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How to navigate elephant tourism in Thailand

Elephants have long been synonymous with Thailand, yet their treatment in the name of tourism is questionable. Ethical camps are few and far between but it’s here we see how good life can be for these incredible animals, if treated responsibly

How to navigate elephant tourism in Thailand
Image: Elephant Valley Thailand

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“It’s true what they say, you know, an elephant really never forgets.”

Gazing at Faasai’s gentle, intelligent face, I can well believe it. No one who looks into an elephant’s eyes remains unchanged. Like deep pools of molten rock, they seem to speak of infinite memories. As I hear her story, however, I change my mind — perhaps they speak of infinite miseries. Like so many captive elephants in Thailand, Faasai was subjected to The Crush; a process as terrible as the name suggests.

Designed to establish human dominance, babies — snatched from their mothers as young as six-months-old — are forced into tiny cages and systematically beaten and tortured until their spirits are broken. It’s then, and only then, that they’re released; ready to be taught to carry humans, to dance, paint, play football, and to bow.

“When this girl first arrived her eyes were infected,” my guide, Newt, tells me. “Her feet were injured from the chains that tethered her to the spot when she wasn’t giving rides or performing. But now look at her.”

Right on cue, Faasai turns, lets out an enormous fart and lumbers off, her dignity somehow intact; her gait ungainly yet supremely graceful. She’s utterly magnificent.

I’m spending the day at Elephant Nature Park, around 37 miles from Chiang Mai. Newt is showing me around the sprawling, 250-acre camp, home to 80 rescuees, each with a story more harrowing than the last.

Elephants are simply not designed to stand on their heads or walk a tightrope. Furthermore, their backs are actually extremely weak. Huge, heavy and cumbersome, the saddles they’re forced to wear lead to pressure sores, permanent spine damage, and often to an early death. And perhaps that’s a blessing. An elephant can live as long as a human — in captivity, we’re often condemning these animals to decades of unrelenting misery.

Yet their number in Thailand’s tourism industry continues to climb. A sudden, nationwide ban on logging in 1989 — a trade that used elephants to move felled trees — is often cited as the reason for this, although there are far more captive elephants now than there were at the time of the ban: 2,198, according to World Animal Protection.

Roughly equal in size to the wild population in Thailand, that’s twice as many elephants in tourism than in all the other Asian countries combined.

“It’s big business,” Newt tells me. “An elephant is worth up to $50,000 [£36,500], while the weekly wage is often less than $50 [£36]. And at the end of the day, tourists love them. They get what they want.”

His point hits home. I’ll freely admit I’m no different from the next animal-obsessed traveller. I come to Thailand, I want to see elephants — but happy, healthy ones, not animals that have lost the will to live.

The growing calls from the West for ethical camps hasn’t gone unnoticed. In parts of Northern Thailand, riding is out of favour. This becomes clear as soon as I step onto the hot, dusty streets of Chiang Mai, where, only a few years ago, I’m told, it was advertisements for rides that were covering the walls of the city’s operators. Now they offer me the chance to ‘be a trainer for a day’, or ‘walk beside these giants on a jungle trek’.

Accordingly, many parks here have rebranded, transforming into ‘retirement homes,’ ‘refuges’ and ‘sanctuaries’.

“That’s true,” Newt agrees, when I cite this surely positive attitude change. “But more riding camps still open all the time. And often elephants aren’t treated any better; it’s just better hidden. When they aren’t with tourists they’re chained up alone all day, sometimes by all four feet. What would happen if you did that to a horse in the UK?”

Elephant Nature Park’s owner, Lek, was one of the first people to speak out against their mistreatment in Thailand. Born in a mountain village, the granddaughter of a traditional shaman healer, Lek grew up with an elephant, gifted to her family in thanks for her grandfather’s skill. She’s been advocating for animal rights since her teens, has won world renown for her conservation work and is involved in many charitable endeavours.

Unfortunately, Lek is nowhere to be found when I visit, although towards the end of the day I get to meet the latest addition to her elephant menagerie. Kabu was forced repeatedly to mate with her brother to produce a much-prized calf. When the baby was born she killed it, a common reaction among captive elephants under extreme duress. Kabu stands stock-still, three-quarters submerged in a swimming pool-like structure — for therapy, Newt explains — her sad, staring eyes looking straight through me.

Seeing my dismay, Newt smiles: “Don’t worry, she’ll pull through. She gets better every day, and elephants have an amazing ability to move past things.”

