Can Thai Elephant Sanctuaries Truly Be Ethical?
The appeal of seeing an elephant in real life seems obvious. For most of us, these peaceful giants have sparked up our imagination since childhood, from bedtime stories to wildlife TV shows. Still, in Western societies, the only way to be up close to such wonderful creatures would most likely entail a visit to a circus or local zoo.
Thankfully, not only has globalisation turned a visit to a faraway place into a more affordable option, but there’s also an overall noticeable trend towards celebrating ethical treatment for animals. People seem to be choosing to support businesses that house animals to rehabilitate and provide a sanctuary instead of using them for pure entertainment or forced labour.
This shift in travel trends is visible in Thailand, the country practically synonymous with elephants (hint: they used to have one on their flag), where there are quite a few options for visiting sanctuaries.
If you’re a first-time visitor, you might find it a bit overwhelming and challenging to navigate your way to find a genuinely ethical sanctuary. In this piece, I provide some practical information while also attempting to dig up concealed truths about what’s actually behind elephant tourism and these sanctuaries.
Why is elephant tourism in Thailand is such a big deal?
For the past century, elephants were primarily used in the logging industry for moving heavy timber, as well as carrying goods, people and other tasks. Then, in 1989, a government’s logging ban, due to deforestation and flash floods, put thousands of elephants out of work practically overnight.
An adult Asian elephant consumes almost 300kg of food daily. To feed them, elephant owners had to find alternative options – some of them turned to illegal logging, spiking the elephants with amphetamines to make them work faster, others brought them to city streets to beg and let tourists feed them, which would still leave the elephants malnourished and in danger due to heavy traffic and unsuitable conditions.
Releasing these animals, born and living in captivity their whole lives, in the wild was not an option, but they did have to go somewhere. Over time, the situation developed into the tourist attractions we see today. Sadly, a lot of them are still run in a similar way as back in the logging days, only this time entertainment is the main reason for elephant suffering.
Why shouldn’t you ride an elephant?
In Phuket, Thailand’s southern tourist hotspot, I saw a mahout (the term used for elephant handlers) and at least two other people riding on the back of a single elephant. Even though elephants are huge animals (Asian elephants can grow between 2 – 3 m tall and weigh almost up to 5000 kg), their spine, due to its unique structure is very vulnerable to pressure from above. If you look up the image of what an elephant skeleton looks like, it will be easy to see why. As well as severe damage to their back, the chairs used to carry people can scrape their skin and cause painful infections.
And it’s not just the physical implications of the actual act of riding.
Before touching on the savage methods of training that any elephants used in riding and other performances have to endure, understand that a lot of them have been illegally captured in the wild to supply the growing tourism industry directly. Young elephants are torn away from their mothers and are forced to undergo The Crushing or ‘Phajaan’ – a cruel process which aims to make the elephant fearful and obedient. It involves chaining, torturing and mental manipulation to impose human dominance.
Unnecessary suffering doesn’t end with training.
According to a study carried out by World Animal Protection, 65% of mahouts ‘often or very often’ use a bull-hook (also known as an elephant goad), or a sharp stick to control their elephant. Elephants frequently have to perform long hours with no breaks, but when they are off-duty, they are kept in chains measuring less than 3 metres.
And it’s not limited to riding either. Thailand has elephant circuses where you can see them riding tricycles, walking a tight-rope and other completely unnatural behaviours.
The bond between mahout and elephant can be highly romanticised in some cases, but is in fact based on systematic abuse where the elephant, through constant prodding and whipping, has learned to obey his commands.
As a consequence, captive elephants live stressful, short and miserable lives.
In 2018, Thailand saw a record number of 38.27 million visitors, up 7% from the previous year, which, if we look at data of the past few years, also correlates with the rise of captive elephants for tourist activities, with illegal trade and capture fuelling the problem.
The more people engage in any kind of activity where elephants are subjected to riding and performing, by consequence making it profitable for businesses to exploit them, the more difficult it is to make a change for the better.
