We recently visited Northern Thailand for the first time and had a fantastic trip. However, there was one thing we didn’t like, and which inspired us to write this post. The longer we stayed, the more clear it became that animal mistreatment is still very widespread in South East Asia. You can, for example, still ride elephants all you want. You can also still have your photo taken with a drugged tiger. There seem to be many such issues in Thailand, and the rest of Asia, but the one we are going to focus on today is elephant interactions.
In today’s day and age, you are undoubtedly aware that riding elephants is a big no-no. Yes, your grandparents might have shown you cool selfies from their trip to Thailand 30 years ago on top of a massive bull elephant. It wasn’t frowned upon back then, but it sure is today. No matter how many cool pictures you see, or how many people you know back home who have already done it, it’s not okay for you to ride an elephant. And you already know this. There has been plenty of media attention specifically towards riding elephants, and nowadays, the vast majority of people are aware that it is not acceptable to do so.
This is great! We are really happy about it, but unfortunately, the problem is not solved. First and foremost, elephants are still being ridden. However, as you can probably tell from the title of this post, that’s not all we are going to talk about here. Aside from riding, elephants are also subjected to all sorts of other interactions with tourists. You can, for example, feed, bathe, or pet them. What’s more, those things are still considered ethically okay to do in the eyes of most people. Although we all know not to ride elephants, we don’t mind interacting with them in other ways. This makes perfect sense because all the focus has been on riding only, and elephants are just so damn cute it’s near impossible to leave them alone. Surely, feeding elephants and giving them a quick bath doesn’t qualify as animal mistreatment?
Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T RIDE ELEPHANTS
But let’s start from the beginning here. Why exactly is it that you shouldn’t RIDE an elephant? They are huge, strong animals, and they should be able to comfortably carry a few tiny humans, right?
Nope. It’s not just you the elephant will be carrying. There might be any number of people on top, and the combined weight quickly adds up. For your comfort, the elephant will also be lugging a huge saddle, and those are actually surprisingly heavy. Even though it’s a massive animal, this sort of work is strenuous. On top of that, the elephant will be doing absolutely nothing else all day long, with only minimal breaks. Think about it. The fewer breaks the elephant gets, and the more people you can put on top, the more money the owner makes. Most countries in South East Asia are relatively poor, so would you really expect the owner not to chase a maximum return on investment? To not take full advantage of his asset – the expensive elephant? No right? It’s as simple as that.
Except, there’s more to the story. If you have ever encountered an elephant in the wild (you know, one that is untamed), you would quickly realize that these are dangerous animals. You would never dream of getting near it because the most likely outcome would be that it kills you. It is a wild animal, and it will do whatever it can to protect itself. If you appear to be a threat, it will charge and kill you without hesitation. There is no way you could just walk up to a wild elephant and take it for a ride. That is a fact. No wild elephants would ever allow humans to ride them.
– We got a little too close to this herd of elephants on our self-drive safari in Kruger National Park. They came out of nowhere from behind the bushes but thankfully didn’t charge at us.
So how do you tame an elephant? Well, you have to discipline them from a very young age. That may sound innocent enough, but disciplining a baby elephant doesn’t quite follow the same process as the human equivalent. You have to use excessive force, such as chains, spikes, hooks, and whips. It’s just too big for us, and so there is simply no other way to make an elephant “behave.” This sort of animal cruelty is a pre-requisite to being able to put people on top of it. If you didn’t mistreat the elephant, it would kill anyone that tried to mount it.
Fear-based training is the only method that makes it safe for people to ride elephants.
If you haven’t read it already, check out this article from National Geographic. It’s heart-breaking to read about these methods used to control animals in the tourism industry; however, it is a super important subject. It’s applicable to all animal encounters, not just elephants, and educating yourself in that regard will make it a lot easier for you to make decisions on the fly on your holiday. We would have liked to know about this earlier because then we definitely wouldn’t have ridden camels during our visit to Egypt.
