The ethical elephant experience

As we’ve discovered in previous articles, there are many and varied experiences that you can have with elephants in Asia. So, how do you find the ethical ones?

Let me step back for a minute and explain the history of the Asian elephant, once highly revered and domesticated for work and warfare. Far from the estimated population of hundreds of thousands of elephants centuries ago, according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, it’s estimated that between only 25,000 and 32,000 Asian elephants are now left in the wild. Since 1986, the Asian elephant has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

Today in Thailand, according to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), their numbers are between 3,500 to 5,000 and currently ‘the notion of extinction is no longer just a concern; it’s the new reality’.

In 1989, the tradition of using elephants in industry ended, mainly due to irresponsible over-logging. The collapse of the industry created huge problems for the mahouts who had to find a way to pay for the care and upkeep of their elephants.

As discussed in previous articles, elephants eat up to 200 kilograms a day and on hot days need about 200 litres of water. With the ban of logging, mahouts had to find other ways to support their huge charges. This is why mahouts began begging in the streets and turned to illegal logging and to tourism via trekking, rides or entertainment.

Along the Thai-Burma border illegal logging still occurs. It is a dangerous environment where landmines are still hidden, the risk of fines is always present and injury or death could be just around the corner. To get the most from the elephants, they are often given amphetamines to reduce their appetite and increase their work output. Not only does this take a horrific toll on the elephant, it’s also unsustainable and many elephants simply die of overwork and starvation.

The tourism industry may be a viable alternative but it can be a tricky one, because there is always a risk of exploitation when animals and commercialisation meet.

The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation says it ‘believes responsible elephant tourism can help to save the elephants throughout Asia but only if camps maintain the highest level of elephant care, food requirements, hygiene and environmental enrichment’.

So what does that involve?

Purists in the ethical elephant world do not encourage you to ride elephants, however some people, myself included, have experienced this on the neck of an elephant and loved it. The experience of simply touching an elephant – Dr Andrew McLean says like horses, elephants liked to be stroked – and being close to one of these beautiful giants is just as amazing though.

If you want to ride an elephant, the best experience for the elephant, and I believe for you too, is to ride on its neck (behind the ears) not on a trekking chair which goes on the elephant’s back. A fully-grown elephant can carry up to 150 kilograms on its back, but when you consider the weight of two people, the chair (it’s called a Howdah or saddle and alone can weigh 100 kilograms or more) and the mahout (who rides on the neck) you can see how this starts to be a heavy burden on the elephant.

In addition, some trekking camps overwork their elephants and leave the chairs on all day, which is unacceptable. The elephants can also be at risk of developing sores from where the trekking chairs are positioned on their backs and where they are attached – usually under their tail and legs.

Elephants need stimulation, enrichment and the freedom to behave naturally, which they cannot get if they are forced to cart people around all day with a heavy load.  They need a gentle, minimal amount of exercise per day for their physical and mental health, but should not be overworked. Depending on the temperature and the terrain, elephants should not be made to walk at a brisk pace for more than four hours a day. They also need their rest time.

Another thing to look out for at camps is the use of the bullhook. When used properly by a mahout, a bullhook can be used to guide the elephant. Unfortunately, bullhooks are often misused and, if you see bloody wounds on an elephant’s head or under their armpits or inside their ears or mouth, it’s likely the elephant is being mistreated. As in my experience, you may be told it’s necessary and doesn’t hurt the elephant, but this is untrue.

When the elephant is not working, ensure that where it’s being kept has plenty of food and fresh water and is sheltered from the elements, as it can get very hot in many parts of Asia. Remember that elephants eat a lot and should spend between 14 to 18 hours a day eating. They should be provided with a balanced diet including fresh fruits (which they love). Feeding areas should be away from where elephants defecate and urinate. You wouldn’t like to stand in your excretions and neither do they.

Watching an elephant closely can give a good indication of its health and happiness. Healthy elephants move almost constantly; swishing their tail to keep annoyances like flies away and flapping their ears to cool themselves. If these actions are absent, it could be a sign of ill-health.

