The trip through Thailand is a well-trodden path by travellers, tourists and holiday makers and a key attraction for everyone is elephant rides. Who wouldn’t want to walk through the beautiful South East Asian jungle on the back of such a majestic animal? I recently visited Thailand and I was very excited about seeing the elephants. I was dreaming of that movie scene moment where you walk over to the elephant, look into its eyes and instantly feel some kind of powerful mammalian connection. An unspoken bond between two animals. Then it would gracefully let me ride on its back into the sunset.
However, this beautiful image painted for tourists is far from the ugly reality of elephant riding. Every year hundreds of tourists pay to ride elephants, unknowingly funding an abusive trade. In fact, the most recent report from the World Animal Protection showed elephant trekking to be the cruellest animal attraction in the world (based on Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU)) analysis of wildlife attractions ranked by welfare and conservation). But why? How can the largest land mammal by harmed by carrying a human?
After doing a little research, I was shocked to find how damaging this activity is:
1. The Capture – elephants do not naturally let humans ride them, they must be captured, trained and broken in from birth. The bond between a mother and baby elephant is incredibly strong, as with human mammals. The maternal instinct and defensive nature of a mother prevents humans accessing the baby. One method is to force the mother and baby towards a pit trap. Here, the elephants are powerless and the baby is removed.
2. The Grief – elephant mothers feel grief at the removal of their baby. This has been shown in numerous nature documentaries, where distressed mothers cry out and shed tears, staying for days around the body of their offspring. Unwanted female elephants are either left in distress, shot, or sold for ivory.
3. The Crush – yes, this one is as bad as it sounds. In Thailand, this process is referred to as ‘phajaan’ and is described as ‘crushing’ an elephant’s spirit to make it submit to human interaction and rides. The baby is physically restrained to the point that it cannot sit down or move in a tiny pen. Food and water are withheld and the baby is tortured; many do not survive. It is a horrific process and will continue until the baby is silent and will submit to learning what the masters are teaching. When tourists see the elephants, they look peaceful and calm, but this is an elephant with no spirit. No joy. It is a bitter twist on the phrase ‘an elephant never forgets’.
4. The Aftermath – the pain continues after training and the masters use a bullhook to remind the elephant that they are dominant. Elephants are also tied up and separated from the rest of their herd. Like humans, they are highly sociable creatures and inability to interact is damaging to their mental wellbeing.
5. The Physical Effects – it’s hard to believe that elephants can feel the weight of a human because of their size, but their physiology is not designed to support heavy loads on their back. Their spine has long, bony vertebrae extending upwards which are covered by a small layer of tissue. This makes the spine vulnerable to the concentrated weight of a saddle or howdah. A howdah can carry two tourists and the mahout (master/trainer) sits on the elephant’s neck. But the howdah weighs around 100kg and an average elephant can only carry 150kg – we can all do the maths. The total weight of three people plus the howdah is too much to bear.
Due to habitat loss and poaching, elephants are now an endangered species. We have to protect those that are left. It’s clear elephant riding is a terrible activity but tourists still want to experience these animals and in order to stop elephant riding, we have to provide a safe alternative.
Cue elephant sanctuaries!
I chose to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai on my recent trip to Thailand and it was a WONDERFUL experience! The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical, eco-tourism project funded by members of the Karen hill-tribes and Chiang Mai locals who wanted to improve the welfare of Asian elephants. The elephants have been rescued and rehabilitated and are free to roam across the mountain sanctuary. The sanctuary aims to educate tourists and develop a responsible, sustainable approach to elephant eco-tourism.
On our day trip, we met the elephants (including the new baby, aaaah!), fed them and cuddled them. We went into a mud bath where we helped the elephants cool off by rubbing mud onto their backs, which was a lot of fun! We then cleaned up by having a swim in a nearby river. I never in a million years thought I would get to swim in a river alongside an Asian elephant – it was an unforgettable day which brought me closer than ever to these gentle giants.
If you are looking for your magical elephant experience – this is it! Support these organisations and charities because if enough people do, the elephant riding will become unpopular and eventually stop.
You can help give an elephant the chance to live a happier life, and still get that cracking elephant selfie!
For some more elephant charities please see: