Elephants and Thailand are closely intertwined – pachyderms have helped shape the Kingdom of Thailand, are part of its history and culture, and are an important element of its tourism industry. Thailand elephants experiences can be ethical, if you know where to go.
After logging was banned in Thailand in the late ‘80s, most of Thailand’s population of captive elephants [*NB – technically, Asian elephants are wild animals, hence any elephant living under human care is considered ‘captive’ rather ‘domesticated] found new employment in the tourism industry, carrying people through jungles on organised treks or performing in ‘shows’ displaying their incredible intelligence and trainability.
In recent years, however, animal welfare research has highlighted that many of the activities once considered acceptable in the name of entertainment are, in fact, demeaning and cruel to the animals. A baby elephant dancing and performing on cue may be cute, but the reality is, this little creature has been taken away from its mother prematurely, may have been trained via cruel methods and is actually performing unnatural acts, all for monetary gain.
Questions have also arisen about the quality of elephants’ lives in trekking camps, of their confinement by chains, and long working hours. There is also a suggestion – supported by a recent report by wildlife monitors TRAFFIC – that elephants are being poached from the wild in neighbouring Myanmar to prop up the Thai tourist industry.
With tour companies such as Intrepid Travel leading the charge, there is now a shift away from supporting elephant camps offering trekking and animal shows; instead, tourists are increasingly being offered opportunities to interact with the elephants on a more intimate level, becoming involved in the daily care of the animal and learning about the special relationship between the elephant and its mahout.
Two of the most established sanctuaries – and pioneers in the ethical treatment of elephants – are the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, connected to the Anantara Golden Triangle in the tranquil region bordering Laos and Burma, and Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, founded by the charismatic Lek Chailert. Lek has also had a hand in setting up the Surin Project in the elephant village of Baan Ta Klang, Elephant Haven in Kanchanaburi and a brand-new sanctuary in Phuket.
Another long-standing sanctuary is Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary near Sukhothai; while Elephant Hills near Khao Sok National Park in the south provides a wonderful, interactive experience for tourists. For people visiting Phuket, the new Phang Nga Elephant Park offers a great alternative to the standard offerings of elephant trekking.
This list is by no means comprehensive … and every day, more elephant camps are adapting to current trends and introducing gentler, more sustainable roles for their pachyderm charges. This can only be a good thing, not only for the elephants but for the tourists too – after all, what could be more rewarding than seeing these gentle giants just being themselves?