Among travelers to
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
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
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
I return from 3 days of learning about elephant training more of an elephant lover and with more mixed feelings about the life of the domestic elephant.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Center offers a multi-day mahout training course that enables a tourist to live at the center for 3 days to learn about elephants and elephant training, their relationship with their trainer (the mahout) and general elephant/mahout life. The course includes accommodation for 2 nights, 5 meals and all instruction for about $125. Below is one day in the mahout training program.
: Awake from our basic bungalow style houses and don our very flattering mahout uniforms- blue denim pants that tie at the waist and a button-down shirt. I remark that I look like a prisoner.
: Me, Yuri (from
: The mahout “Tit” and I reach Lu Khan, my elephant for 3 days. The 50 feet of chain that kept her in place overnight is stretched to the full length and she shows excitement as we approach. much of the vegetation surrounding her is either flattened or eaten. Lu Khan is covered with dirt that she threw onto herself overnight to cool down and keep the flies away. Tit has Lu Khan lay down with the command “map long” and he uses his machete to scrape away the dirt and unchains her from the tree.
: I mount Lu Khan for the trip home. During the trek she willfully veers off course to grab some greenery just off the trail. She is graceful in the mud, taking every step carefully and never slipping down hills. I think that she is the best all-terrain vehicle ever.
: Between the jungle and the
: We arrive at the center and Lu Khan gets fresh water and sugar cane while we scrub her even more. Tit and Lu Khan disappear and Yuri, Kristine and I have breakfast after a quick change of clothes.
: We meet back at show grounds for training. I practice with Tit and Lu Khan. A command of “Song Soong!” causes Lu Khan to pick up her right leg, enabling me to climb up her using an ear and handful of tough skin. “Tag Loong” enables me to slide off the front of her head. It’s obvious that my commands don’t matter- she only really listens to Tit, her mahout for the last 9 years. After practice she eats bananas and more sugar cane with me on her neck along with dried bananas. As soon as I get the package of dried bananas, her trunk appears in front of me, begging for some and breathing elephant breath on my face. Mmm elephant breath.
: All the elephants and mahouts (including us students) meet near the back of the center for more eating. The elephants steal food out of one another’s mouths with no protest. The mahouts lounge on their elephants so comfortably it looks like they could take a nap. I’m not quite so comfortable.
: A crowd of spectators gathers near the river beside the center and we ride the elephants into the river for bath #2. This one is mostly for the crowd, but it doesn’t matter to Lu Khan. I get soaked again as I do my best to throw more water to clean her hide. Some elephants spray each other and the mahouts are pre-occupied with a snake that has been sighted on the other side of the river. We appear in many pictures.
: The elephants and mahouts ride through the crowd to the show grounds where they show the crowd a few tricks, how they move logs and some cheesy things like painting and playing music. The next day I will be part of the show, but not today.
: The show ends and I mount Lu Khan while she eats more. Then more practice. The elephants are chained by the foot near food if they are not currently involved with the mahout.
Eat Lunch- Home cooked fried rice.
: We walk to the elephant hospital with an English speaking guide. I am grateful to have access to him as Tit knows little English and I had many questions. The hospital has about 10 elephants. 3 with deformities, one with a gunshot wound, a couple in “poor condition”. The biggest problem for elephants is constipation, which can easily kill them. Judging from the amount of pooh they create, this is not surprising. We learn that the numbers of Thai Elephants are declining and the hospital does not have the money it needs.
: We meet the mahouts to return the elephants to the park where they stay overnight. A few lengths of chain is placed around Lu Khan’s neck and she knows what is happening and is visibly excited- ears flapping, tail wagging. I mount her and off we go.
pm: It’s time for the 3rd bath of the day on the way to the jungle. Once again, I get soaked to the bone with a huge smile on my face.
