(This is the first post in my Animals, Eco-Tourism and You series. To read what it’s all about, check out this post).
Riding elephants is a very popular ecotourist activity in many South East Asian countries such as Thailand. The exploitation of these magnificent creatures has been going on for many years – for example, 100 years ago, thousands of elephants worked in the logging industry, which no longer legally exists in Thailand. Instead of elephants enjoying a happy retirement, the species are now forced to participate in other forms of exploitation. Circuses, treks, and painting are just a few examples of this. Surprise surprise, the majority of these elephant based activities are designed for tourists. So, by that logic, it’s tourists and tourist perspectives that are keeping this industry alive.
All of the elephant tour companies will claim and insist that they genuinely care for their elephants, but taming and training these animals is a brutal and unethical process. Excuse me for raising an eyebrow at the oxymoron that is elephant trainers.
There are a few reasons why elephant trekking is wrong and should be avoided, which I will explain now.
- Using any animal for your own personal entertainment is wrong. Animals are not on this planet to serve as slaves under humans. Many activists and anthrozoologists will agree with me when I say that humans and non-human animals should be treated equally. This applies to every animal out there. I don’t care how cute and amazing and exotic they are, they are sentient beings who deserve to live a life of freedom from pain, suffering, and captivity.
- Baby elephants are often bred into captivity, or stolen from their mothers at a very young age. This is problematic in itself, but made even worse by the fact that female elephants in the wild often stay close to their mothers all their lives. One can only imagine How traumatic that would feel for both the calf and the family. The elephants have to be babies when they start being trained into a life of slavery, otherwise they won’t be obedient enough.
- To ensure that the elephants grow up to be submissive and ‘safe’ for humans to exploit, the training process must be one of pain. Rather like horses, elephants must be ‘broken in’. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Captors will tie up the babies and drag them to a specific location, where they are kept for a week. In order to force them to submit, the elephant trainer will repeatedly beat them, starve them, and deprive them of water until the creature stops resisting. Only then are they allowed to drink and eat. Elephant crushing is a legitimate, frequently used practice.
- Elephants in the ecotourism industry does nothing to help prevent their endangered status. In fact, it only makes it worse. The elephants that are captured from the wild as babies to grow up as working slaves are (obviously) no longer free, and to make matters worse, adult elephants in the vicinity are often killed so they don’t cause a commotion.
So what seems like a sweet, nature-filled interaction with the largest mammals on land is actually quite the opposite. Participating in elephant treks, or any other tourist activity involving elephants, is contributing to masses of pain, suffering and abuse that could so easily be avoided. The worst part is that there are some self-proclaimed elephant ‘sanctuaries’ out there that claim to take care of their animals, when in actuality they are just as bad as the rest of them. These places only exist to make a profit, and business owners don’t seem to care that elephants are getting harmed in the process.
What’s my advice? Well, I wouldn’t be able to say with confidence which elephant sanctuaries are genuinely for the animals rather than making money so I would just avoid them altogether. Any company that provides experiences such as riding, circus tricks or painting – in fact, anything other than what an elephant would usually be doing – is bad news. These places should be boycotted. A quick Google search of elephant rescue sanctuaries in Thailand shows me that Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is a safe place where rescued elephants live, and people who want to get close to them have the opportunity to volunteer. I’m not an expert, and websites can often give off a positive impression, but this place really does seem legitimate and caring for the animals.
So, what do I suggest you do to help raise awareness of these issues? Firstly, share this information to friends and family, to anybody you know going on holiday to SE Asia (especially Thailand). Informing people about the horrors of elephant exploitation will make them less likely to want to participate. It’s not all bad news, though. People are becoming more and more aware of the ethical implications of elephant trekking, and are putting the animals first when choosing ecotourist activities. And of course, if you are really desperate to have some kind of interaction with an elephant, you could volunteer at a genuinely cruelty-free, caring sanctuary which puts the elephants first over profits.
Domesticated elephants without a ‘job’ in the tourist industry can’t simply be released back into the wild. If they were to be, there is a chance they will be illegally poached, made to join illegal logging companies, or they will just wander through cities. What I think needs to happen is for an appropriate section of land to be designated for these elephants to live in. This could create jobs for the locals who could care for the elephants, do fundraising, and educate others on the dark side of the elephant tourist industry. After all of the conflicts elephants have had with humans, I think they deserve a safe haven – that’s the very least of what we should be doing.
If you agree that it’s wrong to keep elephants in slavery and force them to carry humans on their backs day in day out all their lives, then you understand that exploiting animals for personal gain is wrong. By that logic, I urge you to consider the food you’re putting in your mouth every day. Do you eat meat? If you do, then you are contributing to the exploitation of animals for personal gain. What’s the difference between exploiting an elephant and exploiting a pig, cow, or a chicken? Think about it.
Stay tuned for my next post in the Animals, Eco-Tourism and You series, which will be up in a couple of days! And please let me know if there’s any form of animal exploitation that you’d like me to do a post about, I’m accepting every suggestion. Don’t forget to share this page and subscribe to the website for new content. You can also find me on Youtube, Twitter,Instagram, Google + and Tumblr for even more!
Image of baby elephant by Mariamichelle is licensed under CC0 public domain