Thailand: the Elephant in the Room

Elephant tourism sucks; and it isn’t a problem specific solely to Thailand… Just a few weeks ago an elephant stationed outside Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, died after spending hours in the sweltering heat in the midst of one of the hottest summers yet. Why? All so that tourists could sit atop it and get the perfect Facebook cover photo. But behind our expertly posed selfies is endless suffering at the hands of cruelty and inhumane treatment. We’re fascinated by the giant and majestic elephant, some of us even infatuated; from trips to the zoo at a young age to poignant stories told by those who have lived alongside these mystical creatures – The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony is one such beautifully honest non-fiction that tells of how one man connected with and single handedly saved a rogue elephant herd at a South African game reserve from being being shot for bad behavior. So when the time comes, when we finally have the opportunity to interact with this animal in its “natural” habitat – after schlepping halfway across the world to some far off, exotic destination – it’s unsurprising that the one thing we all yearn to do is not just see an elephant but ride on too…

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What exactly is elephant tourism? It’s the broad term referring to all activities that have sprung up to keep our fascination with elephants satiated; from rides to trekking to shows featuring elephants playing the harmonica, you name it, they’ve got it. Simply put, it’s the exploitation of elephants. Because we fuel the industry, a select few have pounced on the opportunity to capitalize without being held accountable due to laissez-faire regulations, giving rise to unethical practices and animal cruelty. And this isn’t just a one off isolated incident; sub-par standards are widespread and abuse at the hands of trainers and animal owners a daily occurrence; the tourism industry is worth too much to leave room for any unsatisfied visitors and a blind eye is easily turned. Whilst it’s likely we have an inkling that standards may be questionable, we often don’t realize our contributory role until it’s too late… There’s only so much a few Trip Advisor reviews can tell.IMG_8202

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When my friends landed in Thailand, riding elephants was a unanimous must do. How do I tell them, after their 20 something hour flight from America that I’d rather not? So I did my research, I scoured the web and read multiple reviews in an attempt to find a sanctuary-type park that also allows guests to ride the elephants – note that most sanctuaries double as rehabilitation facilities and rescue centers so elephants have often suffered injuries caused by the likes of landmines in neighboring Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, or illegal logging work and related industries, and thus cannot be ridden. On paper, Phang Nga Elephant Park seemed to check every one of my stringent criterion off the list; elephants are ridden bareback without the use of the large metal contraptions typical at other parks that cater to tourists*, shifts are supposedly limited, and the mention of elephant conservation as well as ethical practices pops up frequently. So far so good.

*Upon arrival at the park this turned out to be untrue. Apparently this is the result of a previous contract with a large hotel in Khao Lak, insistent that guests ride elephants only if seated on a chair. Due to expire in the upcoming months, the owner then plans to abandon these. Promising, but not definite.

I’ve only been to two of the following four parks, Elephant Nature Park and Phang Nga Elephant Park; at one I rode an elephant, at the other I didn’t. The other two have been recommended by friends also conscious of elephant tourism’s underbelly. Both Phang Nga Elephant Park and Patara Elephant Farm offer visitors the opportunity to ride elephants, bareback minus seat. A two hour drive from Phuket’s Patong Beach, it is worth traveling the extra distance up to Phang Nga province and avoiding parks within Phuket itself. Recently established, Phang Nga is not quite 100% there yet, but they are making moves in the right direction.  Patara is a good option in Chiang Mai if you are looking to ride elephants; as Thailand’s only breeding elephant farm, they’re focusing on eliminating the malpractices present in the elephant tourism cycle. Elephant Nature Park partners with the Save Elephant Organization, rehabilitating injured elephants. Located in Chiang Mai, they were one of the first to institute the anti-riding philosophy, still giving visitors the chance to interact with and bathe elephants. Similarly, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is trying to cut riding out of the mould. Started in 2014 by concerned locals in Chiang Mai, Thai and foreigners alike are educated in elephant ‘eco-tourism’. A second location in Phuket opened in July 2016.

Perhaps my viewpoint is somewhat hypocritical; after all it took me riding an elephant multiple times to come to my current conclusion. On my last trip to Thailand I found myself feigning a smile whilst sitting in a big chair on an elephant’s back at some questionable ‘park’ on Koh Phangan… My triple checking the day before that this was not a part of the itinerary got conveniently lost in translation. This time around, I unleashed a can of worms by probing the inner workings of Thailand’s elephant industry – think somewhere along the lines of  Real Housewives – when I questioned a park owner about the entire concept of riding an elephant after having visited Elephant Nature Park, where this activity is viewed as borderline sinning. If you’re unwilling to forego riding an elephant, then Phang Nga really is one of the best places to do so; tourist hotspots Phuket and Chiang Mai are now rife with everything you should, and want to, avoid, making diligence necessary. The park’s owner moved back to Thailand after having lived abroad, drained his personal savings and plowed them in to running a business that he sees as a considerable improvement, specifically from an ethical standpoint, on that which his family has run for over 200 years. He, rather validly, pointed out that people are always going to want to ride elephants on their holiday in Thailand, and he’s trying to make these interactions as balanced as possible, to shift the paradigms to a transformed model that allows ‘humanely’ run parks to be profitable as well…

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And so we go full circle; why do we feel the need to ride elephants? It’s taken me three trips to Thailand to reach this conclusion, so yes maybe me telling people to opt out does come from a standpoint of slight hypocrisy. Nevertheless, in hindsight I would wholeheartedly forego every opportunity I have had to sit atop an elephant. If you’re on the fence about whether to do it or not, please don’t. The long short of it is that we’re allowing this problem to exist, and as easy as it is to shrug our shoulders and claim we ‘didn’t know’, with all the world’s information literally at our fingertips, ignorance is no longer a valid argument. An industry catering to tourists built up around elephants will always exist; it’s profitable and we aren’t willing to cut the elephant off our itinerary completely, but do we need to ride them? Elephants are beautiful, and hopefully one day we’ll live in a world where just seeing one in the wild, handing it a banana or two, will be enough.