What Is Life Really Like For Thailand’s Elephants?

If you’ve been to Thailand—or you’re planning a trip there when the world has recovered from coronavirus—you may already know that elephants are kind of a big deal. They’re the country’s national animal, significant in terms of history, culture, and identity.

The name of Thailand’s popular beer, Chang, translates to elephant. And the country even has its own day to celebrate the revered animal. In 1998, the Thai government declared March 13 as Thai National Elephant Day.

But while Thailand is known for its admiration of elephants, paradoxically, the country has also come under fire for its mistreatment of the animals.

Elephant Camps in Thailand

Thailand has around 250 elephant camps, home to more than 3,000 semi-domesticated elephants. Many of these camps have been the subject of intense scrutiny from the press and from animal rights organizations.

Some of these camps offer tourists opportunities to bathe, feed, or ride the elephants. Some offer all three. Only a small number of camps offer zero direct tourist contact with the animals.

It’s the direct contact that Thailand allows tourists to have with its elephants that has caused much of the controversy.

Some organizations, including World Animal Protection and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, claim that an elephant cannot be trained for direct contact without being tortured. They say rides are inherently cruel and tourist interaction should be banned.

Many who work with the animals maintain that elephants have to be trained for their own safety in a modern world. They claim this can be done without harming them, and there are levels of interaction that are acceptable. And there are lots of different opinions in between.

In December, before the world was gripped by COVID-19, I toured a handful of Thailand’s elephant camps and sanctuaries from all over the country. During my trip (and since I returned), I have spoken with volunteers, activists, camp-owners, scientists, and veterinarians to further understand the situation. I also spoke with mahouts. Essentially elephant caregivers, mahouts are very important in Thai culture. From the day an elephant is born, they are assigned their own mahout. For many, becoming a mahout—often passed down from generation to generation—is a serious commitment to love, cherish, and care for another animal until the day they die.

The relationship between the Thai people and their elephants is deep and complex. So are the questions surrounding animal cruelty in the Thai tourism industry. It’s important to understand both.

There are around 3,000 elephants in Thailand’s tourist industry.

Does Thailand Need Elephant Tourism?

Once upon a time, elephants had more than enough land to go around in Thailand. One hundred years ago, there were around 100,000 elephants roaming freely in the country. Now, there are just about 3,000 wild elephants. And thanks to man-made issues like deforestation, poaching, and the (now banned) logging industry, those numbers are still falling.

With an expanding human population, which currently stands at around 70 million, it’s unlikely that more land is going to become available for elephants in Thailand. In an ideal world, there would be mass reforestation, and captive elephants would be rehabilitated back into their natural environments, living in wild herds. But industrialization, deforestation, and the worsening climate crisis are but a few of the many reasons elephants are fighting to keep the territory they still have.

Elephants have been a semi-domesticated species in Thailand for thousands of years. They used to take soldiers to war, then they worked in the logging industry, and now, the majority are in the tourist industry.

If all of these captive elephants in Thailand were set free, as it stands, without enough land, they would end up in villages, farmland, and towns. With modern life comes dangerous highways, telephone wires that can be mistaken for branches, and poisonous pesticides. It isn’t an elephant-safe world, and there are also risks to humans. More than 3,000 three-tonne animals cannot be set free without tremendous (and extremely expensive) collateral damage.

They wouldn’t know how to survive, either. Borpit Chailert, the general manager of Maetaeng Elephant Park, told the New York Times: “They cannot look for food in the forest because they are used to being fed. Imagine if we released around 3,000 domesticated elephants into the forest at the same time. There would be no food to feed all the elephants.”

This is where sanctuaries and camps come in. Initially established as safe spaces where elephants can be cared for ethically and responsibly, these essential facilities are largely paid for by tourism.

Is it ever ok to ride an elephant?

Should You Ride An Elephant?

Before I visited Thailand, I thought a no-riding policy was the sign of a humane sanctuary. But Dr. Janine Brown—a reproductive physiologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute—says otherwise. Elephants who don’t offer rides may be susceptible to health problems associated with a lack of exercise. For elephants with limited access to large spaces or the ability to free-roam, giving rides (either bareback or with a chair saddle called a howdah) may be their only form of exercise.

“What we have found from our research is that elephants that give rides tend to have better body condition and are at a reduced risk for obesity,” Brown explained to LIVEKINDLY. In places where elephants don’t give rides, but they don’t have enough room to walk around, their metabolic health tends to be worse, she says.

Diet is important too. Snacks like banana and sugarcane are often fed to the elephants by tourists. Without regular exercise, these high-sugar treats can be bad for their health.

“What we suggest is that if camps do not offer rides or other forms of exercise, they must find other ways to encourage the elephants to move around, and they should limit or even eliminate the feeding of high-calorie treats like bananas and sugarcane by tourists,” Brown says.

