Elephants have long been important to Thai culture, where they are a symbol of religion, history, royalty, and power. According to Buddhist legend, Queen Maya of Sakya, Lord Buddha’s mother, dreamed that a divine Bodhisattva on a white elephant touched her side. She later became pregnant and since then elephants have had a strong connection to the divine and royalty in Buddhism. As Thailand is a Buddhist society, this is one reason elephants are held in such high esteem (the old kings of Thailand rode around on white elephants). Additionally, elephants were used in the logging industry to help clear trees so there was a practical nature to their importance, too.
As the logging industry dwindled in Thailand, elephants began to be used more for tourism. Suddenly, all these elephants had no “purpose” and owners were left with need for a way to make money for their families and the care of the elephants. Since most tourists came to Thailand thinking “I can’t wait to ride an elephant,” it was a lucrative transition.
Elephants were taken into cities and fed by tourists who wanted a photo. In the jungles, riding camps were set up and visitors could ride an elephant through the jungle, take their photos, and return home with tales of their cool experience.
When I lived in Thailand, I finally learned about the true nature of elephant tourism. I learned how those elephants roaming the streets were drugged to be kept under control (and often starved). It was illegal – elephants in cities had been banned for years, but, as is common in Thailand, officials turned a blind eye or were paid off. I was always torn – do I ignore them, hoping this will eventually end the practice, or do I feed the elephant out of kindness but perpetuate this cruelty? It wasn’t until a few years ago after an accident that left a kid, a driver, and an elephant dead that officials in Bangkok finally cracked down and made it elephant-free. (Once in a while, you still see them in Chiang Mai.)
When you ride an elephant, you get glimpses into their poor treatment. I remember once yelling at the mahout (trainer) for swinging his hook a little too hard at the elephant. It left me very perturbed. There are no good elephant riding parks in all of Thailand. All abuse and mistreat their elephants.
But there’s a growing movement to protect the elephants, led by Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park has been around since 1996 and is the biggest conservation and elephant rescue organization in Thailand. Located outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, it is currently home to 37 elephants (plus a menagerie of other animals).
Demand is so high, not only for visitors but volunteers too, that you have to make reservations in advance to visit (for volunteers, that might mean up to a year in advance). When I tried to visit two years ago, they were already booked for the next month.
This time, I booked ahead and was able visit and see all the good they do:
The more you learn about elephants in Thailand, the more you realize the need for change. It was heartbreaking listening to the stories of each elephant and seeing so many with broken backs, legs, and missing feet. Luckily, because of organizations like ENP and more socially-conscious tourists, things are changing. ENP has started to work with the riding camps to give up riding and move towards more animal friendly practices. Thais are learning that people will pay big bucks to feed, bathe, and play with elephants and that can be more lucrative and popular than offering rides.
The elephant camps aren’t gone yet. They won’t be for a long, long, long time. But with more educated tourists and an economic incentive for locals to treat the elephants better, hopefully we can severely reduce these camps in the next few years (and eventually eliminate them).
So the next time you are in Thailand, please don’t ride the elephants. If you want to see an elephant, visit Elephant Nature Park or a similar program and help protect these amazing creatures. You’ll get a more personal and closer interaction with the elephants and you’ll be doing good.
It’s a win-win for everyone involved.