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Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants In Thailand

Saving Elephants in Thailand

Saving Elephants in Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Everyone wants to ride elephants in Thailand. Including me. That was until I spent the day at an elephant sanctuary and learned the disturbing truth about this popular activity.

Just imagine how incredible it would be to sit atop a massive 9 foot tall, 4-ton beast while lumbering your way through deep rivers and pristine jungle.

This is an experience many people dream about when planning to travel Southeast Asia on budget backpacking trip.

I couldn’t wait to get my photo riding on top of a massive elephant!

However, there’s a dark side to elephant tourism that many aren’t aware of…

Elephant Family in Thailand

Elephants taking a Dirt Shower

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a natural sanctuary tucked away in the beautiful jungles of Northern Thailand. Their mission is to protect & care for mistreated elephants rescued from the tourism and logging industries.

Increasing awareness and promoting sustainable elephant-friendly tourism is another goal. The park currently cares for 36 elephants on 250 acres of wilderness.

When I first arrived at ENP, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. How close could we get to the elephants? Could we touch them? Were they dangerous?

The only other time I’d seen an elephant outside a zoo was on Safari in South Africa, when one of them charged us! It was an intimidating experience.

Saving Asian Elephants

Asian Elephants are Endangered

Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

Elephant Nature Park’s Owner, Lek

Hanging Out With Giants

You get to participate in many fun elephant activities at ENP. I was able to feed them fresh fruit out of the palm of my hand, watch them play in the mud, go on walks with them, and even get into the river to help give them a bath!

Watching these gentle giants interact with each other is an inspirational travel experience.

They chat with friends and family members by chirping and trumpeting back and forth. You have a greater appreciation for how intelligent and social they really are.

You won’t find any elephant rides at Elephant Nature Park though. No circus tricks or elephant paintings either.

This is because the elephants here have been rescued from such places.

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Elephant Eating Watermelon

Time for Lunch!

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Elephants taking a bath

Swimming in the River

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Plight Of The Asian Elephant

Asian elephants are an endangered species. Experts believe there are now less than 2000 wild elephants living in Thailand. The population is declining at a rapid rate due to loss of habitat.

Illegal capture and trade for use in the tourism industry is also a big problem.

This industry thrives because foreign visitors all want to ride elephants or watch them do tricks, paying good money for the privilege.

But the fact is those wild elephants need to be tamed before they can be ridden.

Except the taming process in Southeast Asia is not the same as with a wild horse.

It’s much more brutal and is accomplished when the elephants are very young.

Elephant chasing bananas

I’d Follow a Basket of Bananas Too

Elephants being washed by tourists

Wash Elephants, Don’t Ride Them!

Baby Elephant Torture

Wild elephants generally won’t let humans ride on top of them. So in order to tame a wild elephant, it is tortured as a baby to completely break its spirit.

The process is called Phajaan, or “the crush”.

It involves ripping baby elephants away from their mothers and confining them in a very small space, like a cage or hole in the ground where they’re unable to move.

The baby elephants are then beaten into submission with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks, while starved and deprived of sleep for many days.

You can watch a disturbing video of the process if you’re curious. Photographer Brent Lewin won an award for capturing this haunting image of the torture.

Elephants Swimming in Thailand

Baby Elephant Swimming

Elephant Trekking In Thailand

Elephant mistreatment doesn’t stop after they’ve been tamed. Many elephant camps continue to employ bull-hooks to control the animals.

While they may not be stabbing them constantly as they did during the training, it’s that deep learned fear of being stabbed that’s used to motivate them to work.

Always remember, elephants never forget.

If an elephant camp in Southeast Asia is claiming to be “responsible” with its animals, you should still be skeptical.

The process used to train them is often the same, even if they’re treated with kindness now. And usually, there is no way to be sure what’s going on when tourists go home.

Did you know that riding elephants can actually cause serious long-term harm too? Their spines are not made to support the weight of humans. I know it’s hard to believe given their size, but Zebras are the same way.

Baby Elephant Playing in River

Baby Elephant Playing in River

Save The Elephant Foundation

Founder Lek Chailert has been fighting to save the elephants and change her country’s acceptance of their treatment since she was a young girl.

Lek created Elephant Nature Park to rescue mistreated elephants from the tourist trade and give them a better life.

