Elephant Trekking – a do or a don’t?

Nammie Matthews discuses some of the issues around elephant trekking

Elephant2Thinking of heading to Thailand? Perhaps you’re one of almost a million visitors from the UK that flock yearly to the country, drawn in by its affordability, tropical climate and unfamiliar wildlife.

With elephants holding sacred status there, trekking in Thailand with these gentle giants is hugely popular, topping many tourist bucket lists due mostly to a naïve, romantic view that they are completely harmless. Elephant trekking is often viewed as comparable to the likes of camel riding in Egypt or husky sledding in Finland: a way to simultaneously explore a country’s culture while getting close to the beauty of nature.

But with a little research, it’s incredibly easy to uncover something far more sinister occurring in the elephant tourism trade, despite its idyllic image. In a world that condemns the dealing of ivory, it’s time to cotton on to the other dangers that the ever-depleting elephant population face.

The tale of a captive elephant can be a hard-hitting one, particularly due to their lack of legal protection in Thailand, and the methods used to catch and train them. To feed the continued interest surrounding elephant trekking in the tourism industry, elephant camps and safaris support a trade where a mother is first tranquilised before her elephant calves are taken away (frequently still while the calf is weaning), causing immense trauma to both parent and child.

Lek Chailert, founder of the Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephant Foundation in Chiang Mai, warns of the long-term harm that elephant rides can have on the creatures, and elaborates on the harsh processes used:

“Wild elephants won’t let humans ride on top of them; their spines are not made to support the weight of humans.

“So, 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’.

“It involves ripping baby elephants away from their mothers and confining them in a very small space, like a cage or hole in the ground where they’re unable to move. The baby elephants are then beaten into submission with clubs, pierced with sharp bull-hooks, and simultaneously starved and deprived of sleep for many days.”

Sadly, the mistreatment of these creatures does not end once the taming process is complete. Many elephant camps and ‘safaris’ will continue to use bull-hooks to control the animals, the fear of being stabbed being enough in itself to motivate the elephants to work – whether it be giving treks, playing elephant “football”, or even performing ‘tricks’ on a heaving Bangkok boulevard.

And when the day is over, these colossal creatures are left chained up – usually without adequate shelter to protect them from the sun’s burning rays. Yvonne Taylor, Senior Programmes Manager at PETA UK, remarks,

“People forget that these animals are there for the rest of their lives. Tourists can go home [once entertained], but those animals will be there until the day they die in captivity.“

According to figures released by the WWF, Asian elephant numbers in the wild have dropped by as many as 10,000 since 2003 – disappearing from 95% of its original recorded habitats. They have been listed “endangered” since 1986. So why do we still support a trade with such disregard for its animals’ welfare?

The main reason for this, besides a lack of education and public ignorance, seems to be an absence of variety amongst elephant activities. Nevertheless, this could soon change as a direct result of the recent overhaul in the UK travel industry. Working in collaboration with the Born Free Foundation, the travel association ABTA recently reviewed their Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism, replacing old policies with stricter regulations on animal welfare. As a result of this, many major tour operators are starting to follow suit.

One of these tour operators is STA Travel, who in 2014 ceased all sales of irresponsible elephant camps and safaris. Lisa Fitzell, Global Land Product Director, says of their new policies:

“We have a Statement of Commitment that is sent to every new prospective project that we work with (and all existing projects). It outlines both our commitment and their commitment to the project and the volunteer, covering economic, socio-cultural and environmental responsibilities. We only work with a handful of well-respected partners who have proven they run ethical projects, such as the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Our aim is to eradicate practices that have a negative impact on animals or do not contribute to the protection and preservation of species in the wild.”

Group adventure tour company Intrepid Travel has also put a halt to the promoting of these trips. Co-founder Geoff Manchester points out, “Intrepid Travel ended elephant rides and visits to entertainment venues on all of its trips earlier this year, following an extensive three-year research process to assess the welfare of captive elephants at entertainment venues in Asia.”

According to him, the change has been popular with their travellers. “Intrepid Travellers want to know that their travel choices are not causing harm and appreciate learning how elephants are cared for without seeing them do unnatural performances.”

As more and more tour operators begin to question the ethics behind the rides, it’s becoming clear that the travel industry is starting to open its eyes to the dreadful effects that many elephant tours are having on these majestic animals.

