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To Ride or Not to Ride? Addressing the Elephant in the Room in Thailand

In recent years there’s been an increasing amount of media coverage surrounding elephant tourism. While everyone has an opinion, there’s an overwhelming desire to see these beautiful creatures and in their natural habitat.

Late last year, our Tourism Partnerships Manager, Joshua Smith, toured Thailand with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to visit various elephant camps and farms to see how different places handle elephant tourism. This was Joshua’s sixth trip to Thailand after having previously visited different camps eight years prior. To explore this sensitive topic, we sat down with Joshua to find out what’s really going on with elephant tourism in Thailand.

Joshua Smith, Tourism Partnerships Manager

Can you tell us about your experience this time visiting the camps?

I was excited to return to Thailand, but more importantly with a new understanding of sustainable tourism as I’m finishing a Master of Sustainable Tourism degree. So I had a different approach beyond a simple visitor focus. In a prior role, I also worked for an African government which had to deal with similar issues. What impressed me the most was the Thailand government’s ability to use this opportunity in bringing industry leaders to the destination and provide feedback: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What did you learn on this trip that you hadn’t previously known?

I’ve been selling Thailand for over 10 years along with other countries that have elephant experiences. However, on this trip, the government’s introductions did not sugar-coat anything as they are looking to create a policy that benefits the animals and the people involved in the industry. As this was the focus of the trip, there were some places that are doing it right, some places that need guidance in how to change, and some places that appear to be for the benefit of the elephants, but behind-the-scenes, it’s a different story.

Bareback elephant riding in Chiang Mai, Thailand

What are some examples those different environments you mentioned?

One of my favorite places that I believe is doing it right is Patara Elephant Farm. I had actually visited Patara eight years ago, so I was excited to return. The experience consists of learning how to care for an elephant, but their overall goal is not to support the tourism industry, but rather the four Rs: rescue, recovery, reproduction and reintroduction. However, tourism plays an integral part in financially supporting this model. This farm utilizes positive training techniques such as sound therapy.

Joshua interacting with elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Patara Elephant Farm allows travellers to ride the elephants, correct?

That is true and most of the stigma around elephant tourism is solely focused on the riding element. Some people say the physical riding hurts the elephant, which is simply not true. The weight of an Asian elephant ranges from 6,000 to 12,000 pounds and a study from a non-profit, Elephantstay, states that an elephant can carry up to 25% of its body weight, which would be 1,500lbs at a minimum. With a 200lb-man, that’s 3.3% of the elephant’s weight, or the equivalent of a man carrying 6lbs. (Side note: The average weight of a horse is 840 – 2,200 pounds.) The other element that’s often discussed is the training of an animal to be tame enough to be ridden, and with this, it comes down to subjectivity. As I learned at an elephant camp, just like humans, elephants have different preferences. Some enjoy being ridden, some hate it, some prefer you walk on their left, others on their right. It comes down to the responsibility of the establishment to understand each elephant’s preferences.

Another aspect of riding is the submission of the elephant to allow for this, so how does this factor into the stigma?

Some of the current population of captive elephants have been through poor practices, a result of old and outdated training tactics. There are establishments that are using new positive reinforcement techniques that are equally as effective and less harmful. During my travels in other parts of the world, I have stopped doing certain activities because I didn’t feel they were appropriate. I believe these ethical lapses are often a case of solely having one’s focus of making money. However, while elephant tourism in Thailand has been long established and policies have been created to monitor this, there is more work to be done even in Thailand. However, change is on the horizon with an updated elephant tourism policy currently being created.

Patara Elephant Farm, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

You mentioned earlier there were places that have the appearance of benefiting elephants, but behind-the-scenes, it’s a different story. What did you mean by this?

While visiting different camps, I was able to have real conversations with employees without their risk of losing their job. In fact, one guy I met was fired from a previous job after reporting bad behavior. Conversely, one camp, which promotes that it is an observation-only place and uses aggressive marketing to say that all other camps that allow interactions with elephants are a result of cruel training, in my opinion has very poor practices. While guests can walk throughout the land to see elephants in their “natural environment,” the reality is that 80% of their food is brought in due to a lack of space, they are tethered for 16.5 hours a day when not with their mahout, and come to the main facility at the same time every day to eat food out of a metal tube for the benefit of viewing, which in my mind is considered a show.

