A trip to Thailand wouldn’t be complete without admiring the gentle giants of animal kingdom, would be? One of the greatest dilemmas I have faced during my trip in Thailand was finding a way to interact with elephants in the most “ethical” way possible. I knew that riding an elephant was something I wouldn’t agree on and ended up supporting a local sanctuary in Chiang Mai, in the northern part of Thailand. It was a lovely experience! Instead of riding elephants we spent some quality time observing their day to day life – we fed them, followed them in the jungle and loved seeing them play in the water. Chiang Mai jungle trekking with the elephants as we said it, turned into an amazing experience one can’t easily forget!
Should you ride an elephant?
Whether you decide to ride an elephant or not, it’s your choice-I am not judging you. But I feel like it’s my obligation to inform as many people as possible about the grim reality behind the scene of elephant tourism industry. Most people participating in elephant tourism in Thailand are completely unaware of the circumstances and how they elephants are treated.
A wild elephant would never allow a human ride on its back, nor submit to perform in unnatural behavior during shows. The process of people gaining control over the elephants starts very early in their lives in captivity. The baby elephants are separated from their mom and then captivated The process is really cruel and its based on the principle of establishing dominance over the elephant. Therefore the elephants pay a high price for tourists’ entertainment by being beaten and starved into submission.
In a report released by World Animal Protection (WAP), three out of four elephants employed at tourist venues are living in “severe cruel conditions”. Elephants are chained day and night when not giving rides or performing, are fed poor diets with limited vet care and are often kept in stressful environmentt.
History of elephants in Thailand
Elephants are the biggest animals to currently walk the earth and one among the most intelligent species. Their friendly and social nature is difficult not to attract a plethora of tourists who are more than happy to engage in any entertainment activities with them such as elephant rides and shows that are particularly popular in the Southeast Asian countries, Thailand included.
Elephants have been used in Thailand for over 3000 years. Originally, they were used as war and working animals. Until the 20th century, the total population of elephants was estimated to be around 50,000 and has decreased to about 2.500 – 3200 wild elephants today. About 4.400 elephants are kept in captivity. Until 1989, captive elephants in Thailand were mostly used for logging. However, a nationwide logging ban left many elephant owners without income and forced them to change employment field. Therefore, there was a high increase in trekking camps, circus shows and any other activities related to tourism entertainment.
In a survey conducted by WAP, it was estimated that 40% of the tourists visiting Thailand in 2016 had been or planned to do an elephant ride which translates to up to 12 million elephant rides. Even tripadvisor, the largest travel site in the world has banned selling tickets that involve riding elephants which shows how people can convince big companies to take meaningful decisions. In the last few years, many campaigns exposed these elephant tourist venues which made a lot of camps to close down.
What have I done instead?
Sadly, it’s not as easy to let captive elephants into the wild thanks to the deforestation and destruction of natural environment. The average elephant needs about 250-300kg to be healthy and costs approximately $1000 per month to house and feed. Realistically talking in order for elephants to have access to proper nutrition, veterinary care it is more sustainable to support tourism in a more ethical way that provides balance between tourists,elephants, mahouts and their families.
Instead of riding an elephant, I have decided to alternatively spend a day at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. An elephant sanctuary “rescues” elephants from riding camps/entertainment venues and places them in a natural environment where elephants are treated in the best way possible. In the sanctuary, we didn’t ride an elephant. Instead we fed them, went for a trekking in the jungle with them and in the afternoon we watched them bathing and playing in the river.
My experience at Chi Jungle Man
A great rainy Sunday dawned at Julie’s Guesthouse in Chiang Mai – yay monsoon season! It was the long awaited day we all looked forward to, the day we would meet the elephants in Thailand. We only booked the day tour a day earlier through their facebook page, fast and easy. We quickly had a 7/11 breakfast and by 9 we were picked up by the tour guide, Chi.
When we first met Chi, he seemed like a shy/quiet guy but with a really friendly vibe. He helped us carry our stuff in the truck since we would move from the guesthouse after the day trip ( trusted some facebook reviews and ended up staying in a tiny room for midgets which was also cohabited by lizards and cockroaches). It took us about one hour to get to the elephant sanctuary and we also had a quick stop on our way to 7/11 for a break and get some snacks for later.
The way to the elephant sanctuary was quite pleasing and enjoyable. As we were sitting on the back of the truck we could enjoy the journey and admire some of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen in Thailand. It was only the four of us that participated in the tour that day so the tour guide’s attention was turned to us the entire time. The sanctuary is relatively new and not as popular as some others in Chiang Mai so not many people know about it.
As we were getting closer and closer to the sanctuary and took our last turn, some dog pack started following our truck and barked in a very happy way. We realized that these dogs must belong to the people who look after the place. Soon, the dogs jumped on the tour guide and welcomed him back and even happily waved their tail at us and approached us to pet them.
