Elephant treks and rides are popular among tourists in Thailand and in many other parts of Asia. However elephants are often mistreated and harshly trained.
A recent report from the World Animal Protection (WAP) revealed that more than three-quarters of nearly 3,000 elephants used for tourist entertainment in Asia are kept in severely-cruel conditions.
Such intelligent, social and emotional animals do suffer to please tourists. Thanks to growing awareness, more and more people are abandoning
Why you shouldn’t ride elephants
Turning a wild animal such as an elephant into a docile and compliant pet is a long and cruel process.
While some elephants were born into captivity, others are captured in the wild, mostly in Myanmar. According to a 2013 report from Traffic, an elephant captured and smuggled from Myanmar can fetch up to $60,000.00. Older female elephants will try to protect their youngsters from traffickers and might get shot, while the babies are taken away.
From then, baby elephants go through a process called phajaan, which is a process “crushing” their spirits by torture and social isolation. They are immobilized, deprived of sleep and food, subject to regular beatings. Elephants are often left injured and traumatized.
They will spend the rest of their lives on chains, or carrying tourists. They will be beaten with bullhooks (some type of stick with a sharp hook), denied food and water, and work to exhaustion.
Luckily, there are many centers that now rehabilitate and protect elephants. You can still admire these beautiful creatures while helping them get better lives.
How to spot a center that doesn’t treat well its elephants
There are a few signs that you should watch out for, and that will straight away tell you if the place is treating its animals properly, or not.
Does the place offer elephant rides?
As we explained above, the methods used to train the elephants are barbaric and very difficult for the animals. There is no “nice way” to train an elephant to be ridden.
If the center or the travel agent you are looking at offers you elephant rides, pick somewhere else.
Are the elephants restrained?
If the animals are restrained in any way, such as chains or in a small enclosure, you shouldn’t go there. Prioritise a center that let them move freely in large spaces.
Do the mahouts have bullhooks?
The bullhooks are a sort of stick ending with a hook. When you check it out, you can easily realise that this is a tool to create pain.
Picking a sanctuary
Meeting elephants is an incredible experience, you just have to be careful about the place you choose. Instead of enjoying an elephant ride and supporting the terrible practices behind it, go into accredited sanctuaries where your action can make a real difference.
Please find a list below of places that had been recommended and is supported by Peta, as well as Responsible Travel:
Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
This sanctuary is highly recommended by Peta, where 12 former captive elephants are cared for and rehabilitated. Guests can stay on site and are involved in all aspects of the life at the sanctuary.
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. Visitors can volunteer to help. Dozens of elephants have been rescued and are now enjoying their “retirement” in a natural environment, along with other animals that are looked after.
Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) is a foundation looking after elephants in Thailand. They are the world’s first elephant hospital and offer free care to injured animals. They even have a prosthetic factory! Visitors are welcome, and if you wish you can leave a donation.
This elephant park offers to stay on site and participate in many activities over a few days, one of them being able to interact with the elephants in the park. It is one of the very few chain free parks in the south of Thailand.
Karen Hill tribe village in Western Thailand
They run a project with Mahouts were elephants are rehabilitate to their natural habitats. The elephants roam free in the jungle and the mahouts take tourists see them there. You can walk and observe the elephants being totally free, and this is a way to provide an alternative income to mahouts.
Tha Mai Ruak
The goal of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Trust (WFFT) is to educate people about wildlife protection, they are also a refuge for many, such as elephants. They also have a hospital on site. You can volunteer for several weeks if you have time, or just come for a day visit.
This is the second Elephant Valley sanctuary opened. The first one was in Cambodia and won awards for their projects.
Elephant Sanctuary in Cambodia
The Elephant Valley Project is run by a registered Cambodian NGO. The visits consist of trekking in the jungle, watching the elephants being elephants. They also offer discounts if you work for another NGO or are a vet/conservation student.
Elephant Sanctuary in Laos
There are few elephants rescued from the logging industry. You can enjoy and observe them roaming freely and foraging for food. They also work with a national park to reintroduce elephants into the wild.
Elephant Sanctuary in Myanmar
This center is family owned and offers to visitors the opportunity to participate in the daily care of the elephants. There is also a reforestation center tackling the issue of habitat loss.