I visited Thailand on a family holiday a couple of years back. One of the highlights of my trip was a three day jungle trek that we did in the forests north of Chiang Mai. This was primarily a walking tour but did include a half hour elephant ride.
It was an incredible experience and something that we had all been looking forward to – something to tick off the bucket list if you like.
We had our photos taken and, quite predictably, both my brothers and I chose one to make our Facebook profile picture as soon as we found internet.
The elephants themselves were immensely impressive up close – gentle giants. Their mahouts seemed to treat them well and even allowed us to ride on the neck. When it was time to dismount, there was yet another photo opportunity with the animals and also a chance to feed them a banana – as a sort of "thank you for the ride".
A year later, I spent a couple of nights at an elephant sanctuary. I was struck by how different this experience was. All of the elephants at the sanctuary had been rescued from a life in the logging or trekking industry and the focus was very much on their well-being.
These elephants seemed genuinely relaxed. We spent only 2 or 3 hours with them a day, preparing their food and bathing them in the river. The remainder of the day they spent foraging in the forest.
I far preferred this experience, although I remember wondering at the time why an elephant needed to be ‘rescued’ from the trekking industry. What could be so bad about an animal that size carrying a tourist on its back for an hour, posing for a photo or being fed a banana?
I have since become aware of the shocking treatment that many elephants, including babies, have to endure in order to be ‘broken in’ to the tourist industry. There is a lot of information out there and many strong opinions on the subject.
In this blog, I’m going to outline the suffering that these animals undergo in the name of entertainment and how tourists, often unwittingly, are fuelling this demand. I’m also going to look at those establishments that get it right so that you are armed with alternative ways to see elephants should you so choose.
Please be aware that some people might find the images and the description of the treatment of elephants disturbing.