It’s hard to imagine a Thailand without elephants – they are as much of the tourism DNA of Thailand as are the beautiful collections of archipelago islands with their golden sand beaches, clear aqua waters, warm weather and dramatic limestone cliffs. However, recent times have seen a drastic reduction in elephant numbers – from over 100,000 a century ago to approximately 3,000 today. Due almost exclusively to human intervention, the declining numbers have been a result of many different factors including poaching and animal cruelty. It’s this ‘cruelty’ we’d like to make travellers aware of before considering taking an ‘elephant ride’ in Thailand, or even visiting a mainstream elephant sanctuary.
In years gone by, elephants have always played a crucial role in Thailands daily lives. Historically and still today, elephants have been worshipped as sacred animals by the predominantly buddhist community and as such were, and still are, celebrated and respected. However, more recently, elephants have taken part in festivals and parades, been used as transport, exploited as pack animals in the logging industry, used as vehicles in war, males were poached for their ivory tusks and, finally, as tourism bloomed, elephants have been introduced into the tourism sector as riding and tourist activities, and in shows.
In the late 1980s, the Thai logging industry was rightly banned from using elephants as work animals. Ownership of elephants had become the norm during this period, so ‘owners’ turned to the emerging tourism industry and seized the opportunity to create a lucrative but uniquely Thai destination activity – elephant rides. Ask any potential Thai tourist what plans they have in Thailand, and it’s almost guaranteed to include some level of interaction with an elephant.
At U. we care about a lot of things, but we passionately care about travelling responsibly. Elephants should not be ridden or domesticated for the purpose of toursim. Here’s why:
Firstly let’s exam an elephants natural habitat – they are found most often in savannas, grasslands, and forests. Not in circuses, in pens or interacting with humans.
It is not natural for an elephant to paint, play football with giant balls, or carry people on its back. Before an elephant can be ridden or do ‘circus’ tricks like this, it must first be tamed. And to tame an animal, you must first break it. Enter the cruelty of humans for tourism dollars; first this majestic beast is stripped of its dignity through a specific process: a technique called pajaan, which is used to break the animal’s soul. This cruel method involves separating the calf from its mother and locking it in a cage without food and water for days. The elephant is brutally tortured and forcibly ridden day and night until terrified and broken inside, it submits to the human handlers.
Have we got your attention yet?
Don’t stop reading because it gets worse. For all the beauty that is Thailand, and for all the kind and generous souls you’ll meet on your wanderings, there still exists an underbelly of animal cruelty, cleverly advertised and wrapped in shiny travel agency brochures, and found on tourism websites like TripAdvisor, expounding life changing interactions with elephants. Many of these so called sanctuaries are in fact fake who continue to chain, ride and mistreat ‘their’ elephants. We urge you please, to do your homework first and strongly investigate the validity of elephant sanctuaries before you feed your dollars into this cruel loop of abuse
Your guide to distinguishing between real and fake elephant sanctuaries
Before booking your elephant sanctuary tour we ask you to stop, investigate and choose a sanctuary considering the following 4 points of responsible tourism:
1. No spectacles nor unnatural behaviour
This point is unambiguous and simple to identify. Any centre that presents any circus-like spectacle or causes them to perform behaviours that are not of their nature (e.g. painting or drawing, kicking a ball, dancing, strange or improper postures, etc.) cannot be considered a sanctuary/rescue centre. This includes riding, as in the wild, an elephant would never carry a human on its back, with or without a saddle.
2. Avoid interacion with the animals
There should be little or no interaction with the animals in a real sanctuary. Elephants are wild animals. No matter how long they have been with humans, they cannot be considered domestic animals even if they were born in captivity. And like wild animals, they retain their natural instincts. This means that, in addition to being dangerous and unpredictable animals for humans (due to their strength and size), they are animals that are easily stressed by contact with humans.
Many of the centres that allow close and direct interactions with elephants excuse themselves by justifying that these animals are very social beings and that contact with humans benefits them. While it is true that elephants are very social animals, it should be noted that they are sociable with each other, not with humans. Think of it this way: an elephant in the wild would never seek contact with humans but would rather run away.
In this way, a real sanctuary always avoids direct contact with visitors and reserves such contact for the centre’s workers and veterinarians as a matter of necessity and care. So don’t feed them, bath them, touch them or take photos and selfies with them.
A quick (but important) note on elephant bathing:
A Elephant bathing has become a very fashionable tourist activity. In many centres, elephants are forced once, twice, or even three times a day (depending on the groups passing through) to get into the water, stretch and be rubbed and bathed by visitors. Please, keep in mind that an elephant does not need to be bathed, let alone scrubbed with a brush by a group of strangers – they prefer to be muddy in order to protect their skin from both sun and parasites.
A real sanctuary will encourage the elephant to develop its most natural behaviours: bathing alone, feeding alone, and interacting and socialising with the other elephants in the sanctuary.
3. No breeding
A real sanctuary will never intervene on the natural instants of an elephant to breed. Avoid any tour that promotes interactions with young elephants – from enforced breeding programs, everything about this screams ‘wrong’!
A real sanctuary centre is there to SAVE elephants, not breed them and take up space destined for use by real elephants in need.
4. The environment
True sanctuaries provide elephants with a natural environment as close to their habitat as possible. A real sanctuary tries to reproduce in captivity the natural conditions of the animal’s habitat in order to promote its most intrinsic and natural behaviours. So stay clear of ‘sanctuaries’ which offer up close viewing or contact. The centre should be designed around the animal, not the tourist – and should only promote a safe but distant viewing and should never interfere with an elephants daily life.
Sanctuaries exist to save elephants, the funds from tourists are there to create a safe space of support and nourishment and when possible, reintroduction in the wild. These safe places will offer the opportunity to observe elephants being elephants and behaving like elephants. It’s not a freak show!
U. - Travel responsibly
Let these 4 points guide you on differentiating a good centre from the tourist traps. Be smart, do your homework and choose responsibly. If in doubt, make a donation but don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution!
U. are proud to visit only U. Accredited elephant sanctuaries. We have personally visited and checked that the elephants are in an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible and without tourist intervention. We assure you that the money you spend there goes directly towards saving elephants and combatting the fraudsters. We can personally back up and guarantee our sanctuary partners, and please remember that the same principles apply to other ‘animal centres’ such as those housing tigers or other wild animals.
And if for whatever reason you find yourself taking part in a ‘questionable’ tourist activity, we urge you not to be ashamed or try to justify it; take the opportunity to call these providers out – turn it around, denounce it and shout it to the four winds!
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Welcome to our U.Advice Guide for Asia. This guide has been written by members of our U.Crew who have personally been and travelled extensively throughout Asia, and have had a