We’ve all seen them – the obvious tourist, sitting on top of an elephant, laughing and taking selfies – without taking just one moment to think about what their “fun” must mean for the elephant.
And of course, there are always those people who don’t research properly and immediately assume that any place with the word “sanctuary” attached to it must mean that the elephants are treated well, even if they offer rides. Well, think again.
Believe me, I understand why you would think that riding an elephant must be fun – because after all, we are riding horses as well. But elephants and horses are two very different animals. Well, why is riding on elephants that cruel? Let me show you.
1. Babies are separated from mothers
At a very young age, the baby elephants are often times taken away from their mother, even while they’re still breastfeeding. The younger the elephant, the more easily you can train it – and the more money you get for it.
2. Pahjaan – breaking the elephant’s spirit
Pahjaan is as cruel as it sounds. For this torture technique, the (young) elephant is tied up and either stuck in a tiny cage, or tied to trees. It is then beaten repeatedly and not fed or given water for days at a time. During this, about 50% of the elephants who undergo Pahjaan die. Sometimes, the elephant is beaten so hard that their legs break, and it is not rare that an elephant will be blinded on purpose.
Pahjaan can last up to five months, depending on the elephant. Once the elephant gives up, it lets out a horrible wail, and a new person, unfamiliar to the animal, will step in and give the animal some fruit and untie it. From that moment on, this person becomes the mahout.
Warning, distressting content: Here is a picture of Pahjaan.
Please get straight in your head that if you ride an elephant, this elephant had to suffer through all of this, just so that it lets you ride on it.
3. The working environment
If an elephant is put into the tourism industry, their life is just as horrible as one would expect it to be. The animals typically have to give rides for up to 10 hours a day – keep in mind that they are not cut out for carrying things on their back, so their back will arch considerably over time.
The mahout will also cut holes into the ears of the elephant and put ropes through them, to indicate the direction to the animal. If the elephant flaps its ears (which it does to keep itself cool in the heat), the ropes will rip through the holes, creating frayed ears. Not only does this hurt, but the elephant is then unable to use the ears as a fan – which it desperately needs.
Most working elephants have to spend all day in the sun without a sufficient water or food supply, and are chained up 24/7.
You want to interact with elephants in an ethical way?
Across all of Asia, especially Thailand, there are many so-called “elephant sanctuaries”. These sanctuaries basically act as a refuge for elephants: many elephants who spent years in the tourism or logging industry can “retire” here. In sanctuaries, their one job is to be an elephant; they do not have to work, obey, or anything other than eat, play, and poop.
However, there are many unethical places that just add “sanctuary” or “refuge” to their name but still practice maltreatment of elephants.
Here are three ethical places you can visit in Thailand:
1. Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand
WFFT is one of the smaller elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, as it focuses on animal cruelty in general. WFFT is home to several animal species, including monkeys, bears, crocodiles, and elephants. All of the animals living here were rescued from either the tourism or logging industry, or from temples or homes, where they were kept as pets. Here, you will first shown around the entire refuge, introducing you to the animals and their stories. After lunch, you will have the opportunity to feed an elephant and take a walk with it – during this, the elephant is not chained up or anything like it, it is free to leave. Most times however, they choose the fruit over their mates.
2. Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
This is probably the best-known elephant sanctuary in all of Thailand, as it is also one of the biggest. Here, the elephants are free to roam within a large area of space. You will get introduced to some of the elephants, and will also get the opportunity to feed the elephant. As of mid April 2018, Elephant Nature Park no longer offers bathing with the elephants, for the benefit of the animal.
3. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary offers a similar experience to the other two refuges. Here, you can also feed the elephant with some fruit, however it is also not permitted to bathe, ride, or sit on the elephants. You will also have the opportunity to observe elephants exhibit their natural behavior in a big area of free space.
How do I know if a sanctuary is ethical?
1. Use the internet
There are many backpacker groups on facebook and other social media platforms. Look through past posts or ask which refuges the other travelers went to, and their experience with it. Make sure to also check websites like tripadvisor for negative reviews.
2. Words to look out for
Often times, “elephant tours” are straight up unethical, as they typically offer rides. A legit elephant refuge will never offer riding an elephant, sitting/standing on it, hugging its trunk, kissing it, or it demonstrating tricks. If the elephant in the sanctuary is chained up in any way, run.
You want to know more about elephant cruelty?
PETA – Why avoid elephant rides
CNN – Elephant rides are killing the animals
One Green Planet – “Breaking the spirit”
PETA – Help stop elephant abuse
World Animal Protection – Elephants exploited
BBC – Elephant tourism is fuelling cruelty
Please share this post so that we can raise more awareness towards elephant abuse and animal cruelty in general.