Hey friends ~
How’s everyone feeling? If you feel good, I’m jealous of you. Everyone in the apartment is sick right now. Not to be excluded, even the cat threw up on the shag rug this morning. Now I have about 30 minutes of energy left in me, so let’s talk about elephants again.
The only tv I could handle today was Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on very low volume. One of the first episodes was filmed in Myanmar, which is where The Elephant Project is looking to build a sanctuary. It reminded me that recently, a few friends have asked me about visiting elephants in Thailand and how to do it responsibly.
I have mixed feelings about visiting elephants. I wonder sometimes if all elephant tourism stopped, if eventually people would just leave them alone in the wild. This is obviously not true, as human-elephant conflict will never allow both parties to live in peace (I care about humans, too!). Maybe elephant tourism is a necessary evil. Some animal rights extremists say owning pets is a necessary evil, and that all domesticated pets should be neutered/spayed so that eventually they will die out. I don’t think that’s happening anytime soon, and neither is the end of elephant tourism. Plus, I’m thankful that at least people want to see elephants in their native countries, as opposed to some pathetic zoo over here.
Six rules for a responsible elephant sighting in southeast Asia.
#1 Take your chances
If you won’t be devastated by potentially not seeing an elephant, I would suggest visiting a national park or reserve, where the animals roam completely free. For example, according to this article it’s pretty easy to spot an elephant in Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka during certain months of the year. I’m sure this is true in Thailand, where there are a bunch of national parks.
I know it’s tempting to visit somewhere that you know you’ll be able to interact with an elephant. Who wouldn’t? I would pee in my pants if I got to meet an elephant. But the point of seeing an elephant is seeing it happy, exhibiting behaviors like it would in the wild (waving its tail, flapping its ears, constantly on the move). Who wants to see an elephant that’s been beaten into submission? It’s not worth it. Please, if you can, take your chances. Your elephant karma will be high, maybe that increases your chances of seeing a family!
#2 No riding
Most people know this by now (hopefully), but under no circumstances should you ride an elephant. Who are you, Aladdin? Who needs to ride an elephant? Nobody. No matter what the reviews say, no nothing. Those elephants were most likely beaten as infants and are chained when they’re not working. Plus, even if trained elephants were treated humanely, spending money on this activity supports this form of tourism, which increases the demand, which increases the abuse endured by elephants in the industry. Spend your money other ways in the country if you want to help.
#3 Do not. ride. any wild animals.
Just don’t. I can’t even post a photo of western tourists riding elephants because they look so. stupid.
#4 Keep it on the elephants terms
Elephant Nature Park, right outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, has the best reviews by “woke” tourists – most people picked up on the fact that every interaction at ENP was “on the elephants’ terms.”
You shouldn’t visit places that have trained the elephants to do anything for you. To be trained, an elephant usually has to be broken, first.
Here’s a documentary about domesticating an elephant if you really need to be convinced: Yes, it’s PETA, just watch it.
#5 Use common sense
Now that you know an elephant shouldn’t be performing tricks for you, pay attention to the interactions between the mahouts and elephants. Read all the reviews you can. Ask what happens to the elephants when the place is closed. Are they chained or allowed to roam? I’ve read a lot of reviews from people who said they decided not to stay at a place because it “seemed fishy.” If something doesn’t feel right, don’t stay.
Do the animals look healthy? Do they have visible wounds?
Do they look like this?
Definitely a bad sign.
Are the elephants separated or together, in groups that resemble their original family structures? If it feels bad, it probably is.
#6 Finally, apply this knowledge to other animals
Elephants aren’t the only animals exploited for tourism money. See what happened at the famous Tiger Temple a few years ago. And now they want to open a zoo next door! Don’t visit a zoo, don’t visit a “menagerie.” You should only be viewing animals in an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible.
There are a ton of web articles about ethical elephant experiences, but the best advice is to use your common sense. If you feel that an elephant is being mistreated, don’t stay. If you feel an elephant is being mistreated at a place that claims to be ethical/rehabilitating/sanctuary, tell someone! Leave a review! Contact the owners. Blow up Trip Advisor. It’s important, now more than ever, for us to be responsible with our tourist dollars.
So, if you’re going to Thailand, or anywhere else in SE Asia, I’m jealous. I also hope you’ll spend your dollars wisely. It just takes a little bit of research but it’s totally worth it for the elephant babies – and for other animals too! Beware of any group that’s making an animal perform for you.