Elephant riding is an extremely popular activity in many parts of Southeast Asia. From short rides in town, to long treks through the jungle, and everything in between, thousands of visitors fork over thousands of dollars to spend time atop land’s largest mammal. And each year hundreds of elephants suffer the consequences.
The Internet is full of articles detailing the harmful aspects of elephant riding and I do not claim to be any sort of expert on this topic, but to sum up some of the reasons why you really shouldn’t be riding elephants:
- Asian elephants are endangered and are often illegally captured and sold into tourist industry servitude.
- The taming process used by most companies is brutal and cruel and often involves causing the elephants pain.
- This taming process usually starts when elephants are very young. The babies are taken from their mothers and they are basically beaten into submission. The goal is the crush their spirits to “tame” them enough to let people ride on them.
- After the animals are “tamed” they are controlled through fear tactics and are often overworked, under fed, and isolated from other elephants, which can be mentally and morally detrimental for the naturally social animals.
- Riding elephants is extremely bad for the elephant’s health and can lead to permanent injuries and deformities that are extremely painful and rarely treated.
But part of you still wants to spend time with these gentle and magnificent animals on your trip to Southeast Asia, right? Well have no fear. Sustainable, responsible and elephant conscious companies are taking a stand against the well-established elephant riding industry and are creating sanctuaries where rescued animals live out the rest of their days in peace with caretakers who see the elephants as living beings, versus money-making tools.
Elephant Nature Park is by far the most popular elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai and has set the gold standard for responsible elephant tourism in Thailand. I would have loved to spend a day with the elephants at Elephant Nature Park, but I did not reserve a spot ahead of time, and since this is such a popular activity, they were all booked up for the six days I was in Chiang Mai. Luckily I was able to snag a spot at the lesser known, but still very reputable, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
After a bumpy ride up into the hills outside of Chiang Mai we spent the morning feeding, bathing, and cuddling the elephant herd.
I was honestly a little indifferent regarding elephants prior to my morning at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, but it was one of the most amazing things I have ever done and I was floating on cloud nine the entire time.
Will the poor conditions present in the Thai elephant tourism industry reverse themselves anytime soon? Probably not. But your tourist dollars make a statement, so chose wisely when deciding which companies to support and, more importantly, which ones not to support.
If you are planning to visit one of the Elephant Sanctuaries you should reserve yourself a spot as soon as you know your dates because the groups fill up quickly. I got super lucky and one of the girls I was hanging out with worked some magic and was able to sneak us in, but we got really lucky.
You can also volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, but be prepared that the price tag for this once-in-a-lifetime experience is pretty hefty. But if you have the time and money it would be a great way to give back and gain an unforgettable travel memory in the process.
Dollars and Sense
*Morning at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (includes transport and lunch) -1700 baht
TIP: Wear a bathing suit and bring a waterproof camera if you have one.
*There are a couple of different elephant experiences available (we ended up in the only one with space) so do a bit of homework ahead of time to figure out which one best fits what your are looking for. The all day visits are quite a bit more expensive (obviously) but include a visit to the hill tribe in the area.