: Tit picks out a spot of the hillside where Lu Khan will spend the night (he uses a new spot each night). He ties the chain to a tree and also attaches her front feet together with a small amount of chain. She can walk and move around, but not aggressively. This prevents her from breaking the chain and is the hardest sight for me to bear. For the rest of the night she will graze in the area until she lays down to sleep, when she will yawn and dream, just like us.
pm: Tit invites us back to his house in the mahout village. His family lives in a modest home that he built himself. I can see through the floorboards to the dogs and chickens below. In addition to being a mahout, he fixes motorbikes. He has a proud picture of a young 4 year old Lu Khan displayed on his wall, like a proud father. Tit repairs a motorbike while we are there. We walk back to the bungalow and rest until dinner. This is Tit- notice pictures of Lu Khan in the background.
This is his house in the mahout village:
This is his house in the mahout village:
: We meet at one of the homes and start chopping vegetables over shots of home made rice whiskey that one of the mahouts made. It is red and tastes like cough syrup. We eat a basil chicken dish along with rice and stir fried veggies. Very good food served on the floor of the open air kitchen area. After dinner we watch world cup soccer and play cards with a few mahouts before going to bed.
: Retire to bed and wait for the rain to come, as it does every few hours. Look forward to waking at to collect the elephants back in the jungle.
The experience at the
Though they are very well cared-for at the center, their size and potential for destruction requires that they lead a life in bondage- chained to a tree or the floor consistenly. Being domesticated from birth, this lifestyle is a reality to the elephant in the way that a dog is kept in a kennel or a rabbit in a cage. I left with the feeling that the elephants at the center are quite happy, but there are many in the country (and world) that are not so happy and it pains me to think of the life they lead. Thankfully, organizations like the
Though they say that the classes are sold out until August, I somehow got myself into a three-day "homestay" elephant mahout training course, starting tomorrow. It's through the much-respected Thai Elephant Conservation Center, which offers 1 day, 3 day and 10-30 day courses where you learn to care for, bathe, ride and train a single elephant. This should be really, really interesting. I do love those beasts.
Sachi isn't going to join me, so she is going to party solo in Chaing Mai for a few days- our first (even hours) apart in six months.
More info on the course here.
Chiang Mai is the northern city that makes up the mountainous part of what I would call the Big Three regions of
From the moment we arrived, we started to get a good feeling for Chiang Mai. It doesn’t have the colossal population, traffic and pollution of
Chiang Mai is also the jumping off point for the surrounding mountains that offer access to the Thai Hill Country Tribes, rivers, elephant camps and beautiful scenery. After seeing so much of the beach, it was nice to venture up into the mountains recently for a one day trek (US$25 per person). Trekking is big business in Chiang Mai and we were a bit overwhelmed with all the choices. In the end, we choose a day that included a visit to an elephant camp, two hill tribes, a waterfall and a trip on a bamboo raft. We were skeptical and the tour exceeded our expectations. Here are some of the things we saw:
After an hour or so in a minivan with a fun group of Aussies and Austrians, we arrived at an elephant camp. I have a soft spot for elephants and I get a little conflicted when it comes to riding them and seeing them used purely for human amusement. The fact is that most of the elephants in Thailand are working elephants used in the lumber industry, which was banned in 1989. This left a large population of elephants unemployed and many were abandoned by their owners. Tourism offer a sustainable way for the domesticated elephants to remain healthy and live quite well with their life-long companion, the mahout. Here is a mahout with his bathing elephant trying to get completely sumerged:
There are a number of hill tribes in Northern Thailand and most migrated from China and Burma. The Karen tribe is the largest and has a few hundred-thousand members. We learned that they are traditionally animist, meaning that they believe in the spirits of living things. However, about 80% have recently been converted to Christianity. While they see tourists every day, it seems that their village life is still quite traditional and tourists aren't allowed in most areas.
We did visit what was called a "hill tribe" but resembled more of a gift shop with a few huts around it. Not great.
One of the highlights was floating down a river on a bamboo raft. Touristy? Yes. Fun? Very much so. I got to do my best to be the aft guide...
We did some trekking through the woods, where Sachi tried her best to avoid bugs:
We crossed some super-sketchy bamboo bridges...
And had a better time than we expected.