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T INTERACT WITH ELEPHANTS AT ALL
We just mentioned how it’s necessary to use metal hooks, and other torture-like instruments, to control elephants so that humans can safely ride them. However, if you need to discipline an elephant like this to use it for riding, what about if you just use it for feeding, bathing, and petting? You guessed it… The same methods apply. All elephants that are being bathed by tourists have gone through the typical conditioning at a young age, including being separated from its parents, having a metal hook pulled inside their mouth, being stabbed with metal spikes, and whipped.
In short: Whenever you, as a human being, are safely interacting with an elephant, it has been subjected to animal mistreatment.
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T VISIT ELEPHANT SANCTUARIES
But how about “elephant sanctuaries” then? You know the places where elephants are rescued from years of work in the tourism industry and get to live out the rest of their lives free of chains and mistreatment. Here the caretakers have not been cruel to the elephants. They have not been conditioning them from a young age, rather they have freed the elephant from years of hard work. Now they require constant care because they can no longer survive on their own in the wild. When you visit an elephant sanctuary, your payment goes toward this much more humane treatment.
It sounds great, and sometimes it really might be. However, often it’s nothing more than a façade. “Elephant Sanctuary” has become a popular buzzword used all over Asia to justify, and to sell, various experiences related to elephants.
– The picture above is from when we visited an Elephant Sanctuary in Koh Samui a few years back. It was definitely the one with the best reviews on TripAdvisor, and it is supposedly ethical and okay to visit. We still regret our visit but included a photo here to prove that we are not above everybody else and don’t see ourselves as “saved” in any way.
Some of the “elephant sanctuaries” are outright fake. They just put that label on their establishment, and suddenly they sell a lot more tickets. They ride the sustainable tourism wave by promoting their supposedly ethical practices, but in reality, they haven’t changed a thing. Generally, you should be able to avoid these by reading a lot of reviews about each place and staying critical. The problem is, which National Geographic also highlighted in their article, that you can rarely see “behind-the-scenes” how the elephants are actually treated. You are only visiting for a few hours, and for that duration, it is quite easy to hide the real business practices.
We are not suggesting that all companies are evil. Some of the elephant sanctuaries are actually really trying to make a change and improve the lives of the unfortunate elephants who have already become part of the tourism industry. They somehow save the elephants and “retire” them from the strenuous work they were otherwise destined to carry out for the rest of their lives. Now all they have to do is get bathed and fed by tourists, which comparably, doesn’t sound so bad.
But, before you head to any of these sanctuaries, with a positive attitude towards “saving the elephants,” there is this one last thing you seriously have to consider:
How are the elephants saved, and who benefits from it?
THE DARK CIRCLE OF THE ELEPHANT INDUSTRY
Generally, elephant sanctuaries purchase their animals from the tourism industry. In essence, they use funds obtained from tourists to buy elephants free from slavery. That way, everybody wins. Tourists get to bathe, feed and pet the elephants, the sanctuary gets to employ a lot of people from the local village, and the old owner gets a bit of profit from the sale.
Perhaps you already realize what we are hinting at?
When the elephants are “sold” to the sanctuaries, it is often because they are in such bad shape that the owners simply cannot profit from them anymore. They might earn more money by selling to elephant sanctuaries, than if they continued to try to use them for riding. The money earned can then be put towards acquiring a brand new elephant which they can train and discipline as per usual. The elephant sanctuary saves one, old, elephant, but enables the owners to purchase a fresh, young, one instead. So when you spend your money at an elephant sanctuary, you help make the wheels spin in this dark circle of the elephant industry.
We are not claiming that (all) elephant sanctuaries do this knowingly. However, the incentives are definitely there, so please excuse us for expecting the worst of humanity.
SUMMING IT ALL UP
You already knew this, but you should never ride elephants. For one, there is the physical toll on the animals. This is definitely not the only reason. There is also the hurtful disciplining of the elephants to consider, as well as how you help this cruel industry to prosper. To avoid the last point (being an enabler of the elephant industry), you have no choice but to steer well clear of any and all elephant interactions.
Remember, this does NOT only apply to riding!