A sign of great disturbance, is when an elephant ‘rocks’. This is a movement where they sway from side to side continually, sometimes with their whole bodies and sometimes swinging their legs with the action. It’s distressing to see and, according to The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation, is ‘an indicator of deep stress, boredom and a lack of environmental enrichment and a sure sign of elephant cruelty that needs to be addressed’. Click here to see an example

Elemotion, a non-profit foundation educating the public to improve elephants’ lives, also claim that this rocking from side-to-side behaviour in elephants is not seen in the wild and elephant experts believe it is a sign of nervousness and stress.

The best place to visit elephants is in their natural environment, or as close to it as possible (which becomes more and more difficult as natural habitat is destroyed). You can, however, find these environments at camps or sanctuaries where there are places for the elephants to roam and feed away from tourists and where the needs of the elephants – not the tourists – come first. Look for camps with ‘low impact’ activities that are easy on the elephants but still provide an income to their mahouts.

One place where you can ride elephants in Thailand in an ethical environment is Baan Chang Elephant Park a relatively new elephant camp north of Chiang Mai.

The owner of this Park, Pom, worked as an elephant trekking guide but became increasingly upset at the long hours and amount of work the elephants were forced to do. So, he decided to use his savings and start his own elephant park offering a newer and gentler type of elephant activity called Elephant Mahout Training.

At Baan Chang Elephant Park visitors can learn what it’s like to be a mahout. They teach visitors about the importance of elephant care and husbandry including correct eating, sleeping, bathing and exercise. One method of providing gentle exercise for the elephants and an amazing learning experience for the visitor is to allow them to ride elephants naturally behind their ears without the use of a trekking chair.

At the Park, there are no elephants painting or being trained to perform tricks. The Park is also against separating baby elephants from their mother. They do, however, rescue and provide care for orphaned baby elephants. Ban Chang Elephant Park is currently home to 12 rescued elephants, most of which were formerly used in street begging.

In Laos, about one hour outside of Luang Prabang is the Elephant Park Project. In the very relaxed Laos, the elephants here have also been rescued from logging. The mahouts are gentle with them, and have little to no use of the bullhook and they are provided plenty of rest and bath time and feeding at night away from the camp.

Like the Baan Change Elephant Park, they provide a mahout experience. A couple of things aren’t perfect about the Elephant Park Project. Although the majority of riding is on the elephant’s neck, they still use some trekking chairs. If you visit, request that they don’t use it for you or your friends. The elephants visit a different part of the forest every night and they are chained, due to their close proximity to neighbouring villages. Although this is not an ideal practice, in this neck of the woods, it is necessary for the welfare of both the elephants and the villagers.

In Laos, the elephant population is now thought to be between only 500 to 1,000 – which is devastating. Two of the elephants at the Park, Mae Cot and Mae Boun Nam, are blind in one eye, in their 60s and the best of friends. I absolutely, without question, fell in love with both of these magnificent, gentle creatures – the grand old dames of the Elephant Park Project.

Mae Cot was such a sweetie and preferred to receive her bananas (that we lavished upon her and the others) via her mouth not her trunk. I also learnt pretty quickly that it was best to serve her from her ‘good eye’ side – which not only made sense, but gave her a good view of who to manipulate into providing more! She indeed remembered me every day and was such a sweet creature.

Mae Cot is the perfect example of the capacity of elephants to forgive humans for their abuse. She had a distinctive kink in her tail that was a result of a logging accident, as was her blind eye. After years of abuse, she now seems happy in her new home and was a clear favourite with the mahouts.

Two other parks that offer up-close experiences with elephants, but no riding, is BLES run by Katherine Connor and her team – mentioned in previous articles – and the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) an hour north of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Its founder Sangduen Lek Chailert, began her love affair with elephants early in her life, rescuing injured and mistreated elephants in 1992 and in 2003 established Elephant Nature Park. Lek is a true voice for Asian elephants and has been the subject of several documentaries. Among many accolades, she was named a Hero of Asia by Time Magazine in 2005 for her dedication to elephants.

