Are elephant rides in Thailand ever ethical?

What kind of a holiday of a lifetime to Thailand would be complete without an elephant ride? A quick search for #elephantride shows streams of happy tourists smiling atop an elephant’s back, petting their trunks and offering bananas to snack on.

But for Scottish tourist Gareth Crowe, the dream of trekking through the forests of Koh Samui on the back of one of nature’s most magnificent beasts ended in horror earlier this month as he was said to have been thrown from the animal’s back, trampled underfoot and stabbed by its tusks.

Golf the elephant
Golf, the Thai elephant

His 16-year-old daughter fell from Golf the elephant’s back while his handler, or ‘mahout’, was also attacked by the animal but managed to escape with minor injuries. Sadly, attacks like these aren’t uncommon in South-East Asia, where elephants once used for transporting logs long distances are now put to work carrying tourists on ‘treks’ and standing next to jolly foreigners for photographs.

The incident has prompted fresh calls from animal welfare campaigners for all elephant tourist rides to end and we find ourselves asking once again, can elephant rides ever be ethical?

One such organisation fighting for an end to all elephant tourist rides is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), whose associate director, Elisa Allen, says riding elephants can never be ethical.

“While this activity is often advertised to animal-loving people under false pretences,” Allen says, “the spirit of every elephant forced to carry people has first been broken in the most sickening ways.”
Gareth Crowe, seen here with his partner Catherine Hughes, was killed on an elephant trek (Family handout)

Gareth Crowe with his partner Catherine Hughes
Gareth Crowe, seen here with his partner Caroline Hughes, was killed on an elephant trek

Allen is referring to the ruthless process of “phajaan” or “breaking the spirit” which trained elephants are subjected to. This often involves taking young elephants away from their mothers, confining them to tiny wooden crates, frightening them with flaming sticks and beating them with nail-studded rods, while depriving the animals of food, water and rest for days on end. With little regulation from the Thai government, this use of violence and forced submission is common in elephant tourism.

It’s not just the prolonged distress of training that campaigners object to; prominent animal rights activist Edwin Wiek says that elephants just aren’t built to carry humans around. Wiek is the founder and director of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, and his organisation takes care of 22 retired or sick elephants.

“Elephants’ backs are simply not built for carrying humans,” says Wiek, who has seen elephants whose spines have deformed under the weight of multiple riders and heavy saddles. “The combination of multiple riders, heavy saddles, malnutrition and not having enough space to rest properly makes giving rides very painful for these animals.”

Particularly dangerous, says Wiek, are male elephants, who go through an annual period of ‘musth’, where testosterone levels can raise by up to 60% and elephants become highly violent and easily agitated. Some reports from Koh Samui say that Golf was in musth when he attacked. “If you can imagine someone taking amphetamines and Viagra at the same time, musth is a bit like that,” says Wiek. “The elephants become completely unpredictable and dangerous.”

(Flickr Creative Commons)

But not everyone thinks elephant tourism necessarily has to equate to animal abuse – organisations such as the Thai Elephant Home in Chiang Mai put the welfare of animals first. “We focus on the quality of our elephants’ lives,” says manager Joe. “We only accept 10-12 guests a day and make sure our elephants have ample time to stop and eat or bathe in therapeutic black mud on our treks.” Unlike most elephant ride companies, the Thai Elephant home shuns heavy saddles and allows guests to ride on elephants’ necks with strictly one person per elephant, thus greatly relieving stress on the back.

Joe also believes that it’s not necessary to cruelly “break the spirit” of an elephant in order to make it give rides to humans. “We find using food as positive reinforcement along with daily integration with guests to be an excellent method to prepare young elephants for riding,” Joe explains.

“Already the mahout and smaller guests can lay across our baby elephants for short periods of time. They take it as a game and respond well to having a little extra weight even for a short period of time.”

Of course, tourists will continue to flock to Thailand to see these beautiful beasts in their native country, but Wiek urges holidaymakers to be mindful before they book a ride.

“Go to a national park and see them in the wild, or if you want to get closer, go to a rescue centre,” Wiek says. “If you really want to do a ride, make sure you do plenty of research and find the right place.”

Written for Snappa.