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Never, ever, ride an elephant. They’re not an attraction. The lives of elephants that are part of the Thai tourism industry are generally pretty horrendous, and that’s not even taking into account the cruelties they have to undergo in order to be tamed. Don’t close your eyes to these injustices, listen to the story of Marleen Veenstra, who’s been a volunteer in different elephant reserves for years. She’s the best person tell you the deeply disturbing truth behind elephant tourism in Thailand.

Text and photos by: Marleen Veenstra

Elephant Tourism in Thailand: Return to the wild

Why is it that in Africa we go on safaris to spot elephants in the wild, while in Thailand, it’s common practice to have them performing tricks or being used on excursion tours?

I’d been thinking about that question for years, until I saw “Return to the Wild”, a documentary by Antoinette van de Water, on Animal Planet. It was about the Thai tourism industry and the role the elephant plays within it. It also showed the way in which they were tamed.

Antoinette bought two of the elephants with the help of her organization called Bring the Elephant Home. In the documentary, there is footage of her taking the animals to a reserve near Chiang Mai, the Elephant Nature Park. I was very troubled by what I saw. It became immediately clear to me why it was that Thai elephants were able to remain so obedient, every single day…

Sri Nuan Elephant

This is Sri Nuan, one of the elephants from the documentary whose freedom was bought.

The Phajaan Ceremony

The Phajaan Ceremony is an ancient Thai tradition, the purpose of which is to separate the elephant’s soul from its body so that it can be restrained by the mahout (owner). It’s also known as “the crunch”, the breaking of the elephant’s soul.

These days this practice is generally accompanied by excessive violence and abuse and painful lack of respect for the animal’s physical integrity. The elephant is seen as a “cash cow” and the quicker it submits to its owner, the better. Then it’s ready to be used to make money.

During the Phajaan Ceremony, the elephant calf is separated from its mother, after which it’s put through extreme physical distress and mental suffering in order to become completely submissive. This process can take days, and sometimes weeks.

They’re locked up in small cages in which they’re not able to move, away from their mother, without protection, food or drink and completely at the mercy of a group of people inflicting pain and drawing blood using knives, hooks, and sticks and who will only stop when the animal becomes completely obedient. As you can imagine, not all young elephants survive such treatment…

The brutal Phajaan Ceremony

There are no words for this…

Making money

As soon the elephant is submissive, it will be put through a training “schedule” that will last for years. First in the circus, as baby elephants are a crowd favorite and, later in life, in a place that provides jungle excursions, for example.

There is a lot of money to be made. The elephant trade is incredibly lucrative. A two-year-old elephant calf that can ride a bicycle and dance can be worth as much as € 20,000. That kind of money allows the poaching of even more young elephants in the wild – a practice that sees entire herds being wiped out.

Adult elephants are worth a lot of money as well. In 2010 I met Tong Teh, a 20-year-old male elephant who was ill (tuberculosis) and whose front paw was broken. His owner didn’t want to sell him or provide any medical treatment despite the fact that Louise Rogerson, founder of EARSASIA, offered to pay for all medical costs.

And when Tong Teh died from starvation it became clear why. The owner sold everything: the skin, the tusks, the eyelashes, the meat and the tail. Everything.

Tong Teh was worth more dead than alive.

Tong Teh Elephant

Louise (a friend of mine) and Tong Teh

How to recognize a BAD elephant camp

Elephant camps whose most important goal is to make money are never good since the well-being of the animal is not a priority of theirs. It’s more important to make money.

These camps will see elephants tied to chains at all times, except when they have to work.

Chained Elephants in a bbad camp

Young elephants have to work the same long hours, usually 8 to 10, but sometimes more, as their mothers. They’re often chained to the mother during excursions. The calves that have been separated from their mother are usually in their own stable or shackled down. They’re not able to communicate with any of the other elephants.

The slight discoloration of the skin you’ll often see on the forehead and cheeks of Thai elephants is scar tissue. These highly sensitive spots are put there deliberately during the Phajaan Ceremony as a way to make it easier for the mahout to stimulate these painful areas to make them go in the right direction.

In a bad elephant camp:

  • elephants are separated from each other;
  • elephants have shackles on more than paw;
  • elephants sometimes are under the same awning, but unable to get close to each other;
  • young elephants work the same number of hours as their mother;
  • there are daily shows and excursions where the mahout employs a hook;
  • elephant hooks, nails and/or knives are used as a means of training the elephants;
  • elephants carry the saddle on their backs, even when it’s not giving rides;
  • the elephant is denied free access to fresh food.

Trekking with baby elephant

How to recognize a GOOD elephant camp?

Before I tell you how to recognize a good elephant camp, I would like to mention that, in my eyes, there is no such thing as an elephant camp that’s 100% good.

Reserves are initiatives that I wholeheartedly support as these places are entirely focused on the elephants’ well-being.

But perhaps you still want to go on an excursion on top of an elephant or your travel package includes an elephant trek and it’s unavoidable. What’s the best thing to do?

Riding on elephants that carry saddles is inherently bad. The saddle is placed exactly on the round, most vulnerable part, of its back, where the spine vertebrae exhibit protuberances. Would you carry someone on the rounded part of your back? No, you would carry them either on your lower back or in your neck, the parts where, in relation to your backside, your spinal column is hollow.

If you really want to ride an elephant, choose a camp that doesn’t use saddles but where you can sit on the elephant’s neck. And pay attention to the way the elephants are treated outside of their working hours. If any of the practices described under the warning signs for bad camps occur, don’t do it.

