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How to choose the right elephant sanctuary in Thailand
For many tourists, including myself, the thought of riding elephant back through a majestic jungle, rivers and streams has its appeal. To be fair it’s not hard to see why. But as with anything in the world, every action has its consiquences. Its good side and its bad. So, in this article I’m going to delve into the harsh reality that is elephant tourism. Where the elephants in tourism come from, how they have their spirits broken to allow people to ride them, what to look for when choosing the right elephant sanctuary in Thailand and one that I personally recommend.
A little history of elephants in Thailand
I think it goes with out saying that the Asian elephant has roamed the continent for millions of years. Seen as I’m not an evolutionary expert I’m not going to go into that. That’s someone else’s job.
For many years elephants in Thailand were used for logging. Carrying heavy loads with their tusks and mouths. Since the 1989 ban on using elephants in Thailand for logging many of the “Mahouts” (elephant minders) found themselves without an income.
Understandably, when the income that you have relied upon for decades suddenly dries up you need to find another way to make money. Especially when it is estimated that it costs around 1000 Baht a day to feed a full grown Asian elephant and then there’s your family on top of that!
Unfortunately, this is where us tourists come in. Coming from the UK myself, where the most exotic creature you’ll find is a native red squirrel, it’s not hard to see why trekking through the jungle on a 4-ton beast is appealing. I too, was all for going on a day trip to ride an elephant.
That’s until I got to Chiang Mai, started asking around on the best place to do it and then someone mentioned how unethical it is. After less than 5 minutes of googling, NEVER will I ride on the back of an elephant!
Where do the tourist elephants come from?
It is thought that there are around 5000 elephants in Thailand, a far cry from the 100,000 estimated in 1900. With 3000 of them in captivity. Out of that 3000, the vast majority are used for Elephant rides and tourism.
Many of the Elephants that you’ll find in the “ride an elephant” tourist parks are smuggled in from neighbouring Myanmar (Burma). These elephants are not bred in captivity, these are wild animals.
The poachers smuggle an estimated 150-250 baby elephants each year. The worst part of it, if that was not bad enough, is the fact that when poachers tranquilize the calf, the parents will stay around to protect their offspring. All that means is the poachers are known to simply shoot them both, as well as any other elephant that stands its ground.
Not only is this barbaric cycle morally wrong on every level, it’s also completely unsustainable!
Are all elephant sanctuaries in Thailand ethical?
Without a doubt, NO!
Some elephant sanctuaries in Thailand pose as if they are all ethical, especially as now more people are learning about what goes on behind the scenes. The trauma that young elephants go through so that we can take a ride on their backs.
In a way, us tourists being more educated on what goes on at these “sanctuaries” might not always be a good thing. Scratch that, surely it can only be a good thing right!? What I’m trying to say is that like with anything, once people understand what goes on and start to choose more ethical sanctuaries, surely the more unethical ones will just hide the mistreatment. Thus, still getting good reviews.
I think it all stems back to us tourists, still willing to climb on an elephants back knowing the torture they endure!?
Let’s be serious there’s not many wild animals that are up for carrying one/more of us humans around all day and I’m pretty sure elephants wild or captive are not really up for it.
On the other hand…
There are some good ones out there, I’m sure. There are elephant refuges are popping up all over Thailand at the moment. Many people swear by Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, they have 250 acres and 37 elephants. All the money they make from elephant feeding and bathing tours goes back into buying more land and rescuing more elephants from being a “performing monkey”. I have no experience of this sanctuary, but the reviews are good and it has been endorsed by many, such as Nomadic Matt and a plethora of animal rights campaigners.
Then there’s the one I visited. Dumbo Elephant Spa. The photos on this post are from there but more about that a little further down.
Why you shouldn’t ride elephants anywhere in the world
Simple. Elephants are not designed to carry a lot of weight on their backs, it can SERIOUSLY damage their spine. A study was conducted which found that elephants should not carry more than 150KG for an absolute maximum of four hours a day. Check out this post on the dodo website, it really explains it better than I can.
So, 2 average people, let’s say 75KG each and then the crap fitting steel saddle at roughly 50KG for 8 hours a day without enough food and water. Need I say more!?
And then there’s the “Phajaan”
Ever wanted to know how they get elephants to paint, play basketball with their trunks or even just let people like you or me on their backs? The “Phajaan” is how.
The word “Phajaan” translates into English as the “crush”, and that’s exactly what their doing. They’re crushing the elephants spirit.
