In our last trip to Thailand, it didn’t take long to see advertisements for every sort of “elephant experience” – washing, bathing with, feeding, riding, and trekking with elephants.
“Ride the Elephants!”
“The Elephant Experience!”
“Up Close with Elephants!”
We saw baby elephants frolicking on the beaches under the watchful eye of a trainer. Elephants lined up on the side of the road awaiting bus load after bus load of tourists to have their elephant encounter.The elephant is the official national animal of Thailand, so it isn’t surprising that many people are hoping for an up-close elephant selfie to take home with them from their Thai vacation.
Recently, however, there has been more and more backlash against the tradition of offering tourists the opportunity to interact with elephants. Talking about riding elephants is akin to talking politics or religion – the opinions run deep. It’s easy to find articles condemning riding elephants on the web. In response, many places now advertise “no riding” camps where you can visit with elephants, but not ride them.
But, is there anything to this? Should you ride an elephant? It’s a more complicated question than you’d think.
First, some history of people and elephants
Interactions between people and elephants have a long history. Elephants have been trained and used by human beings for thousands of years, for everything from transportation to construction to logging to war. Remember your history lessons of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants and army? That was 218 B.C. And elephants had been utilized by humans long before that.
In more recent times, Asian elephants have been used in entertainment and as living “machinery” to help move logs through the jungle as part of the logging industry. The latter changed in Thailand in 1989, when the Thai government banned the use of elephants in the logging industry.
At that time, it is estimated that there were thousands elephants employed for logging purposes. The ban put most of these elephants and the mahouts (or trainers) who owned them out of work. Owners of elephants used in the logging industry at that point had very little choice but to turn to tourism to earn enough to care for themselves and their elephants.
Mahouts and elephant training
Mahouts are the elephant handlers who you will see riding or managing the elephants at any camp you visit. Traditionally, being a mahout is part of the family business, and a young family member is matched with a young elephant, and they spend most of their lives together. The traditional mahout life isn’t easy – since they are they one bonded to their elephant, they rarely have time off or time for family.
In more recent years, younger mahouts in Thailand have been more likely to leave the mahout life to find jobs in the city, changing the dynamic and resulting in elephants having to get used to multiple mahouts. This can lead to additional stress on the elephant, or result in abuse by a mahout trying to manage an elephant that hasn’t built any level of trust with him.
What’s with the nasty looking spike mahouts use?
Most mahouts use an elephant hook (also called a goad, bullhook, or ankus) to train and control their elephants. Supporters suggest that elephants skin is so thick that to even fell the pressure of the hook requires a sharp push. Proponents says that the elephant is an instrument of torture, a reminder to the elephant of the initial “training” they received that made them pliable to commands from humans.
Why do you need train an elephant at all?
While the phrase “domesticated elephant” is commonly used, in reality all elephants captivity are wild animals, no different genetically from the elephants living in the wild. Elephants are intelligent, extremely strong, and clearly have a will of their own. Any elephant that has interaction with human beings, in any sort of captivity, requires a certain amount of training.
Of course some of the training can result in “tricks” like painting a picture or standing on certain legs, as well as being strapped with a chair on their back to provide rides, all requiring that the elephant follows certain commands. Even in preserves and parks that allow interaction but nothing more than elephant bathing, the elephants must be trained to follow commands (or enticed with food) to move to the river at the appointed time.
Don’t think that elephants in no-riding nature preserves are in a completely natural environment. In preserves with even minimal human interaction, veterinary treatment requires elephants be familiar to people and able to follow some basic commands.
Elephants are chained and caged in captivity
This varies by the camp. But, it certainly isn’t unusual to see chains and enclosures in camps. Arguments against this are obvious, but proponents argue the the chains are for the elephants own safety – to prevent them from wandering into the road, neighboring farms, etc.
When you visit a nature preserve and see a small herd of elephants interacting together, you are almost always seeing females and maybe some young males. In fact, the population in parks and preserves is heavily skewed to female elephants. The reason for this is related to musth (also called must).
Male, or bull, elephants periodically enter a period of massively heightened testosterone levels (up to 100X more than what is considered normal) called musth. Musth can last from anywhere to a few weeks to two months. During this time, bulls can be extremely violent, attacking handlers and other animals, including male and female elephants alike. During the musth, elephants in captivity must be separated, and confined. This is the case even in non-ride elephant preserves.
Interestingly, in India, where mahouts have worked with elephants for thousands of years, it is common practice to tie an elephant in musth to a strong tree, and place it on a starvation diet. Through food and water deprivation, the musth can be reduced to a few days instead of weeks or months. So which is worse? Starving the animal for a few days? Or chaining the elephant and forcing it to undergo the (painful) process of musth for a much longer period of time?
Who owns the elephants? And what are the costs?
About 95% of Thai elephants in captivity are privately owned. Some owners may be foundations or nature parks, but most often they are families of mahouts. And, with an average lifespan of an elephant at 60 years, often the animals are in the family across generations.
