The elephant photo has now become a ubiquitous symbol of travel to South East Asia, India and Africa. But do you know what’s at stake when you ride an elephant abroad? Short answer is: a lot.
Contrary to their massive size, elephants are not built to carry lots of humans. Their backs are weak and spiny. No matter what the local government or tourism agency says in whatever country you may be visiting, there are hardly any ways to ride them ethically or safely. You’ll find lots of places that mistakenly identify as “sanctuaries” and “rehabilitation centers.” Truth is, it’s very hard to discern which places are legit and which are total B.S.
That being said, it IS possible. Elephants are my favorite animal, and for the past year, I’ve volunteered with an organization called World Elephant Day to help keep them on our planet (Shameless plug) . Through this experience, I’ve learned about ethical elephant tourism, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned with all of you because this is really important to me.
You absolutely can still engage with elephants while you’re on holiday somewhere tropical, as long as you find an ethical place! Here’s a few Do’s and Dont’s to help you out with planning your ellie excursion.
Bathe, play, feed
These are all highly encouraged activities! Fun fact – probably the only Thai word I still remember is BonBon (sweet/candy). I said it repeatedly as a signal to open wide while I fed my ellie friend some pineapple. She gulped down half a pineapple in less than a second, followed by a ton of bananas.
Avoid places that chain the elephants
You wouldn’t chain your dog up all day, would you? An elephant should be no different.
Research, research, research!
Everyone is going to call their lodge “safe” and try to convince you that they take amazing care of the elephants. I wish I could give you a great guide so you can just pick one of the places on this list. Truth is, one doesn’t exist yet. Not one that’s been universally accepted, anyway. So in the interim, read reviews of the sanctuary, look at pictures. Don’t just go somewhere because you saw it posted on social media. (Side note: That includes Tiger temples. I know this post is about elephants, but on what crazy planet do you think laying down next to a tiger is a natural thing to do? They are drugged, and they are drugged heavily. It doesn’t make you look cute/cool on Tinder, BTW.)
Show them lots of love
Elephants are just as empathetic as humans. It might seem scary to be around such a massive creature at first, but if you show them compassion they’ll sense your kind demeanor and be as docile as a puppy. They’ll give you kisses with their trunk and maybe even pick you up 🙂
Ride an elephant with a rug on its back and or a wooden chair
Any kind of chair or manmade structure is an absolute NO. And think about it, would you really want a rug on your back when it’s 100 degrees outside? They need a lot of water, all day long, and those decorations just make it even hotter for them.
Watch an elephant show
They are not meant to paint with their trunks or stand on one foot. This isn’t the circus (and circuses are horrible, too). It’s bad enough that we’ve domesticated these gigantic creatures for tourism and our personal entertainment, but it’s 20x worse when you go somewhere that trains them to participate in these shows. It’s not natural and they’re often hurt in the process of training for their show.
Leave your phone in your pocket
Ok, maybe this was just me. But I was in such a euphoric state that I didn’t realize when we were going into the water for bath time. My phone was completely shot after that. #worthit
So what’s a mahout anyway?
It’s the term used throughout South East Asia to describe elephant trainers. They tend to live with the pachyderms, feeding, bathing, riding, training, etc.
…And if I still want to ride one?
If after reading this you absolutely still must (and I am guilty of doing this before I knew better) you can get away with it one person at a time, barebacked, riding on their shoulders. It doesn’t hurt them too much and is the least controversial way to ride. That is not to say that it isn’t still controversial, though.
One of the biggest regrets I have (and I rarely have any) is not getting the name of the sanctuary I went to. I booked it with a Thai travel agency in Bangkok. They planned the whole thing, completely in Thai, and I was the only person there. It was just outside of Chiang Mai in the hilltops. I know this may not be helpful…lol.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Comment below if you’ve had a great, ethical experience somewhere you think deserves a shout out. Do your research on places before you go, and feel free to ask me if you think a certain place seems legit or not.