Elephants in Thailand have, for centuries, been used by humans to perform a wide variety of tasks. From their historical use in warfare and as a mode of transport to their more contemporary roles in the logging and entertainment industries, captive and domestic Thai elephants have long been serving human interests, often to the detriment of their species. Since Thailand’s nationwide logging ban was enacted in 1989, the vast majority of domestic elephants in the country have been used to work in the tourism industry.
Within Thailand’s tourism industry, elephants are frequently seen as a desirable commodity, due to foreign visitors to the country almost invariably wishing to engage in some form of elephant experience during their stay. Driven by such high demand, and unfortunately enabled by the elephants’ remarkable intelligence, humans have created a vast number of roles for elephants within the tourist industry. For many years after the ban on logging, most domestic elephants in Thailand were either forced to carry tourists on their backs in riding camps or trained to perform tricks in highly unnatural elephant shows. While these practices unfortunately continue to the present day, in recent years education about elephant welfare among western tourists has dramatically reduced demand, and a new, more ethical alternative has emerged – the elephant sanctuary.
Elephant sanctuary, commonly found in tourist hotspots such as Chiang Mai, vary widely in their practices, policies, and quality of care for their elephants, but generally speaking, they share a certain number of common goals and ideals. Any genuinely ethical elephant sanctuary strives to be a place people can visit to interact with elephants in a safe, sustainable, and non-invasive manner. Sanctuaries often have an emphasis on education about elephant welfare and culture, and may offer low- or no-contact activities, such as elephant observation or feeding. A sanctuary should offer elephants an engaging environment in which they can freely roam and forage for food, foster social interaction within the herd, and promote natural elephant behaviours wherever possible. Under no circumstances should a sanctuary offer elephant rides or force the elephants to perform any unnatural behaviours or tricks, such as painting, bowing, spraying water, or any number of other harmful activities often displayed in elephant shows for tourist entertainment.
While elephant sanctuaries strive to provide elephants with a natural setting in which to reside, and offer only activities which align with elephant behaviours in the wild, the practices employed in other elephant tourist attractions in Thailand, such as riding camps and elephant shows, often result in extremely poor conditions for the animals, causing untold physical and psychological damage.
In the case of elephant shows, circuses, and performances, elephants are often forced to perform for long hours, multiple times per day, as groups of tourists arrive and depart. Frequently unable to rest and eat enough to ensure adequate nutrition, the elephants are trained – often using appallingly cruel methods – to perform wholly unnatural acts or movements. These activities include playing ball games such as soccer, painting, walking on tightropes, bowing to “greet” or “thank” tourists, standing on two legs, spraying water on demand, and kissing or hugging humans with their trunks. These behaviours are entirely foreign to an elephant’s nature, and often difficult and uncomfortable. As such, exhausted elephants may be unwilling to perform and their human colleagues may resort to extremely cruel punishments to force them to work and ensure the satisfaction of the tourists present.
It is now a widely known fact worldwide that elephant riding is an incredibly damaging practice for the elephants involved, frequently resulting in debilitating injuries and psychological trauma. Elephants simply are not designed for carrying a large amount of weight on their backs, and the sheer mass of a riding chair, or howdah, in addition to two or more tourists, is capable of causing severe spinal injuries, particularly with constant repetition. Furthermore, the howdah itself often causes abrasions and wounds from pressure and movement during a trek or ride, and the strap used to secure the chair to an elephant can chafe the skin of the animal’s sides and chest or stomach. Elephants working in riding camps are almost invariably exposed to extremely harsh conditions, and routinely abused to guarantee compliance during long and uncomfortable days spent in the sun. These elephants are often malnourished and sometimes deprived of food to encourage tourists to purchase overpriced “treats,” such as bananas for them to eat during a ride.
In many entertainment and riding camps throughout Thailand, elephants suffer terrible abuse, physical injuries, malnourishment and dehydration, long work hours, and an almost total loss of freedom. Frequently exposed to severe traumas, such as being chained up except when forced to work, unable to socialise or even form connections with other elephants, and restricted from foraging for food, many elephants develop serious psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of mental stress and fatigue. Severe abuse, physical confinement, and lack of stimulation sometimes results in abnormal behaviour and signs of zoochosis, such as a repetitive swaying of the head or body. Once developed in a mature elephant, these abnormal behaviours may be exhibited by an elephant for life, even if that elephant’s conditions and environment improve dramatically.
Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand routinely attempt to rescue or adopt elephants from riding camps, elephant shows, street begging, and other places which are generally unsuitable for elephant habitation or harmful for elephants. With a focus on treating Thai elephants with love and respect, ethical sanctuaries aim to offer elephants in their care a happy and tranquil life, with abundant food, freedom, and social interaction with their own species. As most elephant sanctuaries in Thailand rely upon income from foreign visitors to care for their animals, they must find a sustainable balance by limiting group sizes, and promoting low- or no-contact activities to minimise the impact of the presence of humans on the elephants’ natural routine.