How is someone supposed to know about the reality and authenticity of these places?

It is very challenging and why I believe it’s necessary to work with a company like Goway that has the relationships, background, and knowledge of places that conduct responsible tourism.  However, there are also signs that I believed indicated a certain type of practice, but in actually meant the opposite. For example, when a mother is with her baby, it’s important that the baby doesn’t just go running off as it could go onto a road or damage property, so it is chained to its mother when their traditional owners, mahout, are not around.  While I originally thought a rope would be better, I learned that a rope causes abrasions, so a chain is actually a better practice.  For those camps that only offer guests the chance to feed the elephants bananas, pineapple, and sugarcane, it’s important that their diet is well-balanced as these high-sugar fruits are starting to cause diabetes in elephants, something I hadn’t even thought of before. And speaking of food, according to Minor Hotel Group, elephants consume 330-650lbs of food per day, which can cost upwards of US $18,000 per year, not to mention the amount of space it takes to grow that food. The average annual salary for someone in Thailand, according to Trading Economics, is US $5,500, so the cost to support an elephant is quite high.

Patara Elephant Farm, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

You bring up a valid point in the economy surrounding elephants in Thailand. If all of the places that had elephant experiences were to simply stop operating, what would happen?

That’s exactly the point in that you cannot simply turn off an entire industry. Within sustainable tourism, there are three pillars: environment, socio-cultural, and economic. There is simply not enough land in Thailand to move the elephants from the camps to the wild, let alone their inability to support themselves as healthcare is challenging. With regard to the socio-cultural pillar, the traditions of the Thai people need to be recognized and the elephant represents the divine as well as luck and happiness. The role of a mahout is to genuinely care for the elephant, which may live as long if not longer than that mahout, but traditionally they are assigned at birth to create a life-long bond of friendship. When it comes to the economic impact, this is even more important for a destination which relies on tourism. 

If a complete ban on elephant tourism were put into place, this would result in tens of thousands of people losing their job, which could result in their inability to feed their families. Even if there were to be a ban on riding, this could be detrimental to the entire industry and not indicative of the actual treatment of the elephants. Riding an elephant is not synonymous with negative training. And the opposite is not always true either, as I saw with my own eyes, where a place that only offers viewing-only is not synonymous with a good life for the elephant. The revenue generated at certain camps goes toward not only the care of elephants at that place, but some have established health centers for people to bring their animals and receive free healthcare.  The same is done with those in the wild, so by supporting some establishments, guests are also supporting the care of wild elephants. For companies to simply remove all elephant experiences from their programs, it’s reducing the positive financial impact that tourism brings to the entire species.

Patara Elephant Farm, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

This is definitely a topic that is not going to be resolved soon. Any final thoughts on this controversial topic?

The reality is that the elephants are unable to care for themselves due to practices that occurred 20, 30, even 40 years ago. We cannot simply stop supporting this industry as it not only negatively impacts the elephants, but the surrounding communities, so there needs to be a progression plan that changes behavior and an established monitoring system, which I believe will be part of the new elephant tourism policy. We cannot simply abandon these intelligent, gentle, and caring creatures. It comes down to responsible tourism, which is why it’s important to use a tour operator like Goway, which has the expertise in knowing which elephant camps are utilizing correct practices and supporting tourism to those that are doing amazing things for these animals.

We can customize any of our Thailand tours to include a visit to one of the elephant camps we support. We offer several tours where elephant experiences can easily be added, including our 9-day Classic Thailand or our 4-day Chiang Mai Stopover. Both tours are currently on special.

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Joshua Smith

Joshua's diverse background in the travel industry has led him to a new role at Goway as Tourism Partnerships Manager and working with our destination's tourism boards. From luxury product development to working for an African government, he's circled the world many times around with a recent count of 130+ stamps in his passport. Whether it's through food or adventure, his pursuit of a global community of friends continues to grow along with his passion in showcasing the benefit that tourism can bring to developing countries with a Master of Sustainable Tourism degree.

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