The alternative to riding and other forms of entertainment? Sanctuaries seem to be most sensible answer.
How to make sure you choose an ethical sanctuary?
In sanctuaries that care for abused and rescued elephants, animal well-being should be the number one priority, way before making a quick buck from tourists, and there should be no need to use tools or enforce tactics of control. That being said, differentiating between the good and the bad can be very tricky.
So how do you make sure that you’re booking a visit to an actual sanctuary – a place where retired elephants can relax and are taken care of properly, with no cruelty involved?
Look out for the red flags
If the company offers riding, trekking and/or elephant ‘performances’ – that’s an obvious no-go and an indication that the elephants had to go through the previously mentioned “crushing” which involves brutal tactics to make the animal obedient.
Look out for the good signs
A few things stand out in a sanctuary, that you might be able to tell from looking up reviews and information online. Elephants should be fed a varied diet with the ability to forage the food for themselves by grazing and roaming freely. They are allowed to socialise among themselves and have limited contact with visitors (normally restricted to a few hours a day) where a safe distance is kept between animals and guests without the use of force.
Double & triple check everything
Be very aware that a lot of places market themselves as sanctuaries to be perceived as the better alternative to elephant riding and performance camps yet still employ other cruel practices to subjugate the animals. For example: shouting or pulling their skin and ears in order to keep them in line or make them move along the tourist routine of seemingly harmless activities such as the pseudo ‘walk in the jungle’.
Don’t believe everything you read on the official website, even if the first thing you see is “no riding” in bold capital letters. Given the recent trend of riding camps falling out of favour, a lot of these attractions have opted for full re-branding into sanctuaries and ethical ‘retirement homes’ for elephants.
It might seem obvious, yet it can be easy to overlook. Read their “About” section and try to figure out what’s the past of the organisation and the animals they look after, how long they have been operating, how many sessions they do a day and how many people can tag along in each round. Google reviews for the place you want to visit, and utilise the search bar of review sites to look for keywords that could point to anything related to cruelty, riding, whipping or similar submission tactics. Filter negative reviews, sometimes that’s where the ugly truth can be found.
Can a sanctuary be 100% ethical?
The short answer is no. I can distinguish three main reasons for that.
Reason #1 – Purpose of Existence
The whole purpose for elephants to be there: the enjoyment of tourists. This has to be highlighted as it’s embedded in the working model of these sanctuaries. If there were no paying visitors, there would be no need for such places to exist as tourist attractions.
Reason #2 – Money Exchange
Acquiring an elephant is very expensive, and so is keeping one healthy and well-fed. The guide from the sanctuary I visited said that obtaining an elephant from their previous owners can cost as much as 2 million Thai Baht. That’s roughly 50 thousand British Pounds. Most of the sanctuaries will state their elephants have been ‘rescued’, which is not an entirely false statement, but in the majority of cases, simply put, the animals were in fact bought from trekking or entertainment businesses for a considerable amount of money.
Also, knowing that elephants bring in tourist money fosters a symbiotic bond between the buyers – sanctuaries - and sellers – which in the best case are trekking business owners, and in the worst are illegal traders.
The very sanctuaries that exist to help and give a respectful home to previously exploited creatures, also benefit from the fact that they are tame and used to the human touch, making the routine visits from outsiders easy to manage. They might not be exploited in terms of physical harm but it’s undeniable that they must bring financial gain to those who run the sanctuary, otherwise keeping them becomes unsustainable.
Reason #3 – Lack of Transparency
There are things that you will simply not know unless you’re an industry insider.
With the current trend towards more informed and ethical consumer decision-making, it’s very tempting for a lot of businesses to want to associate with these new tourist desires without doing their due diligence and understanding the underlying reasons behind these new market demands. Instead, minimal work is put towards animal well-being and the focus (and monetary investment) is on switching up their marketing message.