Unfortunately, ANY interaction with elephants is a negative form of animal tourism, no matter how good-hearted the owners of the sanctuaries are. Even if you are only bathing the elephant, it has still had a life of fear-based training. You are unwillingly supporting this industry by interacting with the elephant. It is a huge problem in most of Asia as there are plenty of tourists that still ask for the elephant encounters. When the demand is there, countries with fewer resources will most definitely supply the services. It is simple economics.
WHAT REALITY IS LIKE
These days, a great selling point for many service providers is a big NO RIDING sign on their elephant experiences. That ought to be a good thing. It is fair enough that the companies use the sustainable travel movement as a marketing tool because the end result is good. Or so they would have you believe. Because, unfortunately, a great number of these companies will let you ride the elephants nonetheless.
You can almost always get an elephant ride if you want to. We have seen it ourselves. We wanted to go on a jungle trek in Chiang Mai and searched for hours to find the best company that didn’t include any sort of elephant interaction on their trip. Still, as we arrived in our hut for the night, it turned out to be smack in the middle of a so-called “Elephant Land.” We were offered to feed and pet the elephants as part of our trek, and when we respectfully declined, they simply thought we were scared of the great beasts. Our guide even let it slip that we could arrange for a ride as well. We soon learned that this is quite typical in those places. Even if a company markets itself as a place without elephant riding, you shall get one if you simply ask for it. You might have to wait until the other guests leave, but a good guess would be that you can ride elephants in a majority of the places that advertise the opposite!
Some companies aren’t as subtle. They directly advertise that they offer elephant riding, apparently because there is a big Chinese tourist market for that. As we were looking for day trips in Laos, almost all tour providers included some kind of elephant interaction, and most of them actually advertised with elephant riding. It really surprised us to see that not much has changed practically, although there has been such a big shift in public opinion on animal cruelty.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
We want to mention that, of course, this isn’t all black and white. Although we advise you to avoid any and all elephant interactions, this doesn’t solve all the associated problems. For example, we know that some of the elephants used in the tourism industry are passed down over generations. What to do with the baby elephant whose mother is already tamed? It wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild without its parents. Also, in some cases, a whole village may be supported by an elephant business. What should they do if that were to close down? Also, what would happen if an elephant sanctuary didn’t buy an old elephant used for riding? Would it continue working for years to come, and would the owner still be able to afford a new generation of elephants? We don’t have the answers to such questions, and probably neither do you. In that case, we believe the safest choice (and the simplest) is to avoid elephant interactions altogether. In that way, at least you will know that you don’t pay money just to directly enable animal cruelty.
HOW TO HAVE AN ETHICAL ELEPHANT EXPERIENCE
So what to do if elephants are one of your favorite animals? They are for us, and don’t worry; there are still excellent ways to experience elephants in all their glory. You simply have to find them in their natural habitat and keep your distance. You won’t get to pet, feed, ride, or bathe the elephants, but you will get to observe how they live and behave in real life. That’s the real deal people! The single best way to experience elephants in the wild is to go on an old-fashioned Safari. You have to get out into the bush (perhaps in a protected national park) and simply watch the elephants live their daily life. It’s not quite as interactive as bathing and feeding them, but we promise you it is plenty interesting.
– This picture is from an elephant safari we went on in Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka, one of the largest places in the country that still protects wild elephants.
We know this is one heck of a long, angry, rant, but we hope it has helped enlighten you somewhat. Hopefully, you’ll think twice before interacting with elephants on your next vacation. No matter how great your Instagram feed will look, it just isn’t worth it! Trust us. And this actually applies to many other animals as well. As mentioned, we have long since regretted our experiences with camels in Egypt, but there are many more examples of questionable practices when it comes to animal tourism. Always keep a critical mindset, and if you’re in doubt about whether an experience is ethical, just drop it. Better safe than sorry!
Please let us know of your thoughts in regard to the topic of animal tourism. Do not hesitate to throw us a comment down below! You are also very welcome to reach on on social media with any questions or feedback you might have.