‘There Are Other Ways and Means of Making an Income’

Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES) near Chiang Mai is an example of a sanctuary that aims to give elephants an experience that resembles how they would live in the wild. At night, its three elephants live in spacious enclosures, and during the day they roam the local forested area, getting in that all-important exercise.

BEES Co-founder Emily McWilliam believes riding is unnecessary, and tourists get just as much out of seeing the elephants do their thing, without interaction. “The fact is, there are other ways and means of making an income,” McWilliam told LIVEKINDLY. “We no longer need to ride elephants to help feed them and provide an income to those that live and work with them. We can provide better alternatives.”

Into The Wild elephant camp in Northern Thailand doesn’t offer rides either. But it does allow contact, in the form of bathing. It also allows tourists to walk into the jungle with the elephants, where they roam freely amongst the trees. Siwawut Munesane from Into the Wild told LIVEKINDLY that the camp is all about “learning, seeing, and understanding the real life of an elephant in nature.

At Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, the coronavirus crisis has presented a unique opportunity to set elephants free. Well, free within the bounds of the camp, at least.

The camp used to offer rides with a howdah, but after closing its doors during the lockdown, it decided to remove the wooden chairs. Instead, visitors will be able to observe the animals in their natural habitat.

Camp director Anchalee Kalampichit told The Independent back in March: “We are not planning to put the seat supports back on the elephants ... We want to change the style of the place and find more natural ways that the public can enjoy the elephants. We will welcome tourists to enjoy learning about the elephants’ way of life naturally, instead of using them to entertain the tourists.”

Are Elephants Tortured When They Are Trained in Thailand?

Campaigns and media coverage surrounding Thailand’s elephant tourism often focus on alleged abuse in the industry. The cruel “spirit-breaking” process is often at the center of it all.

Trapping a baby elephant in a cage, tying it up, and beating it into submission is undeniably cruel. According to World Animal Protection and several other media outlets and animal rights organizations, this process known as “spirit-breaking” or “crushing,” is still in wide practice at many elephant sanctuaries.

But, according to many elephant camps across Thailand, it is not as commonplace as some may be led to believe, and perpetuating this narrative is demonizing those who are doing their best to take care of their animals in a challenging economic and environmental situation.

According to McWilliam, there is a lot of misinformation in the media about how elephants are tamed and trained in Thailand. “The way in which training occurs and the use of tools varies greatly across the industry and has been changing over the years. I absolutely do not deny that abuse still occurs, but not all owners use the same horrific techniques,” she says.

Once upon a time, many baby elephants were subject to spirit-breaking, but the industry is changing. McWilliam adds, “it is very rare to find such horrific training these days.”

Brown agrees. “Messages that generalize the treatment of elephants at all camps as bad or use decades-old or staged footage can negatively impact those camps that do employ best practices.

Are elephants abused in Thailand?

What is the Phajaan?

If you Google “phajaan” in the UK, the first thing that comes up is “elephant crushing.” But for many Thai people, the word has a very different meaning.

“The Phajaan is actually the term used in the local language of Northern Thailand which represents a very specific blessing ceremony,” explains McWilliam, who founded BEES with her native Thai partner Burm Pornchai Rinkaew back in 2011. “The ceremony and its rituals can be used for both humans and animals depending on the situation.”

She added that these 30-minute-long blessing rituals—which involve chanting and making offerings—are performed for the calf and the mother elephant before the mahout starts training the baby.

“The incantations are to call upon the ancestral spirits to make it safe for the mahout and elephant to work together,” she continued.

‘Mostly These Days Elephants Are Born in Captivity’

When elephants are captured from the wild and domesticated (an illegal practice in Thailand), brutal techniques can be used. But many of the baby elephants you see in sanctuaries and camps across Thailand today were born there, and they are trained far more humanely.

“Training methods vary from camp to camp,” says McWilliam. “Mostly these days elephants are born in captivity and raised by humans, [so they’re] far easier to tame.”

One technique I witnessed involved a combination of applying pressure to certain spots on the elephant’s skin, repetitive tapping, commands, and positive reinforcement, such as a treat, usually in the form of a banana.

At Into The Wild, Munesane says routine and consistency is an important part of training. They do the same activities every day at the camp, and mahouts always wear the same uniform around the elephants. This means they easily recognize the humans who take care of them, making them feel “safe from harm,” says Munesane. To put the elephants at ease, tourist visitors always wear the same uniform, provided by the camp.

Brown says, “Good camps that care for elephant welfare, some of which do offer riding, are those that use positive training and control methods. Focusing on only riding misses the point. It is not riding per se that is the problem. All aspects of elephant care and management must be considered in a holistic way to ensure good welfare overall.”

