You can’t travel to Thailand and not ride an elephant.
Or can you?
I try to live an ethical life. I only eat vegetarian so as not to support the meat industry. I avoid buying cosmetics that have been tested on animals in a laboratory. I make a conscious effort to educate myself on global issues from a variety of sources so that I can make informed choices on things that matter. So you’d think that I would be able to resist my temptations to visit an elephant park on my trip to Thailand, right?
Just why are elephant parks unethical?
There are a number of reasons. For starters, despite claims that the elephants are ‘rescued’ from the wild, this is not always the case. Many elephants are captured as young calfs, and tortured into submission. This process is referred to as ‘Phajaan’, which roughly translates to ‘Elephant Crushing’.
Furthermore, even if they were rescued, that does not mean to say that the park has bettered their situation. As Brendan van Son of Brendan’s Adventures put it: “… these animals are being exploited for the financial wellbeing of the company that rescued them.”
Many riding experiences also include mounting a howdah onto the back of the elephants for tourists to sit on. These platforms have been known to rub against their skin and cause blistering and pain. Despite their enormous size, the weight of these platforms can also be problematic and lead to permanent spinal injuries.
It is also impossible to provide the equivalent conditions for elephants in captivity as they would experience in the wild. Elephants have evolved to survive – and thrive – in an environment that parks just cannot recreate. This can lead to premature death, disease and an overall diminished quality of life.
I know what you’re thinking: You’re a massive hypocrite, Dani! You participated and reaped the rewards of elephant tourism, and yet here you are, bad-mouthing the industry. Sort your shit out!
I know, I know. I’m the first person to admit that there are so many appeals to elephant riding. It’s sensational to get up and close with creatures that have previously only existed in films or in enclosures at the zoo. Especially coming from a country where elephants are not indigenous (*cough New Zealand cough*), this is an undoubtedly thrilling experience.
Secondly, there is an element of control that goes hand and hand with being taught how to ride an elephant. These beings are the largest land mammals on earth. Riding them is nothing less than a humbling experience.
Thirdly, it can sometimes be hard to imagine traveling to destinations such as Thailand without ticking elephant riding off your bucket list. They’re a cultural icon of Southeast Asia, and boycotting the experience is far more than a missed photo opportunity.
The elephant park I visited in Chiang Mai, Thailand was called Baanchang Elephant Park. We learnt how to look after, feed, ride and bathe the elephants, all of which were experiences I thoroughly enjoyed.
They didn’t use howdahs, but rather invited you to ride on their backs with nothing but a loose rope knotted around the elephant’s neck and girth for stability. I have researched this, and the evidence shows that this is not nearly as harmful to the elephant as are howdahs (for more on this matter, see below). While in hindsight I would not do this again, if you are hell-bent on getting on the back of an elephant in some way or another, then this is the way to go.
I did not witness any examples of unnecessary brute force being inflicted upon the elephants at any point during my stay, even when the elephant I was riding decided to veer off the track and go walkabouts through the bush. It was lightly guided back to the group where we peacefully carried on without any fuss.
I do not have complete and unwavering knowledge of how ethical Baanchang Elephant Park is, but from my experience and research, they seemed to tick a lot of the boxes. If you are considering visiting Baanchang on a future trip to Thailand, I suggest you peruse their website to fully understand the nature of their company and their dedication to giving elephants the highest quality of life possible within a domesticated environment.
I am not against all elephant parks. Just the unethical ones. If you are firmly planted in your plan to visit a park, then I ask that you consider the following in mind…
- Take your time when choosing a park to visit. If you are rushing to map out your itinerary and don’t allow yourself to carefully research what each park offers, then you are far more likely to risk supporting the dark side of elephant tourism.
- Ensure that the park only features elephants they have been rescued from abusive circumstances, and has an emphasis on educating tourists about caring for elephants as opposed to giving rides. Whilst I discussed that riding bare-back is better than riding with a howdah, refraining from riding at all is even better.
- If you are like me and can’t keep your hands off souvenirs, check to make sure you are not purchasing ivory. Ivory’s monetary value is the primary reason elephants are poached in the wild. To put the gravity of this issue into perspective, it is believed that – since the 1900s – the Asian elephant population has halved. Halved. Let that sink in for a moment.
The Asian elephant is now an endangered species. It is estimated that only 30,000 exist in the wild. While I do not condone parks that mistreat elephants, there are those that strive to rehabilitate and protect them from extinction. We may have to come to terms with the reality that these parks could be the saving grace for these animals, and I strongly believe that we should support them. You can find a list of ethical elephant sanctuaries to visit here.
I would like to note that I am not an expert on the ethics of elephant parks. I am purely someone who is discussing a personal experience, has researched this issue and is passionate about the politics of animal cruelty.