Riding Elephants in Thailand: What You Didn't Know
by Austin McIntosh on Apr 01, 2017
I'm sure you've seen it.
Wether it was on Instagram or maybe that traveling friend of yours on Facebook - The picturesque scene of a traveler riding an elephant... usually in Thailand as well.
But here is what you didn't see...
Asian elephants are an endangered species. The population has declined at least 50% over the last three generations. Most experts would agree Thailand has about 2,000 - 3,000 elephants right now. The Asian elephants are declining in rapid numbers primarily because of habitat destruction by humans harvesting natural resources.
Before an elephant can be ridden or do any type of circus tricks such as paint a picture or stand on it's hind legs, they need to be tamed first. This is a very brutal process and takes place when the elephant is young. The taming process involves ripping baby elephants away from their mothers and confining them in a very small space. Handlers use a technique known as the training crush, in which handlers use sleep-deprivation, hunger, and thirst to "break" the elephant's' spirit and make them submissive to their owners. The elephant, still wild, is tied to a wooden frame or between two tree trunks where he is unable to move. The elephant tears at the ropes and flails around with his trunk smashing into everything around it causing cuts and bruises from trying to escape. In order to break it in, the young elephant is repeatedly stuck with an elephant hook and beaten. Fear, pain, thirst and hunger finally make the elephant give up all resistance. When the elephant begins to accept its fate, the elephant is allowed to take a bath in a river and eat it’s first meal since before the training started. Shortly after is when it learn to do circus tricks like painting and standing on it's hind legs.
When an elephant's well being is not carefully taking care of, it becomes a safety issue for everyone around. Handlers often force elephants to work regardless of the elephants well being. Periodically throughout the year male elephants go through what is called a “musth stage” where hormone levels, such as testosterone are elevated up to 60 times normal amounts, resulting in highly aggressive behavior. During this time of the year it is best for the elephant to be left alone. Unfortunately the elephants are forced to work anyway. If they don’t work, they don’t make money. This type of mentality lead to a scottish tourist being gored and trampled to death by an elephant he was riding in thailand on February 6th, 2016.
The elephant can suffer serious long term damage as a result from being ridden by so many people so often. Elephants are often forced to work very long hours, many days in a row with little to no rest. Due to the increase in popularity in Thailand's tourist industry, many of the trekking tours offered that include elephant rides are now overcrowded with people forcing the elephant to give ride after ride the whole day with no breaks, often to more than one person at a time. This strenuous of an activity every day, for many years can lead to severe long term damage. Combine this with little to no medical care, malnourishment, and mistreatment and you're left with unhealthy, unhappy and unsafe elephants.
This can all be avoided if Thailand’s tourists reshape their understanding of what it means to interact with elephants. Brutal elephant training has been a traditional practice in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. The problem these days is that most captive elephants in Thailand are used to entertain tourists rather than for traditional purposes like logging or the military. It’s our demand for elephant rides and circus acts that leads to more baby elephants getting captured from their mothers, tortured, and sold off to entertain us.
Luckily a change has already taken place and there are now numerous places that offer experiences that are both healthy and fun for the elephants and the tourists. Elephant Rescue Sanctuaries make sure all the elephants they adopt are in their natural habitat. No riding, painting, or chains for these Elephants. Donations go directly towards keeping Elephants in a compassionate community with medical care, proper food, and land for them to walk free 24 hours a day. This is why we give a portion of every harem pants sale to Elephant Rescue Efforts!