Catherine Lewis is a Wanderlust subscriber, project manager and ‘part-time elephant washer’
Why do people think it is acceptable to go elephant trekking? Simple: because they don’t realise the extreme cruelty involved. It wasn’t until I started to help care for Asian elephants rescued from the Thai tourist industry that I started to understand the appalling living conditions of these animals.
In 95% of cases, elephants are domesticated through phaajann: the torture of infants, backed up by daily acts of brutality. Also, elephants are being poached from the wild in order to meet the demands of tourism. Asian elephants are classified as an endangered species, but half of Thailand’s 4,000 animals are domesticated, and considered beasts of burden: their owners have the right to trade and use them at will.
There are a growing number of places in Thailand where you can experience an elephant encounter without contributing towards their abuse. Try Boon Lott’s sanctuary near Sukhothai, the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai and the Elephant Refuge and Education Centre, near Hua Hin.
Most ‘domestic’ elephants are wild-born, captured when young and trained using cruel techniques. Watch any mahout manoeuvring an elephant through crowded streets and he’ll likely be resting the point of his ankus (bull-hook) on the elephant’s skin: a reminder that disobedience carries painful consequences. It’s true that traditional mahouts and their elephants often have deep, lifelong bonds, but nowadays many elephant handlers in the tourist trade are more motivated by money.
There are some elephant attractions that genuinely care for ex-working elephants and may allow visitors to bathe or interact with them (though if you pay for the privilege, the elephant may be forced to be bathed for hours on end). But look at the condition of elephants being used for rides – watch for wounds – and make your own decision. Consider that when wild animals become a commercial commodity, their welfare will likely suffer. The Born Free Foundation is working to reduce this.
What do you think? Do you think elephant trekking is ethical? Tell us at myWanderlust...
Gorilla tracking: A typical day | Advice
Conservation volunteering | Advice
Get the very best of Wanderlust by signing up to our newsletters, full of travel inspiration, fun quizzes, exciting competitions and exclusive offers.