If you’re traveling with a group and a jungle trek is included in the package, ask the mahout or the tour guide if you can walk beside the elephant or if the saddle can be removed. Reward the mahout for elephant friendly tourism by giving him a tip so he’ll know it’s possible to make money that way as well. For example, walk with the mahout and his elephant to the waterside so the elephant can experience some freedom.

An example of a good elephant camp is Elephant World in Kanchanaburi. Elephants aren’t ridden on, during the night they’re shackled in the forest and during the day they’re allowed to enter the water.

Elephant World Kanchanaburi

Personally, I wouldn’t call it a reserve, as hooks are still used. Also, some of the elephants are shackled during daytime and visitors are allowed to climb on the elephants’ backs whilst in the water, which I think restricts the elephant’s freedom of movement too much. Other than that, the elephants are well cared for.

A good elephant camp:

  • does not use saddles but lets you ride on the elephant’s neck;
  • allows elephants to interact with each other;
  • allows elephants unrestricted access to fresh food and water;
  • shackles just one of the elephants paws.

Elephant friendly tourism

In 2009 I visited the Elephant Nature Park and learned as much as I could. Every year I return, visit different projects and, wherever possible, help along. I believe the Thai elephant deserves to be treated with more respect and is entitled to better living conditions.

Did you know the elephant is a sacred animal in Thailand and that it’s threatened with extinction?

Don’t be part of the problem! Don’t support the elephant trade and the atrocious training practices and choose elephant friendly tourism!

As a tourist, you can make a difference. An elephant should be allowed to live with dignity. To be close to an animal like that and to take part in its daily rituals is a privilege and the best experience there is.

Elephant Reserve

Elephant Nature Park

The Elephant Nature Park is the best example. Owner and founder Lek Chailert is the first and, as yet, one of the only Thai people with the courage to speak out against the Phajaan Ceremony. She teaches tourists and provides a better life for many elephants.

Many camps now follow her example, as they start to realize that they can make a lot of money doing this. Don’t be tempted by lofty words such as “eco tourism” or “how to become a mahout in one day”. The reserves where hooks aren’t used, the elephants don’t have to perform tricks and where can lead their lives in peace and start new families… well, unfortunately, there still aren’t too many of them.

Update July 2017:
“The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai still does good work. Nevertheless, more and more animals bred in captivity continue to be admitted. There are also a lot of day visitors; perhaps even too many. The washing and the feeding of the elephants have become such a routine that it almost makes you wonder if they’re really free. Still, we have to think within the possibilities of Thailand and its tourism industry. All in all, it’s still a lot better than riding them.”

Mariska Elephant Nature Park

Go to elephant reserves!

A reserve is a place where elephants don’t have to work in order to be cared for. They don’t use hooks and the elephants don’t have to go on jungle excursions or perform shows. During the day they’re allowed to roam around freely.

If it is being taught to do tricks, it will be trained by means of positive stimulation, through a reward system based on food. Rescued elephants often need medical care. To be able to receive it, it has to be able to lift its legs on command so that the vet can safely do their work. So the commands they’re being taught are functional, rather than performance tricks.

Please be aware that all elephants that live in a reserve also had to go through the Phajaan Ceremony, which is why many of them can’t be released back into the wild again. They wouldn’t be able to survive there.

Happy elephants in Sukhothai

Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai

A GOOD elephant reserve:

  • does not employ elephant hooks;
  • does not provide shows, excursions or performances;
  • allows elephants to roam free during the day and doesn’t shackle them;
  • only shackles elephants at night or places them in a stable with their family;
  • elephants are only shackled with one paw, never more;
  • always allows unrestricted access to fresh water and food;

A list of elephant reserves in Thailand we feel confident in recommending to anybody:

Name reserve Website
Elephant Nature Park Chaing Mai http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/
Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary Chiang Mai http://www.bees-elesanctuary.org/
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary Sukhothai http://www.blesele.org/
FAE Hospital Lampang http://www.saveelephant.org/
Surin Project Surin http://www.surinproject.org/
Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand in Hua Hin http://www.wfft.org/
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary http://www.phuketelephantsanctuary.org/

Work as a volunteer

In case you’ll be staying in Thailand a little longer, try and work as a volunteer for at least a week. It’s a fantastic experience which not only allows you to work with the elephants every day, but you’ll also be part of Thai life and you’ll be helping improve the living conditions of both elephant and caretaker.

Surin Project Thailand

You’ll meet lots of new people from all around the world. To register as a visitor or a volunteer, go to the reserve’s website and it will all be taken care of. In case you still have questions or would like to know more, visit my own website, www.liefsuitthailand.nl, or contact me directly. Just like with the elephants, I would be happy to assist you in any way I can!

Who is Marleen Veenstra?

My name is Marleen Veenstra, I’m 37 years old and in and I’m a (pelvic) physiotherapist in Leeuwarden. Since visiting Thailand and volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in 2009, my life took an inspiring new turn and “tame” elephants became a new passion of mine.

Ever since, during the annual holidays, you can find me in Thailand, working as a volunteer in different elephant reserves. When in the Netherlands, I dedicate my free time volunteering for organizations like Bring the Elephant Home. Among other things, I’m part of the organizing committee of the yearly Global March for Elephants, Rhinos, and Lions and I started my own website with the goal of informing tourists on the current predicament of the Thai elephant.

Marleen Veenstra

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Author Sander

Former elementary school teacher, storyteller, sports enthusiast, and adventurer. Love to do the "impossible", which is usually the exact opposite of what’s expected.

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