A century ago 100,000 to 200,000 elephants were living in Thailand. Today the number is estimated somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000, dropping at a rate of 3.5% every year.
Twenty-five years from now when our children will be holidaying in Thailand, there will be no elephant left alive. If they are lucky, they will meet someone to tell them the legend of the last elephant seen alive in a tropical forest.
The elephant issues began a few centuries ago when the kings of Northern Asian Realms decided to turn elephants into killing machines. It didn’t matter where the elephants came from – Burma, Laos, Cambodia or Siam. The animals weren’t given a chance to choose between war and peace hence they had to fight to their last breath.
Later, when wars ended, the elephants started working in logging and agriculture. In 1945, 61% of Thailand’s territory was covered in woods. This area decreased to 21% by 1989 when the government finally decided to put a stop to forests logging; an activity mostly meant to expand the agricultural lands. Elephants helped destroy their habitat.
Is there a way out?
Here’s the catch:
a) Elephants living in the wild don’t have enough feeding grounds, so they often step into the cultivated areas and owners of those lands punish them by putting a bullet in their heads.
b) Given the high demand from tourists, Thai people open and run more and more elephant camps – those places where tourists pay to interact with the pachyderms. The issue is that in most of these camps elephants are trained using notably cruel methods, they are poorly fed and put to work an exhausting number of hours.
To make it even worse, it is the animal lovers who contribute the most to the suffering of the elephants. If tourists weren’t interested in riding an elephant than these centers would disappear. No matter how you look at it, Thai elephants are sentenced to extinguishment – the wild ones by shooting, the domesticated by cruelty and carelessness. And all this while Thailand, among all the countries where the elephants live, has the most reliable national protection and conservation program.
You may ask yourself what we, regular people, can do to help them. For situation a) presented above the answer is not much as the authorities have the power and means to improve whatever it’s up for improvement. For case b) there is plenty we can contribute to making these animals live better.
We are the only ones who can do something about it. Not overnight, of course, but in time, same as with all the things that matter. The business people operating the elephant camps will always find ways to trick the laws, but they will never be able to fool us into buying whatever they have to offer. If we ask that elephants have a better life than the camp owners will have to improve their living conditions or else they will lose business. The natural laws of the demand and offer operate way better than any governmental law.
Here are some simple things you can check out to make sure the elephant camp you are visiting is a legit one, and your visit would rather improve the lives of the animals instead of making it worse.
Where does the money come from?
Check out if the center you are about to visit gets money exclusively from the elephant business or funds come from some other sources as well. If the government or an NGO is financing the place, chances are the elephants living there are treated respectfully. That’s because funds are carefully monitored by the sponsors, based on rather strict criteria. If the camps don’t comply, they lose the money.
One example is the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, a place Brad was telling you about a while ago. The center is under the High Patronage of the Royal Family. Thus it doesn’t lack funding, and you can see this in everything happening there. Elephants are well treated, they have a fixed working program from 10 to 15, and then they move to the forest and do whatever they please to do. They even have holidays. Every elephant has two mahouts with whom they develop a special relationship based on mutual respect and trust. The employees have years of training and experience and get proper payment. They have no reason to hate their job little less the elephants.
Cheap and bad
Well-trained mahouts, food, and water cost a lot of money. Do not opt for the most affordable experience – little you pay; little the elephants will get. And this is not only about elephants’ life, food or water; it is also about your safety. Elephants are very sensitive animals. Bad treatment can easily cause them depression, and there’s one small step from depression to aggression. And when aggression comes from a 4 tons weighted animal you’d better not be around to face it. A poorly treated elephant easily turns into a ticking bomb.
Another example of a sustainable and caring business is Patara Elephant Farm (on the Chiang Mai – Samoeng Road). The center focuses on one program only, and they don’t sell it cheap – Elephant Owner for a Day, 5.800 THB (approx. 180 EUR). Every tourist is assigned one elephant to take care of and so he spends the day learning about the animal and interacting with it in a non-intrusive manner.
Watch and report
When you get to an elephant camp, look carefully around you. You may end up in a wrong place but talking about it might help others avoid it. Here are a few things you can check-out:
- Are the elephants kept in a clean place? How much space they have to move around? They must be in chains for everyone’s safety is at risk but how long or short are those chains – 5m is a minimum acceptable for the elephant to move up, down and around.
- Do they have food and water? The elephants eat up to 18h a day so the food should be abundant.
- Do they stay in the shadow or sun? Shadow is the right answer as elephants are extremely sensitive to light and heat.
- Do they have wounds or blood stains on their bodies? Any of it is obviously a sign of mistreatment from their caretakers.
- Do the elephants swing on one leg back and forth with a confused gaze or are they active and easily make eye contact with the humans around? Remember: elephants don’t dance. Swinging back and forth is a clear sign of depression. Anxiety and depression are caused by a variety of reasons – losing a baby, being away from a friend (elephant or human), boredom, repeated violent behavior from the mahouts.
- How long do they work in a day? You can ask the guide or the caretakers. The elephants are active animals, but not even they can resist endless hours of carrying tourists through the forest without water and food.
Find out as much as possible about all these issues and pay the information forward. Write reviews, tell your friends. Don’t hesitate to talk to the personnel in the camps about the good and bad you see. They should know that tourists are aware of what is going on, and if something goes wrong, they should improve. Otherwise, they will lose their clients.
One last note on the elephants you might encounter on the streets – do not pay to touch or feed them. It is a difficult decision, I know. Usually, they are baby elephants and such cute creatures. Remember, though, that the chaos and sounds of the street are an important stress factor for the elephants meant to live quietly in a forest. Today it is you who doesn’t pay, tomorrow your friends and so on until the owner has to do something else with the elephant.
Not to worry, there are safe alternatives, and everyone has access to them – owners can choose to put them in a retirement program at Thai Elephant Conservation Center or can sell them to the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, another one of the Royal Family foundations that deal with reintegration of the elephants into their natural habitat.
I may sound harsh. Maybe I see it all in black and white. I guess I am since I’ve been living in Thailand for a long time now and visited a lot of elephant camps, talked to specialists who love these animals and are committed to helping them. I believe every being has a place and a purpose in this world. The place of wild animals is not in cages, and humans’role is not to stare at them through the iron bars.