A beacon of hope

Differentiating between the good, the bad and the truly depressing when it comes to elephant parks can be almost impossible, but it’s at 7am, cradling an armful of steaming dung, that I realise just how good life can be for these remarkable animals, if they’re treated responsibly.

I’m helping with the morning poo pick-up at Elephant Valley Thailand, in Chiang Rai, my second port of call, three hours north east of Chiang Mai by bus. Set amid a sultry jungle of cedar and bamboo, the 40-acre sanctuary is cool, calm and quiet.

Ahead of me, the six resident elephants munch their way through the undergrowth, their gigantic bulk inky black in the muted morning light.

Dung in hand, I’m lost in an awed reverie when I notice the staff making a beeline for particularly large pile of poo. Silently, they scan the area around the bowling ball-sized droppings in a state of fraught anticipation.

“They’re searching for an elephant tail hair,” one employee, Peter, tells me, “They bring good luck. It’s the same routine every morning. Really slows everything down, but it’s a great feeling when you find one.”

I join the vigil, pondering the stark contrast between the reverence shown here for these animals and their widespread mistreatment; something I later learn is closely intertwined with Thailand’s history. By law, elephants are no more than livestock, yet Thais often say they helped build their nation. For centuries, they buttressed the country — organic tanks during times of war, bulldozers in peacetime, and taxis throughout it all. Today, the elephant’s status seems perverse, contradictory, even: a beast of burden yet also a cultural icon. 

“Everyone believes they bring good luck,” Peter says. “I mean, the country’s most iconic symbol is the elephant, and you’ve seen the statues in every temple. But when it comes to making money, often anything goes.”

That afternoon, I meet Elephant Valley owner Jack, who tells me just how far he’s planning to go in his quest for change. Human and animal interaction is kept to an absolute minimum here, and elephants are free to roam wherever they will, he explains. In fact, Jack plans to reintroduce them into the wild — something almost unheard of in Thailand
— but is also determined to show other camps that, as a business model, his way works: “One big difference between here and other genuine sanctuaries is that this is a business, not a charity. I want to show venues they don’t need to offer shows and rides; that being nice to elephants makes money — and this is what travellers want.”

In 2010, visitor numbers to Thailand stood at 15.9 million. By 2017, that figure had more than doubled to over 35 million. Like me, most wanted to see elephants — if it takes off, Jack’s plan could have an incredible impact.Allowing elephants to simply be elephants is the commitment at the beating heart of this park. Watching Tong In, the camp’s only bull, a beautiful five-ton lump with tusks just under a metre long, I wonder why anyone would want anything else. He spots his girlfriend, Lu, through the trees and trots over to her, trumpeting — a gleeful march of pure pleasure that has me giggling like a five-year-old.

He too came from the tourist industry, Peter reveals, and had become dangerous and wild when the shows all got too much. It took him a while to adapt to his new life of freedom: “He still remembers all his tricks, and sometimes he thinks we want him to perform. He’ll randomly sit down, or stand on his hind legs. We laugh, but it’s sad really. He was very angry with humans when he first arrived, but he’s beginning to trust again.”

While it seems it’s true what they say — an elephant never forgets — their capacity for forgiveness is astonishing, heart-warming and humbling. Perhaps, one day, every tourist will be able to see them this way. 

Animal welfare charity World Animal Protection’s guidelines for ethical elephant camps

Allow elephants to socialise with one another

• Don’t offer riding, shows, or washing

• Instruct visitors to keep a safe distance from the elephants

• Elephant mahouts (trainers) should be trained to guide their elephants humanely when necessary, but mostly let them roam freely, allowing for natural behaviours

• Mahouts should be treated respectfully and paid a living wage

Elephants should not be restrained by chains during the day, and ideally kept in enclosures or large pens at night

• Elephants should be given a varied diet, consisting of fresh, natural
food, and be able to forage for
food themselves

• Elephants shouldn’t be bred in captivity — camps should focus on providing care for existing elephants

For a list of travel companies committed to animal-friendly tours, visit: globalanimalnetwork.org/check-out-our-latest-elephant-friendly-travel-company-list

Essentials

Intrepid Travel has a three-day Chiang Mai and Elephants tour from £252 per person. Includes two nights’ B&B hotel accommodation and most activities. Excludes flights. Departures run throughout 2018 and 2019. intrepidtravel.com

Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)