Humans are fascinated by elephants; from their trumpeting trunks to their sheer enormity, these beautiful giants are the source of centuries worth of curiosity.
From a young age we dream about seeing an elephant in the flesh, progressing from family visits to the zoo as children to jetting off to some exotic location, seeing the elephant in it's natural habitat. From the plains of the Serengeti in Africa to South East Asia and India, it's more than likely that as a traveler we will be fortunate enough to interact with these majestic animals in a somewhat 'natural' setting at some point in our wanderlust fueled lives.
As is the case with most things, a select few have pounced on the opportunity to capitalize, profiting from foreigners' eagerness to check the elephant off their bucket lists.
Enter Elephant Tourism, the exploitation of elephants via the overly commercialized travel industry. Whilst most of us know that animals aren't always treated humanely in the less economically developed regions of the world, we often don't realize until it's too late that we are contributing to the problem.
After all, how much can you really garner by looking at a few brochures and checking fellow oblivious travelers' feedback on TripAdvisor?
On a trip to Thailand two years ago, I ended up sat atop an elephant that was very clearly suffering, leaving me guilt ridden and upset. This was a stop that formed part of a day tour I was on; an activity I had expressly checked involved "visiting a 'sanctuary' and not a tourist show" the day before when booking... Evidently, the definition of sanctuary seemed to have been lost in translation.
Fast forward two years, and this time round I was taking no chances when booking.
Chiang Mai is known as Thailand’s- if not South East Asia’s- Elephant mecca.
If you’re going to do it, this is the place. Subsequently, it’s now rife with everything you want to and should avoid. From Mahouts using metal hammer-type instruments to strike the elephants on the head for ‘control’ to large tourist-carrying seat contraptions, strapped to the animal’s back for hours on end, cruelty is, sadly, still a common occurrence.
Not to mention the fact that the mercury sits, on average, above 30 degrees celsius year round. Even worse, it’s often disguised, luring tourists in under various guises; the word “conservation” in a place’s name isn’t enough to ensure ethical practices.
I visited Elephant Nature Park, which works with the Save Elephant Foundation to rehabilitate elephants, all of whom have been injured or abused. Some have damaged limbs caused landmines in Laos and Cambodia whilst others worked endlessly in the illegal logging trade. Another similar ‘sanctuary’ type initiative that was recommended to me is the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Started in 2014 by concerned locals it is a front runner in promoting elephant ‘eco-tourism’, leading by example and educating both locals and foreigners alike in ethical conduct. A third option is the Patara Elephant Farm. Different in the sense that it is Thailand’s only elephant breeding farm, and therefore not a sanctuary, it still strives to eliminate the malpractices of the elephant tourism cycle and introduce introductions in a sustainable and ethical manner.
It's easy to shrug our shoulders and say "but I didn't realize".
Yet in this day and age, when all the information on the planet is no more than the click of a button and a fraction of a second away, excuses no longer hold. If you’re not sure, ask friends who have visited before, spend an hour or two longer online doing your research, or quite frankly opt out…
Elephant tourism sucks and it’s well and truly time it’s stopped!