The park provides day trips and week-long volunteer opportunities allowing tourists to interact with and learn about elephants responsibly.

As a registered Thai nonprofit foundation, fees collected go towards feeding and caring for the massive creatures, purchasing additional elephants from their abusive owners, and expanding the size of the sanctuary itself.

A trip to Elephant Nature Park includes a graphic video presentation that helps shed some light on the secretive elephant tourism industry. It’s not easy to watch.

Elephants Watching the Sunset

Elephants Enjoy Sunsets Too!

The Choice Is Up To You

Brutal elephant training has been a traditional practice in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. The problem these days is that most captive elephants in Thailand are used to entertain tourists rather than for traditional purposes like logging or military use.

It’s our demand for elephant rides and circus acts that lead to more baby elephants getting captured from their mothers, tortured, and sold off to entertain us.

Whether you ride elephants in Thailand or not is your choice. I try my best not to judge others because I’m acutely aware that we all have different moral codes & standards.

Most people who participate in elephant tourism in Thailand are completely unaware of how they are treated.

I know many friends who have ridden elephants. It’s easy to understand why people do it. I almost rode an elephant myself.

I simply wanted to share what I’ve learned after my own elephant experience in Thailand, to help you make a more informed decision moving forward. ★

Watch Video: Elephant Whisperer


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(Click to watch Elephant Whisperer on YouTube)

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Company: Elephant Nature Park

Packing Guide

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Book Your Flight

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Book Accommodation

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Protect Your Trip

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance.

Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Thailand
Suggested Reading: When Elephants Weep
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Why you shouldn't ride elephants. More at expertvagabond.com

READ MORE THAILAND TRAVEL TIPS

Thank you for reading my article on why you shouldn’t ride elephants. Here are some wanderlust-inducing articles about Thailand that I recommend you read next:

Do you still want to ride an elephant? How does this information make you feel? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Alex

Wednesday 17th of June 2020

"I try my best not to judge others because I’m actually aware that we all have different moral codes & standards." What? These sort of people have no moral codes or any human standards whatsoever! If they are willingly engage in this form of animal cruelty then there's no difference between them! They are just as guilty as the ones who's running these tourist traps by exploiting animal wildlife for entertainment! It's far from entertainment considering the atrocities behind the scenes! It should be banned! An elephant is a royal symbol in Thailand, yet they treat these animals in the most horrendous ways! Go figure!

Things to do in Thailand

Thursday 23rd of April 2020

It really breaks my heart how they treat these elephants just to satisfy their vacations. Thank you so much for bringing awareness to this and hope everyone is aware of this!

Joy

Wednesday 8th of April 2020

Hi, I would like to share another side story, it depends on where do you choose to ride the elephants. Most of the elephants in the sanctuaries or foundations like these are not wild elephants. They are, we call "house elephants" which people raise them from baby elephants, were born in city not in the forest, or are elephants that stay in their family from the former generation. Some people use them to earn money by forcing them to walk on the streets and sell fruit or vegetable to the people who want to feed them. But it is illegal in Thailand. Then these people have no money to buy food to feed them and they were malnourished. This is an abusive way to treat elephants by forcing them to walk on a very hot street. That why many Thai people protected them by buying them from these people and bring them to a natural environment. They can not be returned to the forest as you know it is impossible for some of them. However, to take care of elephants using a lot of money, I really mean a lot and yes the government has not had good solutions for these sanctuaries. The only way to help them (both sanctuaries and elephants) is money from tourists. I understand that this article intends to spread awareness and I do agree with many points, however for helping these elephants and also make people feel comfortable to ride them. You can check the sanctuaries' background before making a decision. We need tourists like you. Thank you for reading.

Deb Denton

Tuesday 17th of March 2020

Visited Chaing Mai this past October. Thankfully, my granddaughter had did her homework regarding Elephants and the torture they are put through. We visited and spent the day with a nanny and her adopted calf AT a rescue site. Loved- loved it. Breaks my heart 💔 to know what these beautiful, intelligent babies have endured. TY for making this aware for ignorant people.

AJ

Friday 28th of February 2020

Excellent article!! Thank you for spreading awareness about the mistreatment of elephants!!! It’s important info to share and educate people with! Excellent articles, and educational. Thank you

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