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Responsible Travel and Elephants in Thailand

Elephants in Thailand, and particularly the role in the tourism industry of these charismatic giants, can provoke some unusual reactions in people; emotive and misinformed – irrational and knee-jerk – why’s that? We get a fair bit of, undoubtedly well-meaning, but often confused, correspondence on that matter – occasionally by persons perceiving a contradiction with our responsible travel ethos.

Been wondering why horse riding, or donkey rides along popular beaches, doesn’t elicit the same sort of reactions? And what about mounting camels – an intrinsic element of many North African holidays? I go and play Frisbee in the park with my dog – now that’s ‘fluffy’ – but elephants playing football is demeaning! (And before anyone says it there are wild dog species in Southeast Asia too!)

So, in our search for a sensible answer to this conundrum and armed only with our purely amateur info on the subject, we went straight to the top and asked one of Southeast Asia’s foremost elephant experts, Nick Marx at Wildlife Alliance what he thought. We’ve mentioned our mates W.I., (the guys based at Cambodia’s Phnom Tamao not the Women’s Institute!?),  several times before – see here for the ‘Chouk the 3-legged elephant’ post or see here for several other pix and posts re W.I.).

As Nick says, “When Lucky dances and paints how could I disagree with riding ellies or elephant football teams? Most of these objections are probably western (value) based. People see things from an idealised point of view, making fatuous statements like ‘it is so demeaning for the elephants’.” (Lucky being one of the rescued elephants at Phnom Tamao and Chouk’s adoptive ‘sister’.)

Portrait of the artist as a young elephant - Lucky and Chouk at Phnom Tamao
Portrait of the artist as a young elephant – Lucky and Chouk at Phnom Tamao

Now, firstly All Points East would obviously have anything to do with any activity that was cruel or harmful in any way to animals. (Elephant or any other, which is why we do not condone going to Kanchanaburi’s famous/notorious ‘Tiger Temple‘ for instance or Chiang Mai ‘monkey shows’.)

There is a huge population of domesticated elephants in Thailand, many of which have been domesticated for generations. They were, in former times, used for transportation of goods and people, by the military, as well as for working in industries such as logging and agriculture. They are no longer used in any of these fields except for a very few in southern Thailand still working on small scale rubber plantations and a few ‘ceremonial’ elephants still kept by the army.
Thailand currently has a problem with this huge population of domesticated elephants for which there is no longer any obvious ‘employment’ outside of the tourist industry. Keeping domesticated elephants is very expensive! To quote Nick; “They (uninformed critics) do not understand the real problems – no other work for the elephants nowadays and no benefit system for out of work elephants. As Mark says if the elephants cannot earn their living and that of their mahouts, death is the only option, probably through starvation.”

These are actually Sri Lankan elephants but.....
These are actually Sri Lankan elephants but…..

Unfortunately many mahouts also bring their animals into tourist cities such as Phuket, Chiang Mai and even parts of Bangkok begging in bars and restaurants. It is not uncommon to see a poor elephant walking down a busy 6 lane highway heading into downtown BKK. This has fortunately been, in theory, clamped down upon by the govt. but again means more mahouts without a livelihood or means of support for their animals. (It’s also pretty difficult for police to apply these regulations since you can neither arrest an elephant nor arrest the mahout and leave the elephant to fend for itself in the middle of Phuket and you can’t fine a mahout who has no money anyway).

Ok in an ideal world they’d all be rehabilitated and trucked off to roam the vast expanses of Southeast Asian forest! Fine, but what vast expanses of forest? The current Thai wild elephant population is relatively stable and probably more or less optimum in many of the larger, suitable, National Parks for the amount of remaining forest cover. Several national parks already have problems with wild elephant overcrowding and then you start to get problems with farmers on the park perimeters. Last but probably most importantly, it is not easy to rehabilitate elephants that have spent several generation in domestication. Again to quote Nick, (and WI’s ultimate aim for many of their rescued animals at Phnom Tamao is rehabilitation); “(Yes), rehabilitation for these elephants for life in the wild is a great idea. Not sure if it is practical though…..(unless) given low wild populations and enough protected forest…..” Big if’s and we’d need to add; – given large quantities of time and money!

Having elephants play football to entertain tourists is certainly not an ideal solution but in the light of the above, and indeed lack of any reasonable alternatives, I would condone the use of elephants in the tourist industry as a ‘necessary evil’.

Elephants in the Mae Taeng Valley, Chiang Mai
Elephants in the Mae Taeng Valley, Chiang Mai

Please note no animals were harmed in the making of this blog post.