The tragic news of a British man’s death at an Elephant Camp in Thailand earlier this week has once again highlighted the plight of Asian elephants and their mistreatment in the tourist industry.
We were once naive too. When we first visited Thailand in 2012 we booked a day trip with our hotel in Chaing Mai that included an elephant trek. We thought the elephants were being cared for, there didn’t seem to be any cruelty towards them, but we had no idea what they had been through.
In Thailand, an ancient ritual called Phajaan or “Elephant crushing” is used to train wild elephants for domestication. This is a horrifically cruel act where baby elephants are taken from their mothers and forced into a cage, beaten with nails and sticks until their spirits are broken and they are crushed into submission. Even if the elephants appear to be well treated now, this is what they have been through to work in tourism.
Unfortunately Thailand relies heavily on the tourist dollar and if a cute baby elephant drawing a painting with its trunk brings in the money, they will do anything to keep it going. And it isn’t just elephants, Thailand has a long history of animal rights abuse – from allowing selfies with drugged up tigers to chained up monkeys performing tricks and riding bicycles.
Not all elephant parks in Thailand are bad, but you have to do your research. Many places are labelled as sanctuaries but they still offer rides, so the animals are suffering.
When we returned to Chaing Mai in 2014 we visited the Elephant Nature Park, a rehabilitation centre for elephants rescued from logging and tourism industries. No chains, no beating sticks and no one riding them, just elephants being allowed to heal and form family groups.
The founder Lek Chailert has a close bond with the herd and is an amazing advocate for the rights and welfare of elephants in Thailand. You can volunteer at the park or you can do the day visit which we did. You still get to get close with the elephants, feed them and bathe them, take that all important selfie…but safe in the knowledge that they are no longer mistreated.