Thailand’s most ethical way to visit the elephants
Visiting the elephant parks is without a doubt one of the most popular (and Instagrammable) activities when visiting Thailand. Having been on safari in Africa, experiencing a life-changing trip where I got to see the majestic creatures first-hand, I of course wanted to see elephants on my trip to Asia as well. But in dealing with anything involving animals, I always try to stop and ask myself – is this ethical? It’s a truly subjective question, as everyone’s definition of the ethical treatment of animals is certainly different. However, information on the treatment of elephants in the tourism industry is a quick Google search away, and awareness of the issue is becoming increasingly more common.
There is plenty to read about why the domestication of elephants is so cruel, and I won’t write an essay about it here. There are numerous articles that outline the details more fully and more graphically. A recent National Geographic investigation has brought this into the news again with their June issue, and is absolutely worth a read. (Interestingly, NatGeo is also responsible for having Instagram show a warning whenever your try to search #elephantselfie – try it.)
But in short, elephants are intelligent, emotional creatures that are truly difficult to domesticate and teach to follow human commands. This means in order to do so, elephants are taken from their mothers at a very young age and abused into submission by “breaking the spirit” of the elephant. They are tied up, tortured, and stuck with sharp objects until their will is bent to a mahout. (Yes, videos are available online.) This is how the animals are trained for the circus, logging, and for elephant parks where elephant rides are offered for tourist enjoyment.
Despite their large size, elephants backs are not designed to carry humans and it’s painful for them. But more importantly, to allow a human rider to come close to them, they had to have been pushed through the awful and abusive domestication process. This is why any elephant park/reserve/sanctuary that labels themselves as “ethical” but still offers elephant riding, is simply lying. To further complicate, as this practice becomes more widely known, some parks (as NatGeo discovered) have created “no riding” sanctuaries where they bring the same exact elephants to a separate location to cater to tourists seeking more humane parks. This has made it all the more important for the tourist to become educated and do ample research to ensure they are not contributing to this dark side of tourism which unfortunately continues to be profitable.
Responsible tourism at Elephant Nature Park
I read as many articles as I could find on ethical elephant sanctuaries and ultimately felt comfortable deciding on Elephant Nature Park, which many publications have dubbed the most ethical elephant park in Thailand. Not only is riding prohibited, but many of the elephants have been rescued from camps that did use them for elephant rides, or other inhumane practices like circuses, logging, etc. These elephants now live a retired life at ENP, which attempts to give them a home more similar to their native habitats, free from torture and chains.
I admit I was skeptical, especially as the National Geographic article was published only days before I was departing for Asia which emphasized that ANY human interaction with these elephants is technically unnatural for them. But I felt assured by learning that even practices like helping the animals bathe at ENP have in recent years been deemed “too much” interaction and has since been removed from itineraries, and that while elephants were once allowed to breed, they since have put a stop to it to allow the focus to be put on the rescued elephants. This flexibility put me at ease.
However, I still wondered if by paying to see these elephants I was still contributing to elephants in the tourism industry and it was an internal struggle until the day I departed. But the honesty and the stories told by our tour guide quickly eliminated that unease upon arriving at the park.
What to Bring to ENP
We did the standard single day visit, although there are plenty more customized tours, and even some for multiple days. When browsing the options, be sure to read the description of what you are doing as some offer the option to go into the water with the elephants, which you’ll have to keep in mind when you’re packing.
We received a confirmation email that told us to bring the standard hat, sunscreen, bug spray, and sunglasses, and a water bottle (essential). It also said to bring towels which we did not need, so I think that memo was meant for some of the water-based tours. We were also told to bring sandals and comfortable walking shoes. I ended up wearing my sandals, jeans shorts and a tank top, but was surprised when everyone else on the tour was dressed in athletic clothes and sneakers. Our tour ended up being just some light walking around the park, so I was perfectly comfortable in what I was wearing. Just make sure you’re dressed in light clothes as you’ll be sweating a lot, and shoes that you can walk around in throughout the park. And of course, don’t forget a camera!
Single Day Tour Activities
The tour really started when we were picked up at our hotel. It was about an hour ride from our central Chiang Mai hotel, and during the ride the guide put on a video which outlined some safety guidelines, and then showed the history of the abusive practices of domesticated elephants in Thailand. This is good to know as you enter the park to understand where these poor elephants came from and how important it is to encourage others not to visit the parks that still engage in these abusive practices today. Of course it’s a bit of self promotion for ENP, but I would imagine most people visiting this park specifically are aware of the horrible treatment most elephants face in the tourism industry and support the ENP mission of rescuing these animals into a peaceful retirement.
Upon arrival at the park, you see the beautiful elephants right away. We were led to the elevated deck area and offered the chance to feed the elephants watermelons from behind the fence. We then dropped our nonessential items (like the towels which we didn’t need) and after a short break, followed the guide into the park for a walking tour to meet the different elephants and hear their stories. Because each elephant has a different tragic history, their temperaments also vary greatly. Some were perfectly happy to have you pose for a picture beside them, even touch them in some cases. Others, we were warned to not get too close as they are no longer trusting of people, and rightly so. We met several different elephants, interrupted occasionally by a nosy water buffalo or a playful dog. After about an hour or so we headed back to the deck to wash up and eat a buffet lunch, which had a ton of delicious choices of Thai cuisine (and it was some of the best Thai food we had on our trip).
We had an hour or so to rest and chat with our other tour group members and then headed back out to the other side of the park where we watched a group of elephants bathing in the river. Here, I was astounded to see along the river an adjacent camp of elephants with tourists riding on their backs. The guide explained that the river is public property, not a part of the ENP land, so other elephant parks take their tours to the very same rivers to get the perfect pictures of these elephants in the water. The juxtaposition of these animals, still enslaved by the very thing the ENP elephants were rescued from, was appalling and heartbreaking.
We met a few more elephants, including some disabled ones, and returned to the deck for a final break before getting back into the van and heading back to the city around 3pm.
Despite my initial reservations, at the conclusion of the tour I did feel as though Elephant Nature Park is true to their mission in saving elephants from the brutal practices of domestication and torture. Visiting the park is still a tourist activity, with the elephants still on display for human benefit, but in reality the money raised from these tours is what is keeping ENP afloat and able to rescue more elephants from the inhumane parks. If you are going to see the elephants in Thailand, ENP is absolutely the place to go.
There are a couple other ethical parks throughout the country, but given the misinformation and lies so many put out, it’s essential to do your research. ENP has been vetted by many of us seeking to visit these beautiful creatures in a humane way, which is why it’s so highly recommend. Never trust that a park is ethical because it says so on their website – read from multiple sources and find many reviews to make sure the park is truly about the fair treatment of animals.