Owning an elephant isn’t cheap, as you would expect. Elephants eat 10% of their body weight per day, or about 800 lbs (3,500 KG) of food per day. It’s estimated that it costs 2,910 Baht ($80 US) per day to properly feed an elephant in Thailand. In comparison, average monthly wages in Thailand are less than 14,000 Baht per month, or less than 500 baht ($15) per day. It’s pretty clear with these economics, that Thai owners of elephants need to be able to earn some income from the elephants in order to feed and care for them properly.
Are Asian elephants endangered?
Yes, they are on the endangered list. And their population has dropped by 50% in the last three generations.
In Thailand, there are thought to be around 4,000 elephants, with approximately 3,000 of them in captivity
Elephants should just be allowed to live in their natural environment
Of course they should, just like with most wild animals. But, habitat for wild elephants is rapidly dwindling. As human population expands, farms encroach on the elephants’ natural habitat, and farmers are not friendly to elephants, who can trample, eat and destroy a field of crops in very little time. Farmers will occasionally resort to poisoning or shooting them to spare their harvest from being destroyed.
Elephants are tortured to “domesticate” them and then abused regularly
Unfortunately, human beings are guilty of having abused just about every species of animal on the planet at one point or another, and elephants are no different.
Wild elephants require a “breaking” process in order to follow commands from their trainer. While other animals go through this process (horses, for example), this process is particularly harsh for elephants. There are plenty of videos online that detail the process, and it’s not pretty. Describing it as torture is not an exaggeration.
How an elephant is treated in captivity is really about the particular mahout managing the elephant. We’ve seen all sorts of treatment: positive reinforcement techniques using food (which is effective if they’re motivated at the moment), prodding and poking with the elephant hook, and even mahouts using slingshots to move the elephant where they want. Visiting a camp for rescued elephants reveals the results of abuse and neglect: many permanently blinded by slingshots, or maimed as the result of injuries not treated.
One argument against riding on the chair is that elephants are not designed to carry weight on their backs for prolonged periods, and this can lead to spinal injuries. Predictably, there are arguments from elephant-riding proponents suggesting that an elephant can safely carry up to 25% of its body weight on it’s back.
In many camps, social interactions between elephants are extremely limited. We’ve seen elephants in “riding stations” off a main road stand for the entire day in a pen, chair strapped in place, their trainers waiting for tourists to drop in for a ride. For extremely social animals, this level of isolation must have some sort of affect. Recommendations have been made by elephant proponent groups for a minimum amount of social “down” time for elephants, including limiting the amount of time per day that the elephant can be ridden, but these are just guidelines, and don’t need to be followed. And of course the straps used to hold the chair in place can cause sores and injuries that will cause problems if left untreated.
Most elephant camps will have their own rules on how the elephant is treated, some not allowing hooks, others implementing maximum number of rides. Ultimately the mahouts are the ones responsible for whether an elephant is treated humanely or not .
What about elephant preserves?
With decreasing natural habitat, perhaps the best option for elephants to live “naturally” is in an elephant preserve. But there are constraints to this. The largest preserve for elephants in Thailand, the Elephant Nature Preserve, has 250 acres of property, and houses less than 70 elephants. Hundreds of people visit the park each day at a minimum of $70 per person. The park has a well earned reputation for their humane treatment of the elephants in their care. However, some have called into question the practice of allowing such large numbers of visitors, which in itself is a stressor for the elephants. Their every move is monitored by the mahouts in order to insure the visitors safety – all day, every day. Detractors question whether making large profits is an equal driving force along with elephant conservation at the park.
With over 3,000 captive elephants in Thailand, there simply aren’t the resources, or the space to create preserves to house them all. And, as always, there are politics. Most landowners aren’t happy about an elephant park or elephant tourist attraction moving in next door. Elephants may wander free of the park and do serious damage to farms and homes nearby, or become a danger on nearby roads, as well as pollute water sources. We’ve heard a number of stories about elephant camps being shut down with little warning (and seemingly little reason), forcing the owners to scramble to find a new spot for their animals.
Should we outlaw elephant riding?
Opponents of elephant riding may suggest that elephant rides be outlawed. My worry is that an immediate ban could lead to another massive change in how elephants are treated/cared for, similar to ending elephant logging in 1989. How will mahouts that are currently making a living and supporting their (expensive) elephants through rides be able to continue do so? The average lifespan of an elephant in captivity is 60 years – any solution needs to take into account the long-term effects on the elephants currently employed giving rides.
For now, elephant riding is not illegal, and any interaction with these huge, powerful animals is can be a highlight of a visit to Thailand. So regardless of your opinions, do your research, and make sure that any camp or preserve you visit is treating its captive elephants humanely.
Do you choose to take a ride, or just observe elephants interacting in a somewhat natural environment?
Note: the top picture is us, riding an elephant in a camp in Koh Chang in 2010, long before we researched this topic. Honestly, it was a lot of fun being perched on top of the elephant and wandering through the jungle. Would we do it again? Jen: No. Me: Probably not.
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