We normally try to avoid things like this, and in the past we have been successful. It all started very innocently.
The day started out with an elephant show. The elephant mahouts (handlers) rode on the elephants and gave demonstrations of how they were used in logging in the jungle, as well as tricks that they had been trained to perform such as painting and kicking soccer balls into a goal.
Edit: While I was not offended by these “tricks” at the time, the consequences of these seemingly innocent, cute actions performed by the elephants have become more and more apparent to me. Since my return home, I have been reading about the brutal training methods that are used to get these animals to paint pictures and kick soccer balls, and I no longer think of these shows as harmless.
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We went for a bamboo raft ride down the river, followed by a visit to a touristy tribal village and lunch. After lunch, we returned for our 30 minute elephant ride.
First of all, the ride seemed like it was longer than 30 minutes, and the elephant did not seem happy. When the mahout (elephant handler) rides on the elephant, they ride right up near the front and without a saddle, so it is comparatively little weight and it is close to the elephants body, so the load is easier to carry.
When you get an elephant ride in an elephant camp, you sit on a bench that is strapped to the elephant’s back, 2-3 feet above the elephants center of gravity, so it makes the load very hard, especially when going up or down hills. There were a lot of steep hills on the trail, and the elephant seemed to be struggling on these.
The mahouts carry a stick with a sharp hook on the end. While we did not see them using the sharp end of the stick while we were around, he did use voice commands and held the stick up so that the elephant could see it, which gave me the impression that the elephant associated the voice with the stick and the stick with pain. It was pretty obvious that the sharp end of the stick had been used in the training process to make the elephant scared enough to keep them under control enough to haul people through the jungle.
The mahout was constantly kicking the elephant behind the ears and on the head (the mahout generally sits on the elephants head) which gave me the impression that the elephant wasn’t going willingly. The only thing that kept the elephant placated during the ride was the constant feeding of banana and sugar cane treats.
When we asked our tour guide how many times a day the elephants have to do each day, and she said that she thought that they did this 7-10 times each day. I think that our ride was about 45 minutes, so when you add all that up, it is very hard on the elephant and it does not give them much time to rest in between.
I was further saddened by the fact that we saw that when they are not working, the elephants are not left free to roam around. They were chained under a shade canopy, standing on hard dirt or concrete with a pile of food within reach, unable to move around much. It was truly horrible.
We saw some other people while we were on our elephant ride that had gone to the other kind of elephant camp in Thailand where they get to spend a day or more with the elephant, learning to be a mahout and they were riding the elephant without the bench (right behind the elephant’s head). These elephants seemed happy to be going on a ride through the jungle, not like the poor beasts that were hauling us up and down steep hills, visibly struggling.
I would have been completely happy seeing the elephant show, taking some pictures with the elephants and having some time up close to them to feed them bananas ans sugar cane. The ride itself was very uncomfortable, as an elephant’s gait is not smooth. It rocks significantly from side to side, and this effect is amplified by sitting up so high above the elephant’s back.
I will add a disclaimer: this is just my experience from one elephant camp. There are many elephant camps in Thailand and I can’t speak for all of them. I am just advocating for asking questions and making informed choices about the type of elephant experience that you want to have.
If you want to come to Thailand and have an elephant experience, please spend the extra money to go to a reputable elephant camp for a whole day or more, for which I give a suggestion for below.
I am not suggesting that you avoid elephant camps all together, as tourism money is the vehicle that the real elephant conservation centers use to promote the preservation of these incredible creatures. I am just suggesting that you should be selective about which camp you go to and which experiences you choose to take part in.
Check out this elephant conservation camp next time you are near Chiang Mai: Elephant Nature Park