Should Elephants Be Trained at All?

Why do we even need to train an elephant? Shouldn’t they be free to do as they please?

Looking at the situation realistically and not idealistically, thousands of semi-domesticated elephants interact with humans frequently in Thailand, whether it’s with just their mahout or whether it’s with tourists. Because of this, there needs to be trust, and trust comes with training. If there isn’t training, it’s not good for the elephant.

Even in camps that have hardly any direct contact with tourists, the elephants still need a basic level of training.

“Without any training elephants become unmanageable,” says McWilliam. “In many cases, [they would] live out their days in solitary confinement and not receive adequate management and care.”

Without training, elephants are “unmanageable.”

How Do You Know If an Elephant Is Being Abused?

Reports of violent discipline techniques in elephant camps often center around the bullhook. A bullhook is an ancient tool used to control elephants and prevent them from harming themselves, mahouts, and now, tourists. It can be misused as a weapon by inexperienced mahouts. But when used correctly, it is for applying pressure to certain points on an elephant to help calm them down.

I’ve visited camps where they proudly claim there are no hooks in use. One camp-owner told me if he saw any mahout whip out a hook to discipline their elephant, they would be fired on the spot. At a camp in Phang Nga mahouts carried hooks in bags. They didn’t attempt to hide them away, and they explained the correct use of the tool.

McWilliam says, “Many mahouts will carry a bullhook in their bag for safety in the case the elephant is not listening to verbal command, they will use the hook on different pressure points to guide the elephant and redirect them in order to avoid risky situations.

How do you know if it’s being misused? Observe. “Is it being used to simply redirect an elephant that’s on edge?” she asks. “Is it just sitting in a mahout’s bag and used in emergencies, or is the mahout using it aggressively on the elephants?

Is There Still Cruelty in Elephant Tourism?

Training techniques may be improving for elephants across Thailand, but that doesn’t mean cruelty in the industry is eradicated.

Many camps no longer make their elephants perform for tourists, but entertainment facilities do still exist, and this is where cruel discipline techniques are often used. If you see an elephant riding a bicycle, standing on its head, or performing any form of trick, this is a red flag. Questions need to be asked about how those elephants are being trained and treated.

“Elephants should never be made to perform tricks that are harmful, like riding bicycles or unnatural positions like sitting on a stool, or doing a headstand,” says Brown. “We look for camps that offer elephants a more relaxed environment, with limited numbers of tourists around each elephant.”

You should also look out for fresh cuts and scrapes on captive elephants, and ask camp owners and volunteers questions about how the elephants are looked after when the tourists aren’t around. Doing this makes these facilities aware that tourists are paying attention to what they’re doing behind the scenes. Resources like the Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES), which audits camps across Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia, publish reports to help tourists make informed decisions.

“ACES has not and will never condone animal cruelty or inhumane practices towards captive elephants,” the organization’s audit and accreditation advisor Nicolas Dubrocard told LIVEKINDLY. He also acknowledged that there is a major lack of trust in the industry at the moment, from media, activists, and tourists. He said they’re going to work to change that.

“There is only one kind of information available,” he continued. “The animals are tortured and the welfare is bad. We don’t deny that it still happens, but we are also working with many camps where the welfare standards are respected and the mahouts take very good care of their elephants.”

What does the future hold for Thailand’s elephants?

The Future of Elephant Tourism in Thailand

The Tourist Authority of Thailand is working to provide the best conditions for Thailand’s captive elephants, and the native workers whose livelihoods depend on them. And organizations like ACES and BEES, which work independently, have made their objectives clear.

“I would like to see better working conditions for the mahouts and for the elephants,” says Dubrocard. “This will happen if the tourists, the authorities, the different stakeholders get the right education about the topic. This is our job.”

McWilliam hopes that more camps and sanctuaries will move toward a model like that at BEES. Direct contact with tourists is kept to a minimum.

“I would like to see the elephant tourism industry move towards true ethical and responsible tourism practices,” she says. “[Ones] that are more observation-based and prioritize the elephant’s wellbeing through reforesting habitats, providing elephant land, space to have the ability to be elephants in as close to a natural setting as possible … alternatives and solutions can be found for riding and entertainment.”

But the future of elephants is not just in the hands of these camps. Tourists have a responsibility too.

Luxury travel consultant Julia Reti-Nagy says that, usually, 33 million visitors travel to Thailand every year. These tourists play an incredibly important role in the elephant industry. But with this great power, of course, comes great responsibility. “Tourists need to ensure that they choose a camp that is ethical,” she told LIVEKINDLY. “They must educate themselves on elephants (lifestyle, behavior, history, etc) before making any judgments.”

“Elephants need us,” she continued. “They need people like you and me to make sure that generation after generation, there will still be a proper place for them on Earth.”