Elephant riding in Thailand
Think touristy things to do in the Land of Smiles, and the image of people riding elephants will probably pop into mind.
When Thailand banned a majority of commercial logging in 1989 due to deforestation, elephants that were used in the industry for generations were left “jobless”.
Not long after the logging ban, it was pretty normal to see unemployed gentle giants, along with their mahouts (elephant caretakers), wandering the streets of Bangkok, begging for food and donations. But this too was made illegal in the 2000s to better the country’s image and to keep people safe from possible accidents with the animals.
Elephants in tourism
Begging elephant along the streets of Silom
Image credit: Patpong Museum
Soon, most of the elephant population found “work” again in the country’s booming industry; tourism. Elephant tourist attractions are called many things – sanctuaries, rescue centres, or places of refuge, so visitors could feel like their trips were for a good cause rather than having it feel like a circus visit.
While the real purpose of sanctuaries is to better the lives of elephants and keep them safe from being exploited, many tourist sites who called themselves as such were in fact just elephant zoos that were profiting off the animals.
Instead of prioritising the elephants’ wellbeing, these sites trained animals to do things like drawing, dancing, and allowed people to ride on them.
In the past, vacationers from around the world wanted to come to Thailand and fully immerse themselves in an “exotic experience”, and one such activity was to tour the country’s northern jungles atop our national animal.
Everybody wanted to ride elephants in Thailand. Even I, a born and bred local, was so thrilled when I got the chance to get on the back of a giant elephant about a decade ago when I was in Chiang Mai.
At one point, this activity was so popular that it was on the itineraries of every travel agency you could think of. And if you didn’t have at least one picture of yourself riding an elephant, it was as if you didn’t really visit Thailand.
Much like other social justice issues, elephant riding doesn’t sit well with most people today, when more attention and awareness is being covered for animal rights causes.
Over the last few years, world-leading organisations and news websites, such as BBC and The New York Times, have been outspoken on why we shouldn’t support Thai tourist sites that promote such activities. The main reasons include animal captivity and brutal training, on top of health concerns like painful spinal conditions.
Elephant riding that uses “howdah” chairs are widely ill-received due to the injuries that these can cause elephants. Bareback riding is up for debate – some think it is okay as it doesn’t cause trouble for the elephants, while others still believe that riding is a no-no, no matter how it’s done.
Image credit and Reference: Flight of the Gibbon
In accordance with this take on Thai tourism, many travel agencies put more pressure on local sanctuaries to take elephant riding out of their programmes – or that they would take their business elsewhere.
While it seems like all these businesses are trying to do right by the gentle giants of Thailand, the ulterior motive is that it helps them seem more ethical and presentable in the eyes of visitors.
The crux of the matter here is that “animal rights” has become transactional, with them making decisions based on what’s best for their business, and not really the animals.
But on the other hand, will outright banning elephant riding fix the problem? The answer is…not likely.
At this point, many of you might think – “I just won’t visit these places. They either need to change their practice or I will visit an organisation that is more ethical.” – but well, it’s not that easy.
When concern becomes disingenuous
While it’s heartening to see travellers show their concern for the mistreatment of elephants and are in a bid to help, many don’t understand the contexts that surround this issue.
In my days as a bartender, I used to come across vacationers who expressed their opinions on the matter with an air of moral superiority instead of a willingness to understand and help.
Conversations often included buzz-phrases like “I hate elephant riding, it’s terrible,” followed by them dumping the blame on locals for being “inhumane and selfish” for allowing such acts to happen right under their noses.
When prompted for solutions, many would bring up the point of just “not riding elephants anymore”, which would lead to the so-called sanctuaries not making money and finally releasing the elephants into the wild once again.
Though they come from a good place, it’s virtue signalling like this that simplifies major issues at hand without seeing the bigger picture.
This idea of ‘what should be done’, paired with the misconception of how locals see the matter, instead leads to ineffective solutions – in this case, convincing others to just stop giving elephant riders our money as the fix to the problem.
And don’t get me wrong; I’m thankful that travellers are aware of the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand. However, I believe that in order to fix the problem, we have to first understand the implications of what may seem to be easy fixes, rather than jumping to conclusions, which in turn can villainise others (i.e. locals earning a living) to make us feel good about ourselves.
After all, it’s easy to hate on Cruella de Vil for wearing a coat made of a Dalmatian’s fur – but we mustn’t forget to question the industry that created her in the first place.
Why banning elephant riding is not enough
It is undeniable that while more folks are aware of the mistreatment that has been going on in many of Thailand’s elephant “sanctuaries”, many others are unaware of the problem or simply just don’t care. And this is what keeps the machine going.
According to the New York Times, some of these elephant centres are able to find loopholes around the riding ban. For example, some sites won’t include elephant riding in their itineraries in efforts to appear “ethical” when hosting one group of visitors, but will re-include the activity if another group would like to try it.
Image credit: Howie’s Homestay
The bad news is that it’s really hard to tell which sites have been doing this because they will simply switch between 2 names – neither an officially registered name – to avoid getting caught with bad reviews.
Without proper checks from authorities, many tourist attractions are easily getting away with this scheme, since a majority of tourists are one-time visitors. Some travel agencies even take part in this cunning practise to profit both from folks who care about ethical tourism, and folks that unwittingly don’t.
Things can get worse for elephants
I reckon many of you might be wondering why we can’t just let captive elephants back into their natural habitat; the jungles.
The main reason is that these gentle giants have been domesticated for generations, and they won’t be able to fend for themselves and survive in the wild as their ancestors did.
Another reason is Thailand simply doesn’t have enough natural resources for all of them due to deforestation and the growing population. It also doesn’t have enough state-run sanctuaries for our national animal, which makes this otherwise “simple fix” rather complicated.
Implementing a ban and shutting down pseudo-sanctuaries that offer elephant riding could drive many elephants to other more sinister businesses, such as illicit logging near Thailand’s borders. These acts of animal labour are often out of the authorities’ eyes since the work itself is illegal, and this of course is the worst-case scenario for the animals.
What can you do?
On an individual level, we suggest spending more researching for more information about the sanctuary you’re going to without solely relying on your travel agency.
You can also visit Patara Elephant Farm and Maesa Elephant Camp, which have been carefully inspected by prominent European-based rating provider Travelife, which prioritises sustainable travel, as suggested by the New York Times.
But if we’re looking to fix this on a grander scale, we might need to take the matter to the House.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand website revealed that tourism accounts for roughly 10% of the country’s economy each year (with the exception of 2020, of course), according to Bangkok Post.
If you believe in the old saying that the customer is God, then travellers around the world should have enough leverage to demand proper restrictions and rules to safeguard the welfare of our elephants.
I know this might seem like a huge leap to take, but there are international organisations you can support and even work with to bring us one step closer. One example is TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, which has been working closely with the Thai government for a long time.
The journey might not be as easy as deciding which sanctuary to visit, but it’s likely to be a more impactful one.
All in all, stigmatising elephant riding and putting pressure on local sanctuaries and tourist sites alone won’t save the elephants from being mistreated if the structural problem still remains.
Featured image adapted from: Flight of the Gibbon