We’ve all seen this photo on social media: a girl in a bikini leans against an elephant whose trunk is playfully wrapped around her torso. The girl has a big smile on her face. She believes she’s doing something unique and is sure to get a great response from her followers. She’s smiling because not only will the photo provide her a great boost in impressions, but she believes she’s actually helping the elephant by attending an “ethical” elephant “sanctuary” that “rescued” it from a life of toil and torture. Unsurprisingly, things are not quite as simple as they seem.
The problem with such paeans to the digital attention economy is the fact that by patronizing such elephant “sanctuaries” this tourist may actually be exacerbating the plight of the Asian elephant. While perhaps well-meaning, this girl, if uninformed, may be an unwitting participant in the exploitation of elephants.
The subject of elephant tourism is complicated. The purpose of this article is to explore the current plight of the Asian elephant, particularly in Thailand, with the aim of helping the ethically minded traveler understand how they can do their part to help these extraordinary endangered animals.
This article is not an exposé on the horrendous treatment of elephants by the industry’s worst offenders. Such information is a quick internet search away, and on the radar of at least the average Western tourist. Our aim is to attempt to understand the more nuanced and complicated issues surrounding allegedly “ethical” elephant tourism, and whether or not it is what it purports to be. We’ll focus primarily on Thailand’s elephant tourism, because the issue of Asian elephants is too broad, and because the kingdom is where most Westerners are likely to have their elephant experience.
A brief history of the elephant in Asia
The capture and training of elephants in Asia was likely first performed and perfected by tribes peoples who used the pachyderms as mounts in the hunt. As larger agrarian civilizations gradually segmented and fenced in these people’s hunting grounds, tribal men switched from being hunters to being mahouts (elephant rider, trainer, and keeper) in service to their respective kingdom (from Gone Astray, by Richard Lair).
Historical evidence suggests that elephants held a distinguished role in the palace traditions of ancient Asia. Their exalted status was due to their utility in two primary functions: transportation and war. The elephant, while large and relatively slow, is surprisingly sure-footed, and so represented a suitable method for the transportation of people and goods. It also served a function similar to the horse in medieval Europe as a battle mount in war.
Every young noble was expected to vigorously practice the art of elephant warfare and specifically to master mounted single combat.
The elephant’s historical utility and importance to the palace traditions of ancient Asia meant that, for better or for worse, its status was and is closely intertwined with that of its keeper: the mahout. Both experienced a precipitous decline in importance with the advent of colonialization when royalty realized the necessity of fighting modern wars with modern means. Colonialization marked the beginning of the decline of mahoutship, a process that only decayed further with the advents of industrialization and modernization.
For most of the latter half of the twentieth century, captive elephants in Thailand were primarily used as beasts of burden in the logging industry. When the kingdom passed laws against logging in 1989, thousands of elephants and their mahouts were left jobless. Many of these mahouts wound up large urban centers like Bangkok where their elephants performed tricks for tourists. Others found employment in other sectors of the tourist industry, whether that be giving rides, painting, or providing other kinds of entertainment for tourists.
Like all wild animals, elephants can be potentially dangerous. Male elephants in particular are prone to aggression, especially during a period called musth when their testosterone production is up to one hundred times greater than normal. Female elephants are not exempt from aggressive behavior, especially when they feel their calf is being threatened. Bear in mind that an adult elephant can weigh up to five tons, so if one does become aggressive, it is a serious matter for anyone in its proximity.
In order to tame their elephants, mahouts engage in a practice known as phajaan or training crush. While steering clear of outrage journalism that focuses on elephant torture, a brief description of such practices is necessary for those readers who may unfamiliar with it.
Phajaan entails the use of nails and sticks stabbed into the most sensitive areas of an adolescent elephant, usually the ears and feet, in order to instill a sense of despair and powerlessness in its recipient. In addition, the elephant’s breaker employs sleep deprivation, starvation, and thirst to totally crush the elephant’s will. The aim of phajaan is to crush an elephant’s spirit and make it much more docile and obedient. This in order to safeguard both the safety of the mahout and the tourists with whom it will be forced to interact.
“Ethical” elephant tourism
Most Western tourists would probably not consciously participate in perpetuating the practice of phajaan. In the last few decades awareness of this ritual and the plight of elephants overall has increased, resulting in many elephant camps that advertise themselves as “sanctuaries” for elephants who have been crushed or otherwise engaged in deleterious working conditions.