ENP is home to 35 rescued elephants who are now free to roam, eat and play to their hearts’ content. They can wander down to the river for a splash or a roll in the mud or join in at feeding time at the visitors’ platform. Their elephants are free to choose their own family group and can have as much or as little human interaction as they choose.

If you would rather walk beside an elephant than ride on top of one, BLES and the ENP are the perfect places for an unforgettable up-close elephant experience.

Ethical interactions with elephants:
Elephant Park Project.
Baan Chang Elephant Park
Elephant Nature Park (ENP)
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)

28 Responses to “The ethical elephant experience”

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  1. linda lafontaine says:

    I just came back form Thailand and had the opportunity to spend the day at the Baan Chang Elephant park and was very impressed with the mahoots and the guide – the elephants did come first and not the tourists – I did not ride as I felt that this was not kind but I had the most amazing experience feeding and bathing the elephants – almost spiritual – I applaud Pom for his vision and efforts and highly recommend this experience with the most amazing elephants….

  2. Paul Gammon says:

    I’m in Chiang Mai right now. I was worried about visiting Baan Chang as I wasn’t sure about the way the elephants are treated. After your article and talking to a few people that have been I’ll be going in the next few days. Plus buying Pom a drink for his work!

  3. admin says:

    Paul, we’d be very interested in your feedback

  4. Craig Rooney says:

    Without a doubt while the ‘ethical’ riding of elephants on the neck is much more preferable to the use of the trekking chair, the fact remains that all of these elephants have been through the Pajaan, and the only reason you are able to ride them is because they have had their spirit’s broken through this horrifically brutal process. Surely this makes any kind of elephant riding morally questionable? Or is it just a case of ‘Well, it’s too late now so we may as well ride them anyway’? If the logging ban in Thailand was lifted we could always return the elephants to this industry but only allow them to pull small trees and with a soft velvet harness couldn’t we?

    It’s akin to an 18th century slave owner exerting authority over his slave by beating them into submission so they will work 18 hours a day picking cotton. Years later when slavery is deemed unacceptable, the slave owner decides that being a slave is all his slave has ever known, so instead of freeing his slave from compulsory labour all together, he gives him some gloves to protect his hands.

    Until Western tourists are educated not to ride elephants at all and the demand for domesticated elephants and elephant riding is removed then elephants will continue go through the Pajaan.

    As suggested in the article, please go and visit Elephant Nature Park, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, BLES and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand where elephants are allowed to live out their lives naturally, in peace, without having to carry tourists on their back.

  5. Anouk says:

    Sadly project in Laos states literally ‘riding’ and even ‘riding in elephant chair’, so I guess thats off. Even though they would maybe offer it without, they still use chairs for the majority of the tourists, in which way you indirectly also support this even if you not ride/not ride with chair…

  6. n n says:

    What are your thoughts on Patara? I was told its another humane park where you take care of the animals. Thoughts?

  7. admin says:

    We don’t know this one, sorry. More information from others please!

  8. Gummers says:

    I was made aware of this blog through a post on reddit. I just wanted to say that I disagree with Baan Chang park being listed as a ethical elephant park. I got back from there nearly two weeks ago and I was sickened by the way animals were treated. Sure, I guess its better than some of the worst offenders as they do not use riding chairs, but its nothing to shout about. I personally witnessed mahouts striking their elephants for no good reason. I heard elephants screaming from being struck. I saw bloody and half healed bullhook wounds on the elephants.

    The elephants spend hours upon hours chained up. Every single elephant there was weaving back and forth and pulling on their ridiculously short chains.

    Honestly, I’m not even that much of an animal rights advocate and that place had me close to tears and feeling guilty as heck for going. I’ve seen Asian elephants while on safari at an Eco park in Sri Lanka and that experience – seeing families wandering and eating at leisure – was miles above what I experienced at Baan Chang.

