Often seen as the symbol of Thailand, the Asian elephant is an important part of Thai life. But what about riding elephants in Thailand? Modern ecotourism frowns upon most elephant ‘sanctuaries’, but some are (much) better than others. Here’s how to tell a good elephant sanctuary from the bad.
In Thailand, the elephant is held in almost superstitious esteem. You’ll see images and statues of them everywhere here. Even the national beer is called ‘Chang’ – Thai for ‘elephant’.
With so much respect and reverence for elephants, you’d have thought their welfare would be a priority in Thailand.
So when you find tourist venues calling themselves ‘retirement homes’ and ‘sanctuaries’ for elephants, you’d think that the animals were in the best place possible outside their natural environment.
The problem is there’s very little retirement or sanctuary offered to the elephants in a lot of these places, which offer visitors enticing opportunities to interact, to feed and even ride the magnificent creatures.
Elephants in these situations are forced – often brutally – to work and be in situations a long way from their natural habits or habitat.
But here’s the kicker: it’s an easy mistake for visitors to make.
It’s difficult for those who want to experience Thailand’s elephants to discern just from ostensible advertising which centres keep their elephants in the best conditions possible.
Even – as we found to our chagrin – when a centre comes recommended by a reputable hotel, the elephants’ welfare isn’t guaranteed.
Some years ago, on a trip to Krabi from our hotel, which recommended an elephant sanctuary to visit. The elephants seemed in good health with plenty of space, food, water and natural terrain.
But the handlers – known as mahmouts – each wielded a bull hook or ankus, which are long metal hooks attached to wooden sticks the mahmouts use to first ‘break’ the wild elephants, train them and ultimately control them.
Looking back on our experience there with what we know now, this place certainly wasn’t the worst of the so-called elephant sanctuaries, but it was by no means the best either.
Recently, we were lucky enough to hear Lindsay Hartley-Backhouse from World Animal Protection speak at a travel writers convention (ASTW) in Bangkok about elephants in Thailand.
Here are her tips for knowing the good elephant sanctuaries from the bad ones.
7 ways to spot a safe elephant sanctuary
1. Don’t rely on the name
Names like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘retirement home’ all sound good but don’t necessarily mean anything. Don’t rely on prima facie advertising – do your research and make sure – if you want to see elephants in Thailand – that you’re going to the right place.
2. Look don’t touch
Getting close enough to touch the elephants means the people involved probably haven’t used positive techniques to care for the animals.
To be able to get close enough to a wild elephant to touch them means they probably will have been ‘broken’ at some stage. If you can ride the elephants, you’re looking at a bad centre – get out of there.
3. Do the elephants look happy?
Elephants showing natural behaviour and are able to behave naturally show what kind of place you’re visiting. Check to see if the elephants are able to be social together, to browse and graze at will. If there are signs distress – head-shaking or swaying – walk away.
4. No sign of baby elephants
Breeding in captivity isn’t usually elephant-friendly – orphanages like you see in Sri Lanka are a different story.
5. Elephants are treated with respect and kindness
One easy way to check this is if the mahmouts are at an appropriate distance and either no sign of bull hooks or are there for emergency use only. Be aware that even a stick can have a nail hammered into it which can still operate as a bull hook or ankus. Some mahmouts just carry a nail in their hand to use as a clandestine ankus, which is of course harder to spot.
6. Signs of education
Good centres will want to educate visitors about conservation. If there’s more to the centre than just being able to see the elephants, and the staff there are keen to tell you more about the elephants’ habits and environment, it’s a good sign.
The truth of the matter is the good ones will probably be more expensive. They pay the mahmouts properly, the elephants will have more space and are properly fed, and employees will be better versed in education and conservation.
Most importantly of all:
If centre says ‘elephants are domesticated’, it’s not a good sign.
Online resources to help your research for the right Thailand elephant sanctuaries
As of 2014, Intrepid Travel no longer sells, promotes or recommends tours to places where you can ride elephants.
World Animal Protection is a global organisation focused on bringing welfare for animals to the forefront. Here’s one of their articles on elephant tourism in Thailand.
Thailand Elephants is a charity specifically aimed at making a change to the welfare of elephants in Thailand. Their site is a great resource for people researching where to go and experience elephants in Thailand.
Elephants and humans have had a relationship for hundreds of years, but it hasn’t always been the most equitable. It’s now time for humans to recognise that elephants really are one of the world’s finest assets.
And now we know better, we must do better.