[5 min read]
As you may know, elephants are very popular in Thailand and many people come to Thailand wanting to spend some time up close with elephants.
Chiang Mai is a province that has many elephants and elephant camps, because of the vast jungles surrounding Chiang Mai city and Chiang Mai’s past in the logging industry, which required elephants to transport logs.
In this blog, we will be discussing Elephant Tourism, its ethical complications, and how to choose an elephant camp that is credible and ethical as a responsible traveler.
Long time ago, elephants were used by villagers to move large, heavy logs.
They were valuable tools in helping people’s livelihood. In many cases, they were well-respected and well-taken care of, forming deep bonds with their caretakers, known as mahouts.
Mahout, or elephant caretaker, was considered a respectful profession that people were proud of and others admired.
It is not easy to take up the career of a mahout. A mahout spend many years bonding with the elephant which nourishes a unique relationship like no other.
The mahout will have compassion and understanding for the elephant like a close family member. They become sensitive to the elephant’s feelings, moods, and health conditions.
Some qualities that a mahout would have are high self-confidence, empathy, observation skills, and perseverance.
Traditionally, the knowledge and skill of a mahout is passed down from generation to generation, when a young boy goes to work with his father.
The popularity of elephants in the tourism industry created a sudden demand for elephants and elephant caretakers (mahout) that is unlike any seen before.
Elephant tourism started out rough. There were elephants roaming the street, forced to walk all day and night on concrete, “begging” for tourists to buy fruits and feed them. Usually they are baby elephants as they are smaller and wouldn’t be as hard to maneuver in smaller streets.
This practice is inhumane and abusive. It is not natural for elephants to walk on hard surfaces like concrete, as they would normally walk on dirt, mud, or grass in the jungles. Fortunately, this practice is much less prevalent now than 10 years ago.
However, there is another downside to the rapid increase in demand; the quality and legitimacy of mahouts. Whereas mahouts would normally train for many years, the sudden increase in elephants for tourism also increased the demand for mahouts. And genuine, quality mahouts cannot be trained in a matter of days. But this is exactly what happened.
Many came into the industry for the money. They do not possess the skills and knowledge (which takes years to master). Since the elephant camps also need employees, they are trained within a few days and start working as mahouts.
When the mahouts are not really knowledgeable, the elephant’s wellbeing is affected. They might not actually care about the elephants or understand how to care for them. This can be harmful to the elephant’s physical and psychological health.
‘True’ mahout can still be found within the hill tribe villages and rural local communities, although rare and mostly inaccessible to outsiders.
Recently, both tourists and locals have become more aware of the crisis related to elephants’ well-being in Thailand. Elephants roaming the street ‘begging’ for food no longer occurs as commonly as before.
Elephant riding is no longer encouraged and advertised, being replaced with “no riding” as the new advertisement, which is a good thing. A lot of activities and entertainment such as elephants doing tricks have been abandoned. Taking care and nurturing elephants in a healthy and natural way is now promoted.
The rapid spread of information through the internet and social media quickly facilitate change throughout the tourism industry. Elephant tourism is at the forefront of this change. It is easy and much more accessible than ever to participate and be involved in responsible and ethical elephant tourism.
Before committing to a booking with any elephant camp, follow our simple guide below to make a responsible and ethical choice in supporting a credible, trustworthy operation.
Guide to Choosing an Ethical Elephant Camp
The first step in choosing a responsible and ethical elephant camp is research.
There are many ways to find information about how each places treat their elephants.
The simplest and most convenient method to get you started is buy reading online reviews. Review websites like TripAdvisor can be a resourceful place as many reviews are available from many different perspectives.
However, we also recommend finding reputable sources like online magazines and publishers. This is because journalists can provide deeper insights that the average tourist might not pick up during a typical one-day visit.
After doing this, your options should be narrowed down considerably. Note: In addition to reading online reviews, also try asking your friends and families if they’ve ever had any first-hand experience with any elephant camp.
The next step will take time, but crucial and we strongly recommend you to follow through.
Ask the elephant camp operators directly.
How and where do the elephants sleep at night?
Elephants naturally sleep 4 hours per day, and spend the rest of the time roaming and foraging in the forest. Elephant camps that chain them up in concrete enclosure should be avoided.
What does a typical diet look like?
Elephants’ natural diet consist mostly of plants such as grass and bamboo. Bulk feeding high sugar fruits like banana, sugar cane, and pineapple should not be the long term diet for elephants.
What’s a typical day for the elephant?
If they start answering a typical day for the tourist, tell them you want to know about the elephant, not the tourist activities. What you’re looking for in the answer is whether there’s time for the elephant to roam around freely and time for elephants to socialize with other elephants. Elephants are social animals and they benefit from reduced stress by having time to socialize.
Elephant riding allowed?
The short answer you’re looking for is no. But if they do have elephant riding, bareback riding is the only option that should be considered. Although, choosing no-riding is the best option. Any riding that puts a seating structure on the elephant’s back, if any still exist, is inhumane and must be avoided.
Once you get all the answers to these questions, evaluate and see how they match up. If the answers satisfy and they show concern in their communication, then it is likely that they are ethical in treating their elephants, and you can book with them without worry.
So now you’re ready to experience the beauty of elephants and engage with them in natural activities in their natural habitat. You’re fully aware of what to expect and can enjoy your day comfortably, knowing that you’re not perpetuating unethical tourism. However, while you’re there, keep in mind the pointers given above about how the elephants should be treated so you can spot any red flags, if they come up.
Observing the elephant itself can really tell you whether they are being treated well or not. Here are some things to look out for.
Eyes should be clear and bright with no debris or pus. Elephants do not have tear ducts so tears simply slide down their cheeks, but it should not be flowing to their mouth.
Feet is an important telling spot. The toenails and pad should be smooth with no lumps or visible abnormalities. Cracked toenails and bruised foot pads can mean they are not being cared for properly by their mahouts or routinely forced to walk on hard surfaces like concrete.
The tongue and mouth should be pink color.
Healthy elephants rarely stay still. Tail and ears flap. Trunks sway. Always smelling and touching things.
Skin should be soft and smooth with elasticity, with no bumps or deep cuts. Especially not dry and itching.
So there is our guide to choosing an ethical elephant camp. It can seem a little overwhelming with all the details, but it is important to be aware of these things. Awareness is the first step in solving hidden issues like these.
If you found the information useful and wish to spread awareness, please share this post with your friends and families!