Elephant Riding | Thailand
I'm not going to pretend that I've always thought elephant riding was unethical because I haven't. In fact, when I was planning my trip to Thailand riding an elephant was at the top of my wish list.
I'd heard whispers of animal cruelty surrounding this industry but on the whole I was blissfully ignorant. I remember googling 'ethical places to ride elephants' and (unsurprisingly) not coming up with any hits. What did come up, however, was the truth.
Call me dramatic, call me a deluded vegan or even an "animal rights wanker" - I honestly do not care. Elephants are not toys.
So what's brought all this on? What's made me unleash my inner animal rights activist? Well, the other day I did my best to hold me tippy tongue whilst I sat and listened to an Englishman's pro-elephant riding monologue. There was no way his message was lost in translation.
This guy used to work at an elephant establishment near Ayutthaya. I'm not exactly sure what it's called or whether it's the same company in the photos, but their services seem to be the same. At first the organisation sounded quite good: they rescued elephants from the city streets or elephants that were deemed dangerous and gave them a new home. Since logging became illegal, thousands of elephants effectively became 'jobless' and as a result their mahouts (owners) turned to tourism. The elephants were forced to beg or perform on city streets or they ferried tourists around. When my parents honeymooned in Thailand, baby elephants were paraded around the pool for entertainment. This organisation appeared to give these elephants a way out.
But I then someone asked him if the elephants were allowed to roam freely, he snorted and said no, they were chained up. Sarcasm? Unfortunately not. He continued by calling people who thought elephants should be free 'stupid' and 'naive'. He then went on to say that the elephants worked to earn money for those who couldn't - a nice, logical sentiment until he then revealed that they were breeding the elephants too. A breeding programme. Fine. Okay. Anything to help the conservation of elephants, but literally breeding them to work? That leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
What do I find most repulsive about the whole elephant riding industry? The training. Baby elephants are taken from their mothers, tied up, beaten and starved until they become subservient to humans. This delightful process is known as 'breaking the elephant's spirit' or 'crushing the elephant'. If you don't believe me you can find out more about the process here - there's also a video but I haven't dared watch it.
It's a tough situation: on the one hand this is blatant animal cruelty, yet on the other it provides the income to support thousands of families. Personally the latter argument doesn't cut it for me, neither does saying 'but the Thais have worked with elephants for thousands of years!'. Alternatives can be found.
I sincerely hope this post makes you think twice about riding elephants and supporting this horrific industry.
I'd also like to mention that you may recall my camel safari a few weeks ago and so I want to address that hypocrisy. I'll hold my hands up and admit it. I was already torn up about the idea, but seeing the camels branded and whipped just increased my guilt - as it should have. Whilst I absolutely loved camping in the desert, I wouldn't recommend camel riding to anyone.