The Ugly Side of Elephant Tourism in Thailand, and How to Avoid it.

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Before embarking on my aventure across Thailand, I was well aware of the issues facing the wildlife tourism industry in that part of the world, or so I thought. I knew that there were still many places offering elephant shows and rides, along with horror stories I had heard about other attractions like Tiger Temple. It was because of these horror stories that I had avoided travelling to Thailand for so long. But with lots of knowledge under my belt, I was convinced that I could do my due diligence, I would research and choose my wildlife tourism options wisely. It was the perfect plan - I could avoid exposing myself to these types of places that I am so against. Unfortunately I was wrong.

Before leaving for my trip I spent countless hours researching what elephant sanctuaries I wanted my money and time to support. I looked for all the warning signs, and read as many reviews as I could. We chose to visit two very different sanctuaries, one aimed at rescuing and rehabbing elephants from the tourist trade by providing them with a more natural lifestyle. The second being the more typical “ethical elephant” experience in Thailand, where tourists are provided with the chance to get up close and personal with the elephants, feed them, bath with them etc.

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The first one we visited was Elephant Valley Thailand (review coming soon!), we believe 100% that we made the most ethical choice! The elephants were truly living a wild lifestyle. After being rescued from the wildlife tourism trade, they were moved to a large reserve and although they were kept in one area at night, they were free to roam the reserve wherever they wanted during the day. Visitors got the opportunity to wander the grounds with a guide, given the chance to watch the elephants from a distance, with closer interactions coming later in the day when were given the opportunity to feed them treats through a fence. One of my favourite aspects of this was the fact that the elephants had the opportunity to leave if they wanted - it is much more rewarding knowing that the elephants are choosing to hang out with us, as opposed to being scheduled that way. We decided to spend the entire day and overnight so we could get a taste of their volunteer program. We helped cut down plants for elephant snacks, cleaned the areas where the elephants would sleep, and assisted with other odd jobs that needed to get done. The saddest part about our experience here was actually the other tourists attitudes. Upon finding out that they weren’t going to be up close, petting and swimming with the elephants, they decided to leave. It was disheartening that they cared more about getting the perfect photo, instead of the elephants well being.


Even after returning home, I still feel very much on the fence about our selection for the second elephant tourism venue. We saw no signs of elephant mistreatment, but the rigorous daily schedule left us a little uneasy about how that may impact the elephants. There is no denying that being with the elephants was an amazing experience, however we didn’t feel as though they were provided much freedom of choice in their day. During operating hours, the elephants were expected to do certain things and be in certain places, all to please the tourists and provide them with those perfect photo ops. The staff were knowledgeable and friendly - we didn’t believe they would intentionally do anything that isn’t in the best interest of the elephants. However, this may be a perfect example of why education needs to increase all around, for the caretakers and the tourists, so we can all do better by these elephants.

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Prior to visiting Thailand I believed that if I didn’t support the bad places I was helping. However it isn’t as simple as that. During my travels I saw countless elephants chained up on the side of the road in areas smaller than my bedroom. I heard people bragging about the tiger temples they visited and they elephant rides they took part in. Everywhere we went there were advertisements and billboards for places that highlight terrible animal welfare practices. On many of the tours we did we were surprised the see so many unethical practices, whether it was feeding fish while snorkelling, people standing on coral, to being unexpectedly taken to see a monkey “show” - the unethical side of tourism was sadly never far away. As long as people are supporting these places they will continue to happen, without education, and without conscious tourists making the choice to support the ethical places, nothing will ever change.

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By supporting the truly ethical places, it puts pressure on Thailand to change the laws to suit what the tourists want to see, it will help to make the industry a better place. For example Elephant Nature Park (review coming soon!), one of the leading ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, is currently phasing out how much interaction the animals have with the tourists. Making the wellbeing of their elephants their top priority. If we, as travellers, make the decision to only support places such as this other sanctuaries will feel pressured to follow suit and adopt their practices. The change starts with us!

After all of this, you may be wondering how you can plan your Thailand trip in a way that avoids unethical tourist traps. One thing to bare in mind, is that while you can (and should!) only support wildlife tourism venues that are putting animal welfare and conservation at the forefront of their goals, you likely will still see animals in situations you don’t agree with. It is the unfortunate reality of tourism in many parts of the world, especially in places like Thailand. Hopefully this won’t stop you from wanting to take in all the beauty this country has to offer, because by visiting, we can help shape the direction that it is headed. Prior to your trip, here are some guidelines to follow when looking into experiences where you can hang out with elephants:

  1. Don’t go to any venue that is offering elephant rides (especially saddled rides) or elephant shows. The training tactics to make these behaviours possible are often extremely abusive, both physically and psychologically.

  2. Find venues that promote offering choices to their elephants. Make sure that whatever way you are interacting with them, the elephants get to choose to be involved in your experience. They should not be kept on chains, enclosed in small spaces or be prevented from leaving by the staff. They should be able to roam where they want and have space away from tourists if that is what they choose.

  3. Ensure that elephants have the ability to participate in natural behaviours. This may sound similar to above, but if the only choice an elephant has if they choose not to hang out with tourists is just another cage, their options still aren’t that great. They should have ponds to swim in, forests to forage and areas to bask in the sun. The closer their enclosures are their natural environment, the better.

  4. Looking for locations that are upfront about what your tourist dollars are being used for. They should be used for increasing elephant welfare, supporting conservation, and assisting community initiatives   

  5. Appreciate the ‘dirty work.’ Sure, it's not that glamorous to be picking up elephant poop, or helping chop up food, but these experience offer you a chance to better understand a day in a life of an elephant and an elephant caretaker. By better appreciating these aspects of their care, you become more connected with their stories. It is also a great way to meet local people, giving the opportunity to learn more about their lives and soak up more culture!

For more general tips on visiting wildlife venues, check out one of our former blogs “5 tips for responsible wildlife tourism


References

Chatkupt, T.T., Sollod, A.E., and Sarobol, S. (2010). Elephants in Thailand: determinants of health and welfare in working populations. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 2(3), 187-203.  

Hile, J. (2002). Activists denounce Thailand elephant ‘crushing’ ritual. National Geographic News. Retrieved from www.nationalgeogrpahic.com on October 24, 2017.

King, R. (2005). The elephant whisperer. Ecologist, 35(9), 48-54.

Kontogeorgorgopoulos, N. (2011). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings: a case study of elephant camps in Northern Thailand. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(5-6), 429-449.

Kontogeorgorgopoulos, N. (2009). The role of tourism in elephant welfare in Northern Thailand. Journal of Tourism, 10(2), 1-19

Magda, S., Spohn, O., Angkawnish, T., Smith, D.A., and Pearl, D.L. (2015). Risk factors for saddle-related skin lesions on elephants used in the tourism industry in Thailand. BMC Veterinary Research. 11:1,  doi:10.1186/s12917-015-0438-1

Nijman, V. (2014). An assessment of the live elephant trade in Thailand. Cambridge, UK: TRAFFIC International

Schmidt-Burbach, (2017). Taken for a ride: the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia. World Animal Protection. Obtained from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/ on September 27, 2017.