Elephants have been my favourite animal since I first clapped eyes on one roaming the streets of Mumbai, when I moved over to India with my family aged 8. I didn’t know at the time the suffering the poor elephant had probably been through to find itself walking the chaotic streets of such a busy city, I was simply mesmerised by its sheer scale and how gentle an animal of that size could be.
18 years on, I was lucky enough to get up close and personal with a whole sanctuary full of majestic elephants, this time with the confidence that they are living a happy life. The sanctuary was Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand – one of the most respected and ethical sanctuaries in South East Asia.
Elephant Nature Park
Unlike a lot of other attractions in Thailand – many of which market themselves on offering rides and circus tricks – Elephant Nature Park provides tourists with the opportunity to interact with elephants ethically and exploitation free. Their mission is to rescue and rehabilitate elephants that are suffering at the hands of industries, such as tourism and illegal logging, in order to give them a second chance at a good life. The park is currently home to 77 elephants, each with their very own mahout, who cares for them on an individual basis. Sadly, many have physical and psychological injuries that may never go away, however, they are now free to spend the rest of their days leisurely roaming the lush jungle-scape of the sanctuary with their new elephant friends. Living alongside the elephants, are hundreds of water buffalo, dogs, cats and many other rescued critters. It’s an animal lover’s paradise!
Many tourists visit the park for day trips, overnight stays and even extended volunteering schemes, though interaction with the animals is limited and strictly supervised. There are a stringent set of rules in place to protect the elephants and the guests, including no roaming the park or approaching elephants without a guide, strictly no riding of the elephants, no touching of their trunks and no feeding them directly into their mouth. There are plenty of fun opportunities to stroke them, feed them, make food for them and bathe them with each of the packages and volunteers even get enlisted to do some of the farming and mucking out! Yay, elephant dung!
Why you should think twice about riding an elephant
Before my trip to Thailand, I was already well aware of the unbelievable exploitation and suffering that so many elephants go through, however, it wasn’t until I spoke to some of the staff at the park that I learnt about it in such depth.
For many, riding an elephant is the ultimate bucket list experience and obviously a great snap to add to the gram. Plus, if you think about the size and build of an elephant in comparison to another animal such as a horse, which regularly bare the weight of a person, it only seems right that an elephant should be able to carry a human with ease. Incorrect.
Regardless of their size, an elephant’s spine is not made to support the weight of humans and riding them can cause permanent spinal damage. The weight of just one person on their back can be excruciatingly painful for an elephant, let alone a hefty wooden elephant seat with multiple passengers – These can also lead to skin irritation and infections. The trekking industry is also guilty of making elephants work in extreme temperatures for long, gruelling hours, meaning many become terribly ill or even die from the exhaustion and hunger.
Phajaan – Crushing the elephant’s spirits
Ever wondered how they get elephants to be so obedient? Well, here’s how…
They put them through a brutal process called Phajaan – the crushing of an elephant’s spirits, through beating it into submission. Yes, it is as distressing as it sounds.
Many are captured as babies and ripped away from their mothers by all means necessary. They are then tethered in a confined space and repeatedly beaten with sharp metal and other tools, while they are starved of food and water. This can last for days or even weeks, until their spirit is broken and the handler has full control. Sadly, even those who have been rehabilitated may never forget the traumatic experience and it has been scientifically proven that some suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Ever heard ‘an elephant never forgets?’ Sadly this is true in a lot of cases.
It doesn’t end there though, unfortunately. Once domesticated, elephants are often bound by chains in confined spaces, with little room to move and interact with other elephants, other than when they’re ‘working’. This is a far cry from their life in the wild, where they live in matriarchal herds, in which they travel many miles every day, to forage for food, play and bathe in rivers.
Elephants are social animals, not unlike you and me. They have family and friends who they are emotionally connected to, meaning they feel deep loneliness if they are separated. How would you like to be torn away from your parents and sold on to perform circus tricks for the rest of your days? Not great eh?
Ethical Elephant Experiences
If you’re heading to Asia in hope of an encounter with an elephant, be wise. Do your research before your visit and choose somewhere that truly puts the elephants’ welfare first.
- Elephant rides or any other unnatural contact
- The animals are chained up
- Mahouts or guides are using a bull-hook or another pain-inflicting tool to control the elephants
- Animals performing unnatural acts, such as circus tricks, painting, etc.
- Elephants being kept or paraded in busy, built up towns or cities
- Elephants dressed in decorative clothing, paint, etc.
- Elephants swaying from side to side or swinging their trunk – This can mean they are distressed
- Wounds, scars and signs of malnutrition
There are plenty of ethical elephant sanctuaries to choose from. EARS Asia have created a list of their approved ethical attractions here.