Can Elephant Trekking Ever Really be Ethical?

Elephant trekking is one of the most popular activities to do amoung tourists in Thailand and contributes ever important tourist dollars to local communities.
But recently some disturbing realities of elephant trekking have come to light begging the question can elephant trekking ever really be ethical?

Diana Edelman a blogger passionate about the ethical treatment of Elephants in Thailand recently wrote a heartbreaking but eye-opening story about an Elephant called Mae Sai Roong.  The post shed light on the horrific treatment of elephants used in the tourism industry.

Most elephants used in the tourism industry are subjected to horrific training regimes that can only be described as torturous. And for what? All for a future of entertaining tourists.

Now I’m no stranger to riding elephants in fact I’ve done it twice.

On my first trip to Thailand I went on a 1 hour elephant ride in the Khao Sok National Park area. Chocklie, the elephant I was riding was like a toddler, he had his own ideas on where he wanted to go, he was temperamental in his behavior and often disobeyed his Mahout.

Every time Chocklie “disobeyed” he got a hefty smack with a metal hooked end pole.  Every smack must have been agony.  Every time he got hit I winced, this didn’t sit right with me.

The second time I went to Thailand I was with my Dad who wanted to ride an elephant. This time around I wasn’t going to have an elephant subjected to such harsh treatment all for my photo opportunity so I sought out an ethical elephant camp through Trekking Collective.

We drove over an hour from Chiang Mai past elephant camp after elephant camp packed with tourist.  One after the other the elephants loaded with tourists trudged along the path. There were so many going at one time they were almost trunk to tail.

As our car rolled away from the tourist camps we turned off the main road and pulled up in front of a small hut and our awaiting Elephant.

Once we were seated rather uncomfortably on the back of the elephant we were handed a large bunch of Bananas.

“What are these for?” I asked.

“For Chandaa. She don’t walk if you don’t give her banana. She like car, don’t run without petrol. Every time she stop you give her banana and she go.”

As if understanding the instructions the Mahout had given us, Chandaa’s long trunk stretched up over her head towards us.  Once she had munched on her first banana off we went!

Every few meters she would stop and again stretch up her trunk for her next banana, I feared we’d run out and would be stranded! This girl certainly had quite the sweet tooth!
Chandaa’s Mahout didn’t carry a whip nor the hooked end pole that had been used on my last elephant trek. He simply strolled along side occasionally saying commands to her.
When we got to the end of our trek at the Kueng Kued Elephant Camp we were educated on the ethical ways they conduct their tourism operations.
At the camp each elephant is seen like a member of the family, they are respected, they are loved, they are cared for.

They believe that you treat the elephants like your children, they don’t beat their children with a hooked pole or a whip when they misbehave so they don’t do it to the elephants either.
Just like children positive reinforcement is the best way to train the elephants, give them incentive in the form of their favourite treat, bananas and they’re more willing to behave.  No need for torture.
In addition to positive reinforcement, the policy of the camp is that each elephant only does one trek per day and the rest of the time is allowed to roam free.
Our guide told us…
“What most tourist never realise when they go to those elephant camps is that those poor elephants are made to do trek after trek with barely any time for a break!”
To put it in perspective elephants need to spend on average 18hours a day eating and 4 hours sleeping.  If an elephant is doing trek after trek they lose their ever important eating and sleep time.

Now while boycotting elephant tourism altogether to protest against the poor treatment of these magnificent creatures seems like the right thing to do the reality is that would severely impact local economy’s.  In addition that would punish those operations that are run ethically.

What our responsibility as travellers is, what our responsibility for the elephants is to be aware of the real practices that go on behind the scenes.  Our responsibility is to stop supporting unethical practices and demand changes.
So how do we do that?

Choose an Ethically Run Elephant Camp!

If you want to go elephant trekking do your research. Choose elephant camps that:

  • Use positive reinforcements in training such as food incentives.
  • Limit elephants to one trek a day each.
  • Keep tourist numbers down as to not disturb the elephants in their grazing.
  • Don’t sell elephant made merchandise such as elephant paintings.
  • Educate tourists on the plight of the Asian elephants and the ethical way to treat them.

Sign the petition to help the elephants!

Send a clear message to the Thai government and tourism bodies that the un-ethical treatment of elephants is not on by signing this petition. By supporting ONLY ethically run elephant tourism operations we can send a clear message to all those who adopt un-ethical practices.  We demand the ethical treatment of elephants and we will only spend our tourist dollars on places that do so!

On Friday, April 6 at 10 a.m. EST jump on twitter and contribute to the discussion on ethical tourism focusing largely on the Asian elephant in Thailand and what we can do as tourists to help these animals. Follow along and get involved in the conversation by following the #ethicaltravel tag.  The conversation will last one hour.

For more information on the plight of the elephant check out the Elephant Nature Park Website.

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