My attention turned immediately to the elephants that were happily waiting behind the fences. There were only eight elephants at that moment aged from 1 to 50 years old. Papa Joe is the oldest one, he’s about 50 years old and Por Kao is the baby elephant of the group. Por Kao is the cutest little elephant and walks clumsily among her mother and the other elephants. We are told to be super careful with her as she’s a baby and she’s still learning how to behave around people. It’s a small group of elephants but they all seem to be in harmony with each other. They’re funny creatures too. Por Kao’s sister knows how to use her truck to open the door too. She has a mischievous expression too as she runs around when mahouts chase after her and make her go back. Surprisingly, the mahouts chase after her and without even being physical and communicating with her in a verbal way, she obeys and goes back to her place, only to do the same thing twenty minutes later. The other female elephant flaps her ears constantly as if they are dancing which indicates excitement.
Chi told us the story of each and every elephant they have in their sanctuary. The way he talks about them shows how passionate he is about what he’s doing. He’s been learning how to take care of the elephants since he was twelve and has worked with them ever since. He envisions that one day he will raise enough money to buy land in the jungle with access to a river to bring their elephants back to their natural habitat. Until then, he takes care in the best way possible at the area where the elephants are kept.
After Chi introduced us to each elephant and told us their story, we started feeding the gentle giants. Specifically we fed them bamboos and bananas. Por Kao (the baby elephant) is crazy about bananas and the other elephants like eating whatever comes their way. Elephants are feed multiple times during the day as the require big amount of food. We also gave them a very special formula with some berries and other natural supplements that elephants loved.
Chiang Mai jungle trekking with elephants
Shortly after we finish feeding them the rain gets even worse, so we take a little break under the shelter where there is a bench. Then, Chi’s girlfriend guides us to the jungle which is a short walk from the sanctuary as Chi and the other mahouts slowly open the gates and allow each elephant to get out slowly.
Chiang Mai jungle trekking one of the most fun activities especially when you observe the elephants!
Elephants are really excited to be left roam free in the jungle and are constantly searching for more food to eat. We observe them from a safe distance so they feel relaxed and enjoy their time. At some point, I notice the elephant mom using her feet to dig the dirt and then grab it with her trunk and throw it on the back. Chi explains us that they do it to use it as a sunscreen and mosquito repellent. In the jungle the built a wooden shelter where we sit for a while until elephants enjoy to the maximum their time ; playing with each other and eating the bamboo.
At noon, we arrived back to the sanctuary with the elephants. Chi, not only is a good tour guide but is a very good cook. Our day tour not only included all these activities with elephant but a homely lunch too.
Taking the elephants to the river
Here comes my most favorite part of the day trip – taking the elephants to the river for a swim! Elephants absolutely love water and are naturally good swimmers. The river was about 30 minutes away and the entire herd of elephants followed us happily.
Papa Joe leads the herd and behind him all the elephants follow at their own pace. We are walking besides them having always a safe distance – not because we are afraid but cause they feel more comfortable when they have space. Por Kao finds a wheel along the way and carries it along the way. Seeing Por Kao being the happiest baby elephant I have ever met, gives me hope and optimism for the future of elephants held in captivity.
The elephant family seems to know the way since they visit daily the river. There are no chains or constraints, they are completely free and confident. As we arrive to the river all the elephants one by one rush to get inside and cool down. Por Kao starts “wrestling” with her sister and the other elephants just chill in the water. We were given some buckets to wash them off for a couple of minutes (not sure If it served any purpose to be honest) and simply admired watching them being happy in the river.
During our visit to the river, another elephant herd caught my attention. The only difference was that the people were riding the elephants in the water and took turns taking photos of each other. I could distinguish the difference between our elephant family and the other tourists elephant camp. It was a much larger group of people, elephants seemed stressed and definitely not excited to give rides in the water. At that moment, I was more grateful than ever to choose this alternative type of “elephant tour”.
Choosing an ethical sanctuary
After a recent decline of tourists that want to visit riding camps, it’s becoming a bit trendy to promote some places as “sanctuaries” and “ethical”. I would advise to carefully research before visiting a certain place to ensure that the place is indeed what it claims to be.
World Animal Protection has created guidelines that outline the criteria for elephant-friendly venues to improve the welfare of existing captive elephants. One key aspect is that these venues have moved from excessive direct interaction between elephants and visitors. The riding experience is being replaced by an observational experience of elephants being elephants. The most popular among the “ethical” elephant sanctuaries are ENP (Elephant Nature Park) , Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and Patara Elephant Farm.
Why I chose Chi Jungle Man
You might be wondering why I chose Chi Jungle Man instead which is quite unpopular. Well, the truth is that I spent a lot of time checking each and every sanctuary individually. I have once bumped into a post on facebook once about Chi Jungle Man and it took my attention. The elephant sanctuary is a very small enterprise where you support the local economy.
To be honest, the experience exceeded my expectations. The tour felt completely personalized, we were a tiny group of four people. Chi had a very good connection with the elephants and they seemed to love him. It also seemed that Chi and his staff took tremendous care of the elephants and they showed a very natural behavior. So If you’d ask me If I’d recommend him, I’d say SURE- go for it!
There is a long way ahead of us till the elephant tourism issue is addressed. Freeing all elephants into the wild is something realistically impossible but at the same time riding camps are disastrous for the well being of elephants. Educating mahouts about the best practices to train elephants with positive reinforcement and informing travelers about the reality of elephant tourism are just a few measures to help elephants in captivity. Alternative tourism such as volunteering at elephant sanctuaries should be encouraged to ensure elephants receive the best of care and live the happiest lives possible.