I’m feeling very uncomfortable and a little worried. In front of me are four elephants in a small muddy pool together with around 20 tourists, both adults and children, thrusting cameras and phones in their faces.
They’re too close, crowding the elephants, and risking their own safety. More worryingly, this site is often recommended as one of the better facilities on the island of Phuket. I’ve already heard horror stories of animals being shackled by the side of the road, taking tourists for rides in the punishing midday sun.
These days animal welfare is high on the list for British travellers and, with so many of us visiting Thailand every year, the care of captive elephants is an issue that’s impossible to ignore. Indeed ABTA (the Association of British Travel Agents) recently issued a directive advising against all forms of contact, including riding and bathing and only allowing feeding behind a barrier. As I discover, few places manage to stick to these strict guidelines though.
Thailand has around 3,000 captive elephants, once part of a logging industry that was outlawed in 1989. These animals eat as much as 250kg of vegetation a day, costing around £1,000 a month — so the only way of keeping them alive is tourism. As a result, over 200 elephant centres are scattered throughout the country, most offering feeding, bathing and riding and they are not required to have a licence.
You don’t need to travel far to discover how varied the approach is. Two hours north of Phuket is Phang Nga Elephant Park, which opened in 2015, and which has just nine elephants. Groups are limited to 18, and part of the programme here focuses on taking the animals for a walk, two people to each elephant. We follow a rough track upwards into a stunning lush forest for around 20 minutes, an opportunity to get close without disturbing these majestic elephants. At the top we pause and from behind barriers, we feed them nutrition balls which we’ve made earlier, observing the strong bond between the mahouts and their charges.
But it’s in the north of the country in Chiang Mai, once the centre of the forestry industry, that you find the majority of captive elephants. Around an hour outside the city is Patara Elephant Farm which focuses on breeding, with 44 babies born here. The latest is only four months old when I visit.
Theerapat — or Pat — Thrungprakan, the Thai owner, gives us a rundown about elephant healthcare: for example, you can tell if they slept well as they’ll have mud on their bodies from lying on their sides, while if you inspect their dung, it should be moist and non-smelly.
He introduces us to his Elephant Owner for a Day programme where visitors are taught how to feed, carry out a health check, then wash and brush the animal. Then I see participants climbing onto their elephant, before riding to the river, with the mahouts teaching them rudimentary commands.
Pat is adamant it doesn’t do the elephants any harm as they’re sitting on their necks rather than backs, and only for a short time with plenty of water. Experts are divided on the issue but personally it makes me feel uneasy, smacking of circus tricks.
For those keen to help support more ethical tourist initiatives, things couldn’t be more different at Elephant Nature Park, around an hour the other side of Chang Mai. Here there’s zero contact and you view the elephants from a distance on raised walkways.
It does give you the impression that you’re seeing them in the wild — slightly misleading as they’re still enclosed at night, as Thai law requires, to stop them devastating farmland. Interestingly the charismatic founder, Lek Chailert, is quite happy to interact with the animals, throwing herself dangerously among their legs, but there’s no doubting her commitment.
She tells me she’s working with the Thai Government to set up basic welfare standards, but progress is slow and only 35 facilities have signed up so far to her voluntary scheme. She thinks the most pressing issue is not separating mothers from their babies before the age of four. They’re often taken away young to be trained to interact with tourists. If you’re introduced to a baby, always ask where the mother is, she says.
Because there’s no question that tourists have an impact. Our actions can help in the moves for change, although as I discover at the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampang, it’s also easy to cause unwitting harm. At the world’s first elephant hospital, they treat weak, sick and injured elephants from all over the country as well as operating a mobile clinic, helping over 4,000 elephants since its founding in 1993.
Here, I see two mothers undergoing intensive treatment after emergency caesareans. The babies grew too large in their wombs, probably caused by tourists feeding them too much fruit, and both died. It’s worth knowing that the hospital is in the same grounds as the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre where elephants are ridden as it’s easy to confuse the two.
There’s no doubt that Thailand takes elephant welfare seriously and I meet a number of experts at Lampang. One thing they almost all agree on is that it’s well nigh impossible to release captive elephants back in the wild, not least because much of their natural habitat has disappeared.
And they support the recommendations by Lek Chailert that babies should not be separated from mothers, as well as the advice that bathing and riding should be discontinued.
For visitors who want to make an informed choice, what’s sorely lacking, however, is a central directory of facilities listing number of elephants, activities on offer and ratio of tourists to animals. My advice is to always ask your tour operator or travel agency about welfare standards before taking one of their excursions.
If you’re put off by visiting captive animals at all, take a trip to see some of Thailand’s 3,000 elephants in the wild — Kui Buri national park is one of the best, as well as Khao Yai and Kaeng Krachan. You won’t regret it.
Elephant ethics: The questions to ask
Responsible Travel has advice on its website about what to consider if you’re planning to visit an elephant sanctuary or park.
“Although the ideal place for elephants to live is in the wild, this is not always possible,” says founder and CEO Justin Francis. “Many elephants have been rescued from temples, zoos or circus-style attractions; they may have been orphaned or injured, and it is rarely safe or feasible for them to be returned to the wild.
“In this case, they may be cared for in elephant sanctuaries or rescue and rehabilitation centres, and these centres supplement their income (elephants are unsurprisingly costly to house, feed and care for) by opening their gates to tourists and volunteers. However it is difficult to know whether a place that brands itself as a sanctuary or rehabilitation centre really is as ethical as it claims to be.”
The company has a list of elephant sanctuaries and projects which it supports, including a number in Thailand — you can see the full details here.
When you’re looking at visiting a camp or sanctuary, or booking an elephant trekking tour, consider the following.
- No elephants are domesticated — they are captive wild creatures. And while tourists may never see an elephant being hit or abused, if they are giving rides or performing tricks, it is because they have been taught that they will be hit if they don’t.
- Positive reinforcement training is being introduced by conservation organisations and genuine sanctuaries but it is rare, and there is no way for visitors to know.
- Sitting on an elephant’s back, rather than its neck, causes physical harm as they have not been bred to be ridden. This leaves their spine damaged and growth stunted.
- The success of projects which don’t allow elephant riding proves to other camps that it’s possible to remain profitable without offering this.
- The more tourists who check whether camps offer shows or rides, as well as email to explain why you are refusing to visit or book if they do, the faster others begin to phase this out too.
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