Getting up close and personal with elephants was the top item on my Thailand to-do list. The idea of being able to interact with such magnificent creatures was absolutely mind blowing! And while it was an incredible, unforgettable experience, I was left with a weird feeling that something wasn’t quite right. This is what I’d like to talk about today.
After reading numerous articles about the cruelty that many elephants suffer in Thailand, I wanted to support an ethical company. Now I’m not an expert by far but two things stood out from my research. Firstly, riding is harmful and companies who offer this should not be supported. And secondly, that many trainers use hooks and damaging equipment for training which is also a big no no.
Two companies in Chiang Mai had received particularly rave reviews: Elephant Nature Park and Blue Daily Elephant Care. As the hugely popular Elephant Nature Park was fully booked, we took a half day trip to the countryside with Blue Daily. This included making elephant treats, feeding them, walking through the forest and bathing in the river.
The other attractive quality about Blue Daily was their support of the local community. By buying materials (like our blue tops in the photos), they help to create cruelty-free opportunities.
Our guide Louis was incredibly friendly, knowledgeable and encouraged us to ask questions throughout the day. He told us that the elephant family we were meeting – including a two year old baby – were domesticated. They each have a ‘mahout’ who cares for them personally, resulting in a close bond. Louis told us that domestication is due to the loss of their jungle habitat across Thailand. They seemed happy and free to roam around the area so why did I still feel uneasy?
Maybe it’s because the idea of seeing wild animals trained just feels wrong. After all, the baby elephant who cuddles and kisses visitors has been trained to behave that way. Is this any different to telling your dog to sit and rewarding it with a treat? Probably not. In the cruelest parts of the industry, babies are separated from their mothers when they are days old which is highly distressing for these intelligent and family-orientated creatures. This two year old still lived in its family environment which was reassuring.
Blue Daily operate three time slots per day: morning, afternoon and full day. If this means that just three elephants have to repeat the same activities up to three times daily, surely this is significantly altering their natural behaviors? We also noticed ropes around the elephants necks which made us wonder whether they were tied up at night or when the visitors left. Again, I don’t know whether this is normal or a bad sign. But instinctively, it didn’t sit right.
While Louis was a great guide, we didn’t have such a great experience with the mahouts. Jamie turned around at the wrong moment during our hike and saw one of them taking a photo giving us the finger. Oh dear.
I got the impression that the company didn’t do rides because of tourist demand for more ethical options, rather than out of concern for animals. Regardless, this is a major step forward but it did make me wonder about what happened behind closed doors.
Overall, this has been quite a hard post to write because it feels like a pretty negative way to reflect an unbelievable experience. I truly didn’t expect to feel so strongly about seeing animals used for tourism in this way. On the other hand however, the decline of elephant species means that they need protecting and if tourism encourages locals to continue this, then it could be having a positive impact. In that sense it could be compared to a zoo, just with even more space and freedom. As you can probably tell, I’m still torn.
If you are planning to see elephants in Chiang Mai (or anywhere in Asia!), I would encourage you to do as much research as possible. Learning about such amazing animals while being able to meet them is unbelievable. This makes it all the more important to educate ourselves about how to make most ethical choices possible.
What are your thoughts on visiting elephant parks?
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