It was hard to contain my excitement when visiting one of these sanctuaries, but what bothered me after my visit was that there a few questions left unanswered. For example: how are these giants kept within the limits of the sanctuary when there is no fencing and they only sleep 4 hours or so a night, leaving a considerable amount of time for them to roam around unsupervised?
And while the main focus is on the suffering of elephants, not enough attention is given to underpaid, inexperienced and mistreated mahouts. Mahout deaths are common and severely underreported. And when they do get reported, the public moral outcry is still towards the treatment of the animals, even leading to repugnant comments celebrating their death as vicious brutes who harm elephants for their enjoyment. Their reality is far from that.
Are there any better alternatives?
With only about 1,000 - 3,000 Thai Asian elephants remaining in the wild (the numbers vary greatly depending on the source), compared to around 300,000 in the early 1900’s, they’re a critically endangered species. Development of human infrastructure, which has led to deforestation and destruction of their natural habitat are the main contributors to the massive drop in elephant population.
Sadly, due to the aforementioned threats, they have been left with very little space to live freely, which can lead to more problems and elephant-human conflict. There are reported cases of wild elephants wandering into plantations in search of food, leading to wreckage and fatalities.
In a perfect scenario, all captive elephants would be rehabilitated and released back in the wild. In reality, if feasible at all, this would be a very long, complex and expensive process. It does seem to be that, at this point, sanctuaries supported by visitor revenue might be their best chance at leading dignified and happy lives. But we have to keep an honest perspective.
Sanctuaries are inherently unethical in their conception, but they are also the lesser evil when you look at the whole spectrum of animals in captivity. Consider this – if elephant sanctuaries that provide proper and respectful care wouldn’t have bought them out, they would still be used for entertainment purposes, or forced labour, but in way worse conditions.
Where full ethical options are concerned, it is vital to state there are still some national parks in Thailand, namely Kui Buri, Khao Yai and Kaeng Krachan, where you might be able to spot the animals in their natural habitat, with minimal to no human interference.
In hindsight, I wish I had done this research beforehand and, if possible, visited one of the natural reserves instead of opting for a sanctuary, but as most naive, wide-eyed travellers I was distracted by the dreamy possibility of seeing these adorable huge mammals up close and interacting with them while patting myself on the back for supporting a business which has their well-being in mind.
But let’s face the facts - Asia’s nearly 3,000 captive elephants used for tourist entertainment are not going anywhere anytime soon. There is no perfect ethical solution for their situation, but there is a positive contribution we all can make when travelling to Thailand.
It’s crucial that we adopt a conscious and informed traveller attitude, and take it upon ourselves to discuss these issues and educate friends and family who may be visiting the country and are unaware of what goes on behind the scenes of these entertainment attractions. The aim should be to stop giving revenue to businesses that profit off cruelty and exploitation and instead put our dollars towards organisations that are caring for these animals in a dignified way.
Social media, travelling review websites and even Google Maps are powerful tools which have a crucial impact on these businesses, so use them to warn other travellers of any wrong practices and put the right amount of pressure on businesses and the industry as a whole to make positive changes.
The choices we make as consumers are very efficient in shaping industries that depend on direct patronage and visitor numbers. We have the power to shift the attitudes and the scale of this problem, proof of this are the reports on conditions of captive elephants supporting the tourism industry, which deliver not only deplorable shameful data but also state that the number of people finding elephant riding acceptable has been dropping.
That being said, always consider everyone involved, not just the elephants but mahouts and business owners alike, and understand that your actions affect people’s livelihoods. When bad actors in the sanctuary business are brought to light, it’s important that we voice our disapproval and make it clear why they will not be getting our money so they are given an opportunity to go beyond the superficial re-branding and truly improve their operations and make a move in the right direction. I believe most of us want to see elephants simply being elephants, even from afar, and it can still be a special experience that also supports the locals, the conservation efforts and Thai economy with tourist money.