It many elephant camp in Thailand BUT. . .
HOW TO ETHICALLY VISIT ELEPHANTS IN THAILAND ?
Before arriving in Chiang Mai, I was under the impression that the well-known Elephant Nature Park was the place to see elephants in Thailand.
I’m sure that it is a wonderful place, based on rave reviews from everyone who goes there. It also requires planning ahead–it was booked up more than a week out for one day experiences when we went to Chiang Mai, even though it was the wet season!
Given the interest that Thailand’s tourists have in elephants, though, (and the money that they are willing to spend), it’s no surprise that there were offices for elephant parks and sanctuaries on every corner in Chiang Mai, and slick brochures with dozens of company names in every tourism office. There are options!
Some options are better than others, but with research, there’s no reason to give up on interacting with elephants if you don’t reserve a spot in advance at the Elephant Nature Park.
Jeremy and I picked up pamphlets for several elephant tourism companies that advertised “no riding” tours… and then Googled them.
Some had great reviews, some had very few reviews, and some had bad reviews. We nixed several places after learning that their elephants were available for riding despite advertising the opposite, or that the elephants appeared to be chained for most of the day.
When overwhelmed with choice, Jeremy and I approached one of the tourism offices in Chiang Mai and told the woman working there what we were looking for. We showed her a company that we’d like to work with, and asked if she could help us contact them.
The high pressure sales tactics began immediately–the woman called someone on the phone from a different elephant company, and tried to get us to set an appointment with them. Uncomfortable, we asked about the program–it was riding, exactly what we said we didn’t want to do for ethical reasons.
The woman on the phone immediately switched tactics–”Oh, okay, we do no riding for you!”
We skedaddled after that, completely uncomfortable with the entire interaction.
Many of the smaller outfits we looked into didn’t have a website, or even an email! While I expect that there are new websites and pre-booking options popping up every day, there are many small elephant businesses that are still accessible only on the ground in Thailand.
If you want to interact with elephants during your trip to southeast Asia, Chiang Mai is arguably the best place to do it. It has a huge concentration of elephant businesses to choose from, and is the only place we saw during our trip to southeast Asia that advertised plenty of “no riding” options.
Western tourist’s newfound ethics regarding elephant riding have changed the business model in Chiang Mai, but in Laos and Cambodia, elephant rides are still the expected and typical way to interact with elephants–we didn’t see a single business in either of those countries that offered only “no riding” experiences.
When interacting with animals–especially exotic, privately owned animals in the developing world–the risk that the animal is being mistreated to access your money is always present, no matter how smooth the sales pitch or nice the facility.
Do I feel reasonably confident that the company we chose treated their elephants well? Yes, I do–there were no chains that we saw, no spears, no violence administered, and the elephants were bright eyed, playful and appeared to be happy and healthy.
On the other hand, the animals approached us from the jungle, brought by their mahouts. We never saw where they lived or slept, or what their lives were like at night when the tourists went home, and the more anxious part of my mind can’t help but wonder if there’s a reason for that.
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