As we stated earlier, the issue of elephant conversation and welfare in Asia is a complicated one. The elephant camp niche that caters to Western clientel is aware of the relatively higher ethical standards of their customers (at least in regards to animals) and many have adjusted their program and messaging accordingly. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean their animals are being properly fed and cared for, but by appending the word “sanctuary” to their name many camps assuage whatever ethical burden their customers may feel they have.
There is no oversight or regulation in place to determine whether or not an elephant camp is actually practicing the what they espouse in their marketing. Many camps pay lip service to a higher standard of ethical elephant care they know the Western tourist prefers while not actually practicing what they preach. The tourist, overwhelmed by the number of elephant camps (hundreds in northern Thailand alone), often bases their decision on inaccurate information. Crowd-sourced tourist review platforms like Tripadvisor moderate or delete negative reviews, further muddying the waters and making many camps appear better than they actually are.
In addition to elephant camps misrepresenting the level of their elephants’ standard of care, there is another problem that exists with even the most ethical of elephant camps. The fact is that even the most “ethical” of elephant “sanctuaries” had to get its elephants from somewhere, and that somewhere is usually a place that captured and tortured the elephant. While the elephant is probably better off in a place that at least makes a show of prioritizing its welfare, it’s important to point out that these elephants were not “rescued” at gun point, but purchased with money, a practice which provides incentive for individuals and organizations to capture and break more wild elephants. An article published by The Atlantic describes how this aspect of the elephant economy works.
[O]rganizations that buy elephants to “rescue” them feed into the same symbiotic relationship of supply and demand that many traditional trekking camps do, lining the pockets of elephant traders and enabling them to buy more elephants, which they can then sell to rescuers at a premium.
What this means is that even so-called “ethical” elephant “sanctuaries” are enabling the less savory aspects of the elephant tourism economy to function by paying them for their “broken” elephants.
The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a Thai not for profit that aims to help unemployed mahouts and their elephant charges agrees.
Years of observation and interviews with many major players have taught us that this market is driving the capture of elephants from the wild. We’ve learned that to buy one elephant, for whatever reason, is to have a negative impact on conservation and on welfare for all elephants by causing another elephant to be taken from the wild and to be trained–often in the most brutal fashion–to work for humans.
GTAEF’s solution to this problem is to rent the elephant and their mahout, providing much-needed funds for the mahout to feed his elephant and his family without providing the kind of payoff that would encourage the capture and breaking of new wild elephants.
The solution for the environmentally conscientious traveler then, would seem to be to not participate in the elephant tourism industry at all. Unfortunately, the answer is not so straightforward as that. Human development and deforestation have so devastated the Asian elephants’ habitat that wild elephants are frequently forced into proximity with humans, putting both them and people at risk. A fully grown Asian elephant needs to eat around four hundred pounds of food per day. This requirement forces them to roam in search of food, often into areas with human population where they destroy crops and endanger human beings. These human elephant interactions often result in casualties on both sides of the equation.
What then, is the solution?
According to most experts, completely boycotting any form of elephant tourism is not the answer. For one, there isn’t enough habitat left to adequately sustain even a dwindling wild elephant population. For another, it does not take into account already captured or “domesticated” elephants. The Elephant Conservation Center sums it up thus:
Responsible Asian elephant tourism is rarely ideal. The ideal is that Asian elephants return to and live in the wild. The reality however, is that this would possibly result in species extinction across many parts of developing Asia.
Since a total boycott of elephant tourism is not ideal, the proper course of action for the responsible tourist would be to visit only bona fide organizations who consider and provide for all aspects of elephant welfare. While many camps emphasize the fact they do not allow their elephants to be ridden, this is only one aspect of elephant welfare. Equally as important to an elephant’s health is that it is provided with proper nutrition, good veterinary care, sufficient water and shade, and plenty of idle time spent away from tourists.
Ethical elephant venues
Finding an ethical elephant venue in Thailand is not as easy as one might think. In addition to the sheer number of elephant venues, one cannot rely on the company’s own messaging or platforms like TripAdvisor to verify its claims of promoting animal welfare. Fortunately, there are trusted third parties who have done the sort of boots on the ground investigating needed to verify whether an elephant camp is as ethical as it claims to be.
One such organization is ThailandElephants.org. Founders Gemma and Jade provide a very handy list of venues in Northern Thailand they can verify as being genuinely ethical. They have personally visited all the camps on the list to ensure they adequately provide for all aspects of elephant welfare. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good resource for the responsible traveler who want to have an elephant experience but lacks the time and initiative to do their own research into which camps are actually ethical in practice.
If you are an eco-conscious traveler visiting Northen Thailand and are dead set on having an elephant experience we recommend choosing one of the venues from the list above to be certain your dollars go to improve and not worsen the plight of the Asian elephant.