  9. Maureen says:

    Great article!
    I have a petition about the abuse of elephants in Thailand, in which I ask the King and President to look to other means of tourism including elephants, in which they come to no harm.
    An example is visiting Sanctuary’s as in article.
    Please would people be kind enough to sign and then share the link. The aim is 50000 signatures, which should be enough to make them sit up and take notice.

  10. Patty says:

    Much better to walk with elephants rather than ride them, very spiritual experience just being able to see hoe beautiful they are

  11. Narna says:

    Surin Project in Thailand is a fantastic, ethically sound project which allows no bullhook use and no riding. Please check them out.

  12. Lindy says:

    I am going to Thailand tomorrow and had planned to ride an elephant. I won’t now. I will be in the Phuket region. I am disappointed that the sanctuaries are not closer but I guess that’s what happens when you try to give elephants a natural experience. Probably not that compatible with the tourist industry.
    I am glad I found out about this and I wonder how many tourists who have elephant rides know how they are trained.
    I guess you can’t expect tourist based businesses to mention it. I only found out because my adult daughter told me. I’ll mention it when people ask me about my Thai holiday.Maybe word of mouth is the only way it can be better known and stopped.

  13. Amy says:

    I had the pleasure of visiting Elephant Nature Park a few years ago and it was amazing! Not only so you get to touch the elephants, you get to feed and bathe them too!

    I am against riding elephants personally but I understand that it is a complicated issue. I encourage people to support ethical experiences like ENP!

  14. Casey says:

    Patara should be added to this list of ethical elephant experiences. I just returned, and was very observant and skeptical, and their elephants are happy, healthy, and treated well. They had no sores or signs of bull hooks or being tied up, trainers used positive reinforcement (food), and they seem to really care if elephants and elephant education. You ride on the neck. We rode for 40 minutes and I never encountered a fence or enclosure.

  15. Claudia says:

    I visited Elephant Nature Park last year and it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. The elephants there look so happy! I really recommend spending the night there as well to see as much of the park as possible, or, if you have the time volunteer for a week (which I hope to do in the future).

  16. Hey there, I love this article! I think you and your readers would be really interested in our ‘Dream Job’ in Thailand.
    It’s a chance to work with elephants and travel to this amazing country, airfare & accommodation covered!
    We are taking applications now:


  17. Shoshana says:

    This might be a tricky one… I am going to Bali next year and desperately want to spend some time with elephants but categorically won’t go to many of the parks and attractions that I find on the internet. I am very much against the maltreatment of these gorgeous creatures and was wondering if anyone knows of anywhere in Bali that treats their animals ethically?

  18. Mo says:

    Shoshana, the only comment from experienced elephant advocates re an ethical elephant experience in Bali was this: “definitely not the Elephant Safari Park. I was traumatised after spending the day there.” I fully appreciate how much we want special time with elephants, but if we truly respect them for who they are, and not for what they can do for us, then we forgo that experience is no ethical place can be found.

    I would dispute this comment on the blog: “Purists in the ethical elephant world do not encourage you to ride elephants.” We are not purists, we believe that morality isn’t flexible for convenience or pleasure.

    Neck riding is still a form of domination. It is still an act of commodification, of ownership, and reinforces the animal’s property status. This means we can use them gently or not, it is our choice, not theirs. We take away their own life’s purpose.

    It’s not HOW we use animals, it’s THAT we use them at all.

    Prof. Tom Regan says: “Being kind to animals is not enough. Avoiding cruelty is not enough. Housing animals in more comfortable, larger cages is not enough. Whether we exploit animals to eat, to wear, to entertain us, or to learn, the truth of animal rights requires empty cages, not larger cages.”

  19. Phunawa says:

    Great about how we can help save and amazed with these magnificent creatures without hurting them. There should really be changes needed to help them and what good way than to educate the people. Great blog post.

  20. Ali says:

    Patara north of chiang mai was an amazing experience. We fed and bathed the elephants, rode on their neck to a pretty pool where we had lunch and were able to swim with the elephants. Absolutely brilliant experience.


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