Taken a very young age, the young elephant must endure the ancient ritual of Phajaan.
So, what is the Phajaan!?
The Phajaan is an ancient ritual practiced for many years by hill tribes to crush the will of elephants, so they can get the elephant to do what they want. It takes six days to complete and is absolutely horrendous!!
The young elephant is trapped between wooden stakes that are driven deep into the ground and its legs are tied so it’s completely immobile. Once the elephant is secured, it is starved, beaten and in some cases, has metal rods driven into its head. All the while, the mahouts sing a song that translates into “elephant, if you stop struggling we won’t hurt you”. How sick is that?
For six days this continues until the elephant’s will is completely broken. It is said that nearly half of all claves that the Phajaan is practised on don’t survive. Some die through injury, some go insane and have to be shot.
Do you really need any other reason not to ride an elephant!?
Choosing the right sanctuary
As you’ve probably guessed by now this in not as easy as it might first seem. Check out trip advisor for images of any sanctuary that you’re thinking of going. Check for:
elephants are free to roam.
Basically, just read the reviews.
Apart from the obvious all I can say on this matter is, research, research and research some more!
Where would I recommend? The Dumbo Elephant Spa…
Having personally only been to one elephant sanctuary myself, I guess it’s the only one I can really recommend but it’s a good one.
I spent half a day at the Dumbo Elephant Spa. It’s quite a drive but, 2 hours from Chiang Mai to be exact but it’s worth the drive! The road to Dumbo takes you up into the hills and through many authentic Thai villages, untouched by the extensive reach of tourism. A refreshing change after spending a while in the bustling cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
It’s not some fancy resort, there’s no hotel attached, no night market but the landscape is simply staggering!! While the elephants are not wild, they are only partially fenced in to stop them wandering into other people’s land and destroying their crops, understandable, right!?
There are no chains, sticks or torture devices here! Just a real Thai hill tribe who look after and feed the elephants. A hill tribe that have found a sustainable way to support their families through ethical elephant tourism. There surrounding land is filled with farms, of which the money that Dumbo makes is distributed around the local farmers for the fruit that forms part of the elephant’s diet. There ain’t no fat cat here, just a real Thai hill tribe that look out for each other. If I’m going to spend money to see elephants, where better to spend it?
There are 5 elephants, soon to be six as one is pregnant. The day I was visited there were only three of us and 5 elephants, happy days! From the moment you arrive the elephants are waiting patiently for you to go over with a bundle of sugar cane and a bag full of fruit.
The elephants seem happy to interact with you, is that because they like human interaction or because you come carrying lots of food? Who knows…
After feeding them and lots of interaction, the elephants start to roam off on their own, into the trees and down to the natural river where you can follow and wash them/have a water fight.
Once they’ve hand enough, they wander off again. This time to undo all your hard work by throwing soil all over themselves, apparently to stop them baking in the sun.
All the staff at Dumbo are friendly and really knowledgeable about the elephants. I really did get the impression that they loved their elephants and dedicated their time to looking after them.
After all that action, it’s back to the start for a very healthy portion of chicken, rice and potatoes. All with the typical Thai herbs spices of course.
They also do a full day at the sanctuary but I though half a day was enough.
First off, even though it says at the top of this posts there are affiliate links on this page, there aren’t! It says that on pretty much every page on this site. Gotta keep the internet police happy ain’t ya 😉 Don’t get me wrong, I could have found some other sanctuary to promote to earn me some money but I don’t want to risk promoting somewhere that doesn’t look after it’s animals. As I said earlier this is the only one I’ve been to, it was good so I’ve recommended it. Simple as that!
Even with the “ethical” experience I had, I still couldn’t get away from the feeling that the elephants were a little exploited. I don’t know if exploited it the right word, but did they really want me scrubbing them down with a stiff brush or were they trained to let me do that? If yes, what had to happen to enable me to do that?
Obviously, they’d probably much rather be free to roam where ever they wanted but I guess they’re a lot better off there where they’re safe rather than having their calves snatched and being shot. It’s a double-edged sword I suppose.
By all means, go and see the elephants but please don’t go riding them, what they have to endure for you to do that is just criminal! At the end of the day, you’re not teaching your trusty Labrador “fido” to fetch a ball, it’s a fucking elephant!!
Ah well, if you’ve made it this far then I hope I’ve given you plenty to think about for when your choosing which elephant sanctuary in Thailand to visit…