Elephants are adorable, sweet creatures who have captured the heart of many across the world. They are especially popular in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, where there are hundreds of elephant experiences available. These fall into two categories:
- Riding/”trekking”/safari – these all generally mean that the tourist would be riding the elephant, often in circles around parks or on jungle roads
- Retirement/sanctuary parks – these are more animal-friendly and boast that they save elephants from trekking parks
The problem is, it’s not usually clear-cut which park is animal-friendly. They are often called “sanctuaries” but aren’t actually animal-friendly.
A good rule of thumb is that if the park offers elephant riding in any capacity, it’s probably not elephant-friendly.
How common is elephant riding and tourism?
According to a BBC study, 40% of visitors to Thailand were interested in riding an elephant. That means that roughly 13 million people wanted to ride elephants in 2016 in Thailand alone. Experts estimate that there are 2000-3000 wild elephants in Thailand, but there is no solid data to indicate how many are used for tourism.
ELEPHANT RIDING FAQ’s
Why is elephant riding so bad?
Firstly, Asian elephants are considered endangered and have a shrinking population.
Secondly, many of these riding elephants are forced to endure harsh training and suffer poor living conditions. They are “broken in” and beaten into submission in their “training” to become a show elephant.
According to the Guardian, the cruel process of intensively conditioning the elephants to obey keepers and allow people to ride them goes largely unseen by tourists. “In order to ensure they are safe around humans, the baby elephants must be broken in. This is a brutal and distressing process known as ‘crushing the spirit’.”
A two-year study by World Animal Protection (WAP)found that 77% of show elephants were living in inadequate conditions that were “severely cruel”. This included being chained up with no interaction with other elephants, a poor diet, and stress-inducing noise levels.
Where do these elephants come from?
Many of these elephants are taken from their mothers as babies. Some are even taken from the wild. Elephants are often smuggled across the border from Myanmar.
TIPS FOR FINDING AN ETHICAL ELEPHANT PARK
If you want to interact with elephants but don’t want to support cruel practices, check out the tips below to find an ethical elephant park.
- Rely on the research of others – Heading to Chiang Mai? Google “Chiang Mai ethical elephant parks”. You will find lists of recommendations from bloggers who have visited these parks.
- Do your own research – check out TripAdvisor reviews from the parks you’re considering. Read both the 5-star reviews and the 1-star reviews to get the real story.
- Check out the tourists’ photos – compare the photos that the park posts to the photos of the tourists who have actually visited. Do the elephants look healthy? Are the elephant trainers holding barbs? Are they chained?
- Look for keywords on the park’s website – do they use the words “trekking”, “safari”, or “adventure”? These are red flags.
- See if the park does any other animal entertainment – does this park also offer a monkey adventure? This can be a sign that they are treating the animals poorly.
- Ask for the recommendation of a local – rely on local knowledge! Ask your hotel’s concierge, your bartender, or another local if they have a recommendation.
Even after doing this research it can be difficult to tell whether the park is animal-friendly or not. Use your best judgment and don’t be afraid to walk away if you realize the park you chose might not be as ethical as it appears.
OUR RECOMMENDATION: THE ELEPHANT RETIREMENT PARK IN PHUKET & CHIANG MAI
While in Phuket we visited the Elephant Retirement Park and had a wonderful time. We found this park after many hours of research.
Loved this article? Check out our other Thailand travel tips.