It would seem the travel industry support a complete eradication of these tours, however upon further consideration, an interesting factor arose that hadn’t previously been considered. Sarah Bareham, World Responsible Tourism Awards Manager at Responsible Travel, suggests that an end to the elephant tourism industry may not be wholly positive, and urges tourists to seek balanced arguments.

“Due to the role that elephant trekking plays in providing livelihoods for a significant number of local people, we want our travellers to be able to make an informed decision before booking an elephant trekking trip.”

With this in mind, can we really suggest a total boycott on elephant-related activities? The answer is, in short, no. Though tour operators need to stop endorsing camps and safaris that abuse their animals, the welfare of locals must also be considered. The rising appearance of elephant sanctuaries in Thailand proves that a middle ground – wherein both human and animal livelihoods are protected – can be obtained.

Elephant sanctuaries, which offer peaceful rehabilitation of retired and abused elephants, have stricter regulations on human involvement and a primary focus on the elephant – not the tourist. Their practices work to bridge the gap between views that place focus on elephant welfare and those that focus solely on the livelihood of locals.

Currently home to 37 elephants in a vast mountainous valley, the aforementioned Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, northeast Thailand, is such a destination. Its founder Lek Chailert, a shaman’s granddaughter, first grew to love elephants when her grandfather received a calf as payment for saving a man’s life: “Golden One”. She has been forging profound connections with members of the species ever since, and plays an active role in advocating for the rights and welfare of Asian elephants across Thailand.

Offering respite to elephants previously abused in the tourism industry, you’ll see no elephant trekking or chains here. Instead, tourists can make a day trip to the park to help feed and bathe many of the elephants on site, who are free to roam the grounds and play amongst themselves. It’s the perfect park for the elephants and animal lovers alike, who can stay for a week with the park’s volunteer program.

As tourists wisen up to the brutal side of the elephant tourism industry, sanctuaries such as the Elephant Nature Park and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, in Sukhothai, are becoming far more popular, and are increasingly becoming the only tours that UK-based operators will support.

Nevertheless, there is still emphasis that tourists should conduct proper research about the kind of activities that ANY “sanctuary” facilitates before making a booking. PETA’s Yvonne Taylor cautioned: “In an attempt to appeal to the Western sensitivity of the exploitation of animals for tourism, some of these cruel attractions are rebranding themselves as ‘sanctuaries’ or ‘conservation centres’, but they are nothing of the sort. When not rented out for treks or circus-style activities that cause them pain and suffering, elephants are often chained with barely any room to move. Any place that forces an elephant to ‘entertain’ should not be visited – ever.”

She also suggests – in order to be absolutely certain that an elephant camp, safari, ‘sanctuary’ or otherwise operates with only the best intentions for its animals – that tourists contact registered animal charities before finally deciding on a tour, reasoning:

“The places that they would endorse are being run to help the elephants, and not to make money for the owners. This terrible problem that has been created by the tourism industry – these people are trying to rectify that. If more people took the time to contact animal charities, I think less would spend their money supporting the places that run with no consideration for their animals.”



When visiting a country that lacks protection for its most cherished animal, it’s imperative that we as tourists take the initiative to inform ourselves on the plight of these gentle giants and refrain from unnecessarily pouring more money into the shameful parts on this industry. Here’s how to ensure your holiday contributes to animal welfare, and not abuse:

  1. Seeing Elephants in the Wild: While animal welfare officials argue that we learn nothing about animals by seeing them captive, seeing elephants in their natural environment is the best way to understand their behaviours while protecting the animals, their habitats and local communities.
  1. Rescue & Respite Swap elephant trekking and shows for a visit to a sanctuary. Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai, Thailand) and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (Sukhothai, Thailand,) both come highly recommended in the industry, while also actively campaigning for elephant rights in the country. With enough tourist support, we could see a lot more of these sanctuaries in the future.
  1. Additional Information Head over to NGO Care for the Wild’s Right Tourism. Campaign, for more useful information for travellers:
  1. Lastly… Tourists with particular concerns about the welfare of any elephants they encounter should visit Born Free Foundation’s ‘Travellers Animal Alert’, where specific animal welfare issues can be reported and investigated:

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