LET'S ADDRESS THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Exploring the harsh reality of unethical tourism and Elephant riding in South East Asia.
The classic backpacker, a twenty something graduate soul seeking in South East Asia as they embark on their 'gap yah' armed with camera and 50% deet to guard against dengue fever. That insta-worthy shot of their first elephant ride through the Thai jungle is sure to bring the likes in. Yet, sadly, this supporting of unethical elephant tourism fuels an incredibly malicious and abusive industry that will continue to thrive unless the Western tourist decides to simply say no.
As I sit in my hostel dorm, a week and a half into backpacking around Thailand, I can't help but think about how naive some tourists must be to agree to an elephant ride, or any cruelty based entertainment for that matter. I have seen chained monkeys, tigers that can barely lift their own heads up, and reptiles with their mouths shut with cable ties. Surely it is obvious the only thing funding this industry is travellers' money? I'll be completely honest and admit I have never been a huge "animal lover" aside from adoring the dogs I've had as pets. Much to my plant based sister's distaste I'll confess I'm very much a "wannabe vegan" who makes regular (far too often) slip ups, shovelling guac into my mouth whilst realising that shop-bought guacamole apparently isn't vegan. It's really not that easy being green. Despite this, or rather ironically some might say, I really struggle to see animals being physically, or mentally hurt. This was something that was all too real when exploring further the elephant industry.
I owe no disrespect to the beautiful Thai culture, one that in my understanding sees the elephant as an enduring symbol of history and faith. Yet what can change is how the traveller spends their money on elephant tourism. Medically speaking, an elephant's spine is not designed like a horse with round discs building the vertebrae. Rather, the spine is formed from bony protrusions that can separate and fracture if too much pressure is forced upon them. Most disturbingly, "wild elephants won't let humans ride on top of them. In order to tame a wild elephant, it is tortured as a baby to completely break its spirit. The process is called Phajaan, or the crush". (Expert Vagabond) This was all too real for me when spontaneously finding myself at an elephant trekking camp in Koh Samui. A tiny elephant, chained to its mother and with ropes round its legs tried desperately to pull away.
Are Elephant Sanctuaries ethical?
Though my heart is not completely swayed to believe this is 100% ethical, as a wild animal should be exactly that, wild, and not domesticated, I spent some time at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai and saw just how different their mental state was compared to the elephants I had seen chained to trees with chairs strapped to their backs. Sanctuaries like the one I went to, make it their mission to protect endangered elephants, often rescuing them from the riding industry or circus trade, helping them to escape a lifetime of abuse. I chose to spend my money on caring for the elephants through Elephant Jungle Sanctuary by feeding them bananas, helping to make medicinal balls, bathe them and exfoliate their skin in a natural mud spa. I strongly feel like unless travellers choose to spend their money on this kind of elephant tourism, the riding trade and endless abuse will continue to thrive. Do I think it's an entirely ethical way to engage with these animals? No. Do I think it's the best alternative to riding elephants, and direct tourism funds away from trekking camps? Yes. Unless this kind of tourism can replace riding entirely, then the mistreatment will continue. I learnt at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary that within the vast mountain range and deep into the jungle there are 9 elephant camps which are home to over 65 elephants. This is to allow the elephants when not on tours to simply "be elephants", free from human interjection.
To read more about the specific elephants at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary see here: https://elephantjunglesanctuary.com/our_elephant/