The Elephant Tourism Conundrum

There are a whole lot of Elephant sanctuaries in Northern Thailand, and their keeping is somewhat controversial. Elephants have long been an integral part of Thailand’s culture and history.  The animals have been rescued from lives of service either in circus, tourist trade or as beasts of burden. They now live a bucolic life, taking walks in the jungle alongside mesmerised tourists, and getting a daily bath in a river from people who have paid for the privilege.

When we first arrived in Thailand, visiting an Elephant rescue centre was high on our list of things to do. Of course we wouldn’t ride one – that would be cruel and inhumane. We’re good travellers. We’d only gawk at them.

But the more tourist brochures we read about the elephant farm experience, the more we felt “wrong” about visiting one. The whole point is to end the exploitation of these gentle beasts by taking them away from the jobs they were forced into. That’s lovely, isn’t it? But they’re still being exploited in the tourist trade, and for no small sum.

How many baths does an elephant need in a day? Does it make the elephants happy to stroll along the same path day after day with different people getting underfoot? What have they gone through to keep them docile enough to tolerate this unnatural behaviour?  

They’re kept in enclosures, often chained, until it’s time to trot them out for the tourists to feed them bananas and “interact” with them.

After searching our consciences, we opted not to support any of the centres, no matter how noble their mission statement might read. We passed a number of them along our drive, and I have to be honest, despite our high ideals, we eventually succumbed to the allure of the elephant.

On the road between Pai and Chiang Mai, we passed an elephant sanctuary, which had the enormous beasts corralled in a big bamboo enclosure right near the road. We pulled in, and I chatted up the lady about their programme while Austin and Mark snuck off to say hello to the elephants. We fed them bananas, we took photos, we giggled in awe of these giant beasts. It’s hard having high ideals when elephants are involved.  They’re pretty amazing.

Do we judge people who do visit elephant parks? No, we don’t. It’s easy to suckle the serotonin of doing good. But perhaps we do judge the elephant centres just a little.

I’ve no doubt the elephants are better off there than they were in their previous lives, and caring for them must be expensive. But they’re still an attraction, a money maker, and one must imagine what these beautiful intelligent creatures think of the situation themselves.

We contemplated, discussed and debated. And like many social and environmental issues, there is no easy answer, no obvious solution.

As a family, we soul searched about elephants, and that is the point of our journey. To see the world with open eyes, and shift our perspectives as we shift our longitude.

We never expected elephants to be a trigger for one of those shifts.


About the author: Shalena

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