims to be responsible and treating their elephants well, the fact remains that they all had to be trained and tamed in the same brutal way.

IT’S YOUR CHOICE…

This inhumane elephant training has been happening for hundreds of years in Asia.  Before animal tourism they were used for heavy lifting, farm and military work.  The problem these days is most of Thailand’s elephants are used for attracting the tourist dollar, to entertain us!  It is the demand for elephant rides and circus acts that leads to more babies being captured and tortured.

BE PART OF THE SOLUTION OR PART OF THE PROBLEM.

The easiest place to start is avoid supporting elephant tourism – elephants used to perform for the tourist either by doing tricks, circus acts and rides.  These guys generally chain the elephants up for the hours they are not being used and are socially deprived of company.   If you see something wrong, speak out and let the owners know.

There are some good organisations working to protect elephants in Thailand. Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Conservation Network that could use your support.

The end of elephant tourism, or any animal tourism for that matter, will not end until the demand by us ends.  Be part of something bigger than yourself and be part of the solution.

Categories: Animals, Responsible Travel