If you’ve ever considered visiting Thailand, you’ve probably thought about spending some time with their gorgeous elephants. Don’t make the mistake of picturing yourself riding one though! The animals are hugely mistreated.
What is Elephant Tourism?
Thailand’s national animal is the elephant, which unfortunately seems to gives the tourism industry the audacity to abuse them in order to make money. Elephants are being ridden by naive visitors sucked into the exciting idea. People happily pose for photos sat on one without knowing the damage they are causing.
Some elephants are forced to work in the illegal logging trade for their whole lives, lifting heavy trees with their trunks and working for long hours every day. The rest are thrown into the elephant tourism industry where they might be forced to learn tricks such as painting a picture, or begging on the street for food. Ever seen an elephant on the streets? That’s not a healthy, safe or happy elephant.
Why is it bad?
In reality, having passengers on their backs do a lot of damage, but that’s not the worst of it. Elephant owners are taking baby elephants from their mothers, which causes a lot of stress for both of them. Then they’re put through a horrific process called phajaan.
This is essentially the ‘breaking of the spirit’ and the animal is beaten, starved and exhausted. This is carried on until they have no will to live anymore. At this point the mahout (elephant trainer) is happy enough that the elephant is sufficiently broken and will do anything they want at the hands of their whips. They’re petrified of humans and obey every command, however unnatural or painful.
Why do people take part?
Most people I know who have ridden an elephant were unaware of the abuse they go through, and regret taking part in it. People research going to Thailand and are fed lots of information about riding elephants. Let’s face it, we’ve all wanted to ride a huge exotic animal and show everybody back home the pictures. Fortunately, many people are trying to spread the truth and how to better spend your time with the elephants.
We also tend to applaud animals for showing human-like traits. So if an elephant is playing football then people are going to want to watch. People forget that no elephant in the history of elephants has EVER played football in the wild because football is boring.
Okay no, it’s because they’re animals! They have instincts to find food, mate and look after their herd.
How can we stop it?
There are more and more people realising the negative impact elephant tourism has on the animals. This means that less and less tourists will be fooled into thinking visiting an elephant (or in fact any animal) at a circus is a fun way to spend an afternoon.
The best thing we can all do is share the information and knowledge we have already. I’ve already spoken to a few people about it who didn’t know; it really can make a difference.
Hopefully, in time the mahouts will realise everyone is getting wise to their ways and there won’t be any money in elephant tourism any more.
But you really want to spend time with elephants, right?
Luckily, there ARE alternatives to riding elephants or seeing one in a circus! Across Asia, there are a few rescue centres that devote their time finding abused elephants and rehabilitating them. You can usually spend a day or two there and touch, feed or even wash the elephants in a safe and guided way. Read our review of Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. We were able to support the rescue of these beautiful creatures and we got those ‘Elph-ies’ we’ve always craved!
I hate to preach but seeing some of the rescued elephants with terrible injuries in real life really made me think about how we treat animals for our own pleasure. Sure, I still eat meat and I drink milk. I probably use products that have been tested on animals at some point.
BUT there are small steps to take to start protecting the animals we claim to love, and sharing what I have seen in Thailand seems like a good way to start! I hope that you can also pass it on so that eventually elephants will become respected and honoured again, and not treated like they have no rights to live naturally and peacefully like they want to.
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