You see it all the time; tourist posting photos of themselves laughing and smiling as they take their first steps atop an elephant in Thailand. What. A. Rush. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and really, the thing to do when travelling Thailand. Their friends see the photos, experience serious FOMO, maybe even go to Thailand one day and seek it out themselves. They ride elephants, post their once-in-a-lifetime photos, and the cycle starts all over again. Unfortunately, tourists are often unaware of the unpleasant truth behind the elephant riding industry in Thailand.
I’ll admit that before going to Thailand myself, I didn’t fully understand the ins and outs of elephant riding and the abuse these giant creatures face. It wasn’t until I visited an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai that I really learned the harm of the riding industry.
Elephants in entertainment
Elephants are highly intelligent creatures and are capable of being taught to perform an array of tasks from hauling logs to painting. Historically in Thailand, they have been utilized by logging companies, but widespread deforestation has caused legal logging to officially cease. Nowadays, elephants primarily work in tourism and entertainment. Unfortunately, very few companies treat their elephants ethically, or with the respect they deserve. Instead, they view them as a profitable business asset.
It’s easy to look at these massive animals and believe they are sturdy enough to handle just about anything. However, elephants are not designed to carry weight on their backs. They have evolved to support a mass amount of weight below their spine. So instead of having smooth, round spinal disks like a horse, for example, elephants have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine. These bony protrusions and the tissue protecting them are vulnerable to weight and pressure coming from above. Many elephants are made to carry people for up to 5 hours, without adequate food and rest time for them to relax. These conditions permanently damage the elephants back and can have severe consequences on the elephant’s lifespan.
Additionally, if that wasn’t enough to convince you of the harms of riding, the elephants also go through a ritual called Phajaan.
What is Phajaan?
Phajaan is an ancient Thai ritual that can best be described as “crushing” an elephant’s spirit. This is the process in which a baby elephant is separated from its mother and tied down so that it cannot sit, lay down, move or turn around. Over the course of a few days, the baby elephant is continually tortured until its spirit is broken and it has nothing left to do but submit, listen and learn what their masters are trying to teach it. Half of the elephants that go through this process don’t survive, the others get mean and aggressive.
Organizations like the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary work tirelessly to rescue these animals, give them a safe place to live and all the bananas they could eat.
This past May, I visited the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Camp 8, one of the many elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that offer elephant interaction experiences. The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project located approximately 60km from the city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. They have nine locations, or camps, around Thailand that house over thirty previously mistreated elephants. Their goal is to provide these rescues with a place to live safely and happily with their own kind. They also aim to educate tourists and locals on the plight of the Asian elephant. This is where I learned of the harsh lives these elephants face. I was able to learn about the elephants and experience a side of them I would never have expected. Elephants can be very playful and excitable. Along with a group of eager tourists, I was able to feed and interact with the goofy elephants, playing with them in the mud, and washing them in the river – experiences that are far more valuable than a five-minute ride could ever be. These elephants live a life of joy, every day like a spa day with the fam. Watching the elephants wander free and devour all the bananas their trunks can carry, it was clear that these elephants were truly happy. So happy you can actually see them smile.
How you can help the Asian elephants
While the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a wonderful company to choose when looking for your own elephant experience, all elephant sanctuaries support the humane treatment of elephants. No, you can’t ride them, but you can do better! For either a half day or full day, you can walk with them, feed them, bathe them in mud and wash them in the river. Trust me when I say you will not feel like you’ve missed out on riding. Plus, with the delicious addition of an included lunch, it will be a day you won’t soon forget.
If you plan on visiting Thailand and are interested in getting up close and personal with Asian elephants, always choose a sanctuary over a riding camp. Many company names will not state that they are a riding camp, so make sure to read descriptions and reviews. If it says riding available, choose a different option. Most sanctuaries specify that they are sanctuaries and offer non-riding options only. So do your research, read tourist reviews and choose accordingly. If we want to see these abusive practices come to an end, we need to stop the flow of cash funding these companies. Book ethically, spread the word and help end elephant mistreatment together.