Without a doubt, one of the most popular activities in northern Thailand is riding elephants. Outfitters in places like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pai offer elephant treks, usually combined with other activities. One-day or multi-day treks involve hiking, rafting (white water or bamboo depending on the season) and visits to local hill tribe villages. But is riding elephants ethical?
IS RIDING ELEPHANTS ETHICAL?
Before you part with your money and sign up for one of these tours, it’s worth doing a bit of research into the ethical implications of riding elephants in Chiang Mai and the surrounding areas.
Whichever way you look at it, riding elephants involves affecting the behaviour of elephants. Any working elephant is no longer free to roam and live a normal life. The level of care these elephants receive varies greatly from company to company, but unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see the following bad practices.
Use of Chairs
The most comfortable way for an elephant to carry a human is on the neck just behind the ears. The additional weight of a chair and multiple people puts strain on the elephant.
Working elephants need to have the time to enjoy their usual activities, like feeding, bathing and interacting with other members of the group. If they’re worked all day long, they don’t have the opportunity to do this.
Chaining and Caging
Any form of chaining is restrictive on an elephant’s movement and can cause abrasions on their skin.
Many mahouts use bull hooks to guide their elephants. A selection of companies who describe themselves as ‘responsible’ justify their use because it makes the experience safer for passengers. Many elephants have wounds caused by these hooks and, in extreme cases, mahouts have used them to attack elephants that refused to work.
Keeping an elephant fed and comfortable is no small task. It’s a huge commitment of both time and money for a mahout to supply up to 300 pounds of food a day and to provide adequate care. Many fail and this leads to malnourishment.
‘Breaking’ the Elephant’s Spirit
Even if the best practices are followed, any elephant used for trekking and rides had to be trained at some stage. The process of domesticating an elephant often involves negative reinforcement and can lead to psychological damage.
ALTERNATIVES TO RIDING ELEPHANTS
If, after you’ve done your research, you’re still keen to do some trekking or have an interactive experience with elephants, there are a few organisations in Chiang Mai that provide the perfect solution.
CHOOSING A TREKKING TOUR
If you’d like to go trekking to see the hill tribe villages and explore the natural landscape surrounding Chiang Mai, you can search for a tour operator that doesn’t offer riding elephants in any of its tours. Look for companies advertising ‘responsible’ or ‘ethical’ tourism and then read the small print to make sure that their definition of those terms matches yours. One such company is Barking Gekko, who design private tours incorporating cycling, kayaking, trekking, overnight stops in tree houses and visits to local schools and villages. They’re not cheap compared with the usual offerings you can pick up at any hostel in the city, but they go out of their way to ensure that local communities benefit from your visit through setting up and donating to community projects, employing local guides and office staff, and ensuring that your visit doesn’t impact the villagers’ way of life.
If you’d like to get up close to an elephant without feeling like you’ve contributed to its misery, the best option is to visit an elephant sanctuary. The Elephant Nature Park is based about an hour north of Chiang Mai and offers you the chance to hang out with elephants all day – feeding them, bathing them and petting them – without the option of riding them. It’s founder, Sangduen Lek Chailert, has dedicated most of her life to rescuing elephants that have been mistreated or injured. The park is now home to 75 elephants, which, despite being unrelated, have formed family herds and are free to lead relatively normal lives while recovering from physical and psychological trauma. It’s, without a doubt, the best option for elephant interactions in northern Thailand.
You can learn more about the issues elephants face at D Travels Round. This post features images and videos that will answer the question ‘Is riding elephants ethical?’ for once and for all.