Should We Be Riding Elephants in Thailand?

By: leelefever on June 22, 2006 - 3:48am

Among travelers to Thailand (myself included) and readers of posts like this, a few questions come to mind. They include:

Should we be riding around on elephants?  Isn’t the elephant being exploited? Is it inhumane for elephants to be used for tourism?

Of course we all wish the elephants could live in the wild and be undisturbed by humans.  However, for about the last 4500 years, elephants have been captured, domesticated and used for transportation, labor and even warfare.   For thousands of years, the elephant has been living with and around humans and over that time we humans have learned the requirements for ensuring that the relationship is stable and productive.  One of the outgrowths of these years of domestication is the role of mahout, which is the elephant’s trainer- an essential and vital role for the elephant and human.  For the last three days, I learned a little about being a mahout and his relationship with the elephant. These are mahouts with their elephants at the Thai  Elephant Conservation Center:

The mahout has a unique relationship with the elephant- one that can last decades.  When an elephant is born into domestication, it is assigned a mahout who will be responsible for the elephant for the mahout’s whole life.  In fact, some elephants outlive their mahouts (elephants can live 80+ years) and the elephant is then often passed down to the mahout’s son. As you might imagine, a strong bond develops between the mahout and the elephant that goes beyond trainer and animal.  When I asked about the nature of the relationship, it was described as companionship.  The elephant seeks the company of the mahout and feels at home with the mahout on his back- they are a lifelong team.

As I experienced, the relationship is not one purely of hugs and treats.  As dog owners know, a dog seeks to be the alpha (dominant) dog in the family and if it perceives that it has reached this role, it will become less trainable and try to dominate the humans. The same basic idea is true with the elephants.  The mahout must maintain a relationship with the elephant that ensures that the elephant is not dominant, but submissive to the mahout.  A dominant elephant can be lethal.

How do you dominate an elephant? Unfortunately, is partially through pain, or at least the threat of pain.  Elephants are incredible heavy, strong, willful and tough animals. In order for the mahout to be able to train the elephant, he must have some way to send positive and negative messages.  Along with voice commands and touching, the tool of choice for mahouts is an ominous looking pointed metal hook called an ankus. This hook is used to guide the elephant and to correct poor behavior.  Though it seems a bit barbaric to the layperson, this evolved over many years and ensures that the elephant and mahout have mutual respect. 

For hundreds of years in Thailand, elephants were domesticated for working in the logging industry.  Their mahouts trained them to do the heavy lifting required in moving logs.  While not necessarily a happy existence for the animals, it ensured that the mahout could have money to feed and care for the elephant. In 1989 the Thai government banned commercial logging in Thailand. This event left many mahouts and elephants unemployed and forced some onto the streets of Bangkok. Keeping an unemployed elephant fed and cared-for is no easy task and often means disaster for the mahout and his family. Suddenly, the elephants became more of a liability than a source of income and many elephants were abandoned or killed in a sad turn of events.  Today there are between 3-5000 elephants in Thailand (domestic and wild) and their numbers are falling about 3% a year. 

Today, many elephants have found a new home by working in the eco-tourism industry.  Elephants that are sufficiently trained and mild-mannered can now be supported through tourism.  By offering rides through the jungle, elephant shows and elephant education, the mahouts and their elephants can support themselves without the logging industry.  For many elephants, working conditions are greatly improved and as more tourists come to Thailand more elephants can be supported.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center was created by the government to educate the public about elephants and works to ensure their survival in the future.  Part of the center’s mission is to promote the elephant as an element of eco-tourism- an element that is healthy, sustainable and promotes increased understanding of the animals.  Unfortunately, a lot of work needs to be done.  Elephant numbers are declining and there are many sick and starving elephants in Thailand with no means of support.

So, to return to the original questions…

Should we be riding around on these animals?  Isn’t the elephant being exploited? Is it inhumane for elephants to be used for tourism?

Of course, this is a personal decision.  I realize that many readers will not ride an elephant on principle alone.  However, I hope that I’ve provided information here that illustrates a bit of the complex circumstances of the elephants in Thailand. It is my perspective that by becoming educated about domestic elephants and choosing to patronize respectable eco-tourism operators in Thailand, you can have a positive impact on the precarious situation of these beautiful animals. Your tourist dollars can help.

See also: My experiences with the  3 day Mahout Training at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center.