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?
Before I knew better, I rode an elephant. The experience of riding on the neck of an elephant and bathing an elephant were two experiences I’ll never forget. Immediately, the elephant became embedded in my heart. 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.
There is divided opinion about riding elephants. It’s a debate that often goes back to cultural differences and economic realities. If we lived in an ideal world, then there would be no riding at all. Just to hang out with elephants is an amazing experience in itself. Elephants that are already domesticated need to be supported, however, and often this is done through riding. So if you want to do it as ethically as possible, then here are a few things to consider …
The least harmful experience for the elephant, and the best 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.
Watch out for operators at trekking camps who overwork their elephants and leave the chairs on all day, this is unacceptable. In addition to the weight, 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 away from tourists. Interactions with elephants at camps should be restricted.
Another thing to look out for is the use of the bullhook. I would like to see no bullhook, but according to practices, 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.