There are often times in my life where I feel quite ignorant about the realities of the world. And this was definitely one of those moments. We live quite a sheltered and protected life in Australia.
For those who know me, you will know that I famously tend to struggle with being outside my princess comfort zone, and this extends into the world of travel. (It’s mainly issues with unwelcome multilegged creatures crawling through my room and dirty bathrooms. Which is OK right?) At times, this extends to quite a severe case of culture shock.
I am trying to work on this so that I embrace change a little more smoothly than I have in the past. But this issue is an example of why sometimes I do feel quite uncomfortable and overwhelmed when I travel to third world countries or countries with different cultural norms and expectations.
It is undoubtedly a gorgeous country and why so many of us make the trip to South East Asia. More famous and built up than its neighbouring counterparts such as Laos and Burma, the country is bursting at the seams with tourism. Often at times I felt that it was a little too much so, that it became hard to differentiate between that which was authentically Thai and purely a tourist show.
You might be familiar with friends or family who have been snapped riding atop one of this glorious creatures and felt the urge to do the same. I know I did. I wanted a glorious profile worthy pic that would get 100+ likes just because it featured these babies. There was something magical and uplifting about the idea of ‘riding’ an elephant.
Unfortunately, what appears to be a pleasant and peaceful concept is far from, with the very trade driving Asian elephants to near extinction. At present, the Asian elephant is actually an endangered species with between 2000-3000 left in the wild and numbers dropping. It is mainly due to loss of habitat through logging and land mining, but of late, poaching and illegal capture and trade for tourism.
There are three overarching reasons I feel riding elephants should be taken off your bucket list.
The horrendous training process
You might feel on top of the world perched comfortably on that beautiful elephants back. As it gently saunters through the rainforest/jungle ahead, with your body gently swaying side to side and a nice breeze across your face. But your elly friend is not comfortable.
In order for an elephant to be even remotely comfortable with humans in this particular manner, they need to be broken. And I use the word broken as it is the only word befitting to the process that occurs.
This is no puppy school and by no means a gentle training process. Known as ‘Phaajaan’ it involves ritualistic abuse and starvation. Babies are stripped from their mums and isolated. Bullhooks, clubs and electric prods are used to break the elephants resolve down to become accustom to human command and control.
Riding elephants is detrimental to their physical health
Elephants are stereotyped as being big, hearty and super strong. Or so they appear. It’s almost akin to the stereotype for footy players to be macho alpha males. And whilst they are indeed the largest land creatures, they are not invincible. They are actually quite shy, secretive and sensitive in temperament.
Like us, carrying heavy loads on their backs can be detrimental to their spine. Experts say adult Asian elephants can carry 150 kg at MAX on their backs. Do the maths and think about the average weight of an adult x 3 (one for the mahout, yourself and your partner) + the weight of the saddle, it starts to add up. Imagine doing this several times a day every day of the year and you can quickly see how it is damaging.
The saddles themselves can also cause pressure sores/blisters that can become infected and another source of harm for the elephant.
Elephants are quite social animals and isolation and separation from other elephants is detrimental to their mental health. Furthermore, they usually spend 14-18 hours of their day churning through food (150-300 kg worth of fodder and fruit) and need to feed away from where they urinate and defecate.
Often these conditions are not met in the tourism trade which leads to great levels of mental distress. I naively visited Phuket Zoo (by the way, do NOT go here) and witnessed the well known phenomenon of ‘rocking’. It’s quite a stressful sight that really made my heart heavy, the elephants appear to be swaying as though in time to some music we cannot hear, but it is a well known sign of deep stress, boredom and lack of environmental stimulation.
So whilst the choice for ME is undoubtedly clear as to whether or not to ride elephants or engage in novelty attractions such as tightrope walking and painting, I try my best not to judge others in their choice to engage or refrain from such activities.
I for one was not aware of the abuse they are subjected to and was one of those eager beavers ready to hop on and enjoy my ride blissfully unaware. So if that was the case for you too, I hope this article has shed some light on an area unbeknownst to you! But I will finish with this.
Elephants are intelligent. They are well known to be empathic with studies suggesting also a highly developed level of consciousness and awareness.
I promise you, having visited Thailand, that there are FAR more magical, beautiful and ethical ways to interact with these glorious creatures. A visit to Elephant Nature Park is one, where you can mingle with these magnificent animals in a safe and natural environment.
Here, they are visibly healthy, and happy and looked after with respect and love, a visible contrast to their estranged counterparts at Phuket Zoo. It’s founder, Sanduen Lek Chailert has won the Hero of Asia award by Time Magazine for her incredible pioneering work in this field.
Simply standing next to one of these animals is an experience in itself. I was also able to bathe them, feed them, and just hang out face to face with them.
It was nothing short of incredible, resting my hand on one of the elephants trunk, being still; an incredibly connected experience for me. Behind those tiny eyes was a portal to a seemingly incredible soul. Something palpable when you stand there amongst them.
I hope this read can maybe encourage you to think of alternative ways to interact with these beautiful creatures when you pay Thailand and South East Asia a visit.