Sometimes in life we have to admit when we have made a mistake. And so, I have to face up to a huge travel mistake I made years ago. I was apprehensive about writing this post. It means admitting I did something that I now tell others they shouldn’t be doing. I rode and elephant in Thailand, and it was the biggest travel mistake I ever made.
In my early twenties, I threw on my backpack and headed off to South East Asia like so many before me, my head filled with a bucket list of things I wanted to do. The “banana pancake” trail is well worn, and unsurprisingly a lot of people end up doing the same activities -Full Moon party, tubing in Laos, Halong Bay, Angkor Wat sunrise…. Something I knew I wanted to do was ride an elephant in Thailand. I guess it was always just in my head, something I perceived as a “Thailand must do”, and I thought I could do it ethically. I was wrong.
Chiang Mai, North Thailand, seemed like the perfect place. There were advertisements everywhere for various different companies offering elephant rides. I have always classed myself as an animal lover, and so I was adamant I wanted to find an ethical elephant riding camp, with no baskets on the animals back, or tricks and shows put on for tourists. I found one place that seemed to have great reviews, and touted themselves as being different, a sanctuary for abandoned and ex- circus elephants. It boasted that you would spend the full day there, learning about the elephants life and care, and there were absolutely no baskets on the backs of the animals. I thought to myself, this is great! A chance to interact with Elephants that have been saved.
I arrived at the camp with a mini bus full of other tourists, and we were left to roam around and feed the elephants. To be so close to such a beautiful animal was an amazing feeling. You really appreciate the size of them, the reality that they could do serious damage with just a flick of their feet, and yet they seem so calm and serene.
We clambered onto the animals bare backs and set off on a walk across the hillside. During the walk, the “Mahout” (elephant trainer) would prod the animal in certain places, mostly behind the ears, with a stick. Not particularly hard, but it would cause the animal to respond. Then I noticed sores in those places, and it started to make me think – why does this elephant respond so readily to a gentle poke? I started feeling a little uneasy, like I was doing something I shouldn’t be.
Years later, and I still feel guilty. I am now more educated, and can easily see now that these elephants were probably treated the same as every other poor animal which is used for making money. Basket or no basket, these animals were likely victims of a practice known as “crushing”, or “breaking the elephants spirit“. Baby elephants are ripped from their mothers, kepy in tiny cages and poked and prodded with a “Bull Hook”. This torture goes on for weeks, leaving the elephants helpless and at the mercy of their “trainers”. These poor animals go on to live a miserable life.
So whilst many Asian countries may tout their Elephant camps as “Ethical”, there is usually more than meets the eye. If in doubt, just avoid. If no tourist had the desire to ride an Elephant, eventually there would be no demand to “break the spirit” of these beautiful animals.
I know I have contributed to an unethical tourist trap, and it breaks my heart. And that is why I urge all tourists not to make the same mistake I did.
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