Last year I visited the lustrous crown of the north of Thailand: Chiang Mai, A city overflowing with history and culture. Naturally, Chiang Mai become a touristic hotspot which welcomes over 1 and a half million international visitors each year. The reason for this is simple: the city is gorgeous, the temples are extravagant and the markets are expansive. There’s no shortage of things to do for travelers. But one activity stands out from the others, and for the sake of this article, I’ll be focusing on this one type of tourism specifically: Elephant Tourism.
First, however, I think it’s important to understand why elephants play such a big part within the Thai culture. There’s a thousand year history between elephants and humans: we know for a fact that they’ve been working animals from as early as the 3rd century BC. In Thailand alone, they’ve been used for millennia due to their incredible size and strength, and they even proved integral to the defense of the Thai Kingdom in the 1500’s when Thailand was under siege by the Malays, Burmese and the Khmer. In Chiang Mai there are many temples dedicated to elephants, most notably is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which features a prominent, ancient statue of a white elephant. Elephants and the Thai Royal Family are often associated with one another.
Before Thailand had industrial machinery, elephants were used instead to fuel the logging operations that greatly contributed to the destruction of their own natural environment. However, when logging became illegal in 1986, mahouts (elephant handlers) had to figure out different ways of feeding their animals, as it was now impossible for the thousands of domesticated elephants to return to the wild. Many turned to tourism, entering their animals into circuses or renting them for festivals, while some continued to log illegally. ‘Elephant camps,’ centers with poor living and working conditions (for both the animals and the mahouts) where tourists could ride and play with elephants also became commonplace.
In Chiang Mai, whether you’re walking through the old city or doing online research, you’re going to be bombarded at every turn with fliers and ads promoting (literally) hundreds of different elephant camps or sanctuaries. It’s a huge market and people have been coming to Thailand with the sole purpose of seeing elephants for decades. According to a study conducted by World Animal Protection (WAP), of the 30 million international visitors to Thailand in 2016, 13 million planned to arrange elephant related excursions during their time abroad.
But things are slightly different now. Yes, there are still plenty of elephant attractions, but now they’re all accompanied by another marketing buzzword: Ethical. In recent years, with the rise of consciousness surrounding animal rights and welfare, a few notable sanctuaries have attained financial success without offering rides, forcing the animals to do tricks, or chaining them to their posts. Following their success, countless other sanctuaries began to appear with similar business models, and similar practices (though some do still offer rides and shows), and while yes, it is good that this issue is receiving more widespread attention, there are still some very serious ethical implications to consider:
1. Rehabilitation. Thailand was once 91% forested, but now it’s around 30%. On the flip side, there are also more elephants in captivity than there are in the wild. As it currently stands, there is no hope for rehabilitation into the natural habitat, as that habitat no longer exists. Do we aim our focus at the restoration of suitable environments? Or do we focus on making these domesticated elephants comfortable as we provide hospice for the Thai elephant as a whole?
2. They are still working animals. Even though it’s less strenuous than the alternative, it isn’t natural for elephants to be bathed in rivers multiple times a day, or have face to face encounters with crowds of humans. The animals still need to generate an income, and although human interaction is harmful, it’s necessary to appease the tourism machine. Is it not enough to simply observe the animals from a distance and know that our contributions will help them? Or do they need to somehow ‘earn’ our money by having some kind of personal interaction with us and with the thousands of other tourists who simply come and go?
3. Motivation and exploitation. Another thing that we need to look at is the motivation behind the administration of these parks. If the motivation is solely financial then we should consider alternatives, because these parks will cut corners when it comes to providing for their elephants, and their workers (many of which are undocumented and just as exploited as the elephants)
I urge my fellow travelers to not be contented or pacified by the word ‘ethical’. Do your own research and make that decision for yourself.
As for paving the way to truly ethical treatment of animals and locals alike, we must change the nature of our requests. If the intent is to truly make a positive impact, then we need to be mindful and not lose sight of that. We need to change our expectations as tourists, and ultimately, we need to change as people.