According to a report of the animal rights NGO, as many as 40% of tourists from the top 10 countries visiting Thailand said they had been on or were planning to do an elephant ride. But, the elephants were not born to carry heavy and cumbersome saddles on their extremely weak backs.
Traveling to the Far East is a big opportunity to see new lands, meet new people, learn new languages, taste new foods and, for many, get close to the wildlife that you may only have seen in documentaries. The elephant is one of the most amazing creatures in the world. For many visitors, interacting with elephants is at the top of their holiday wish list. Their majesticity, their intelligence, their family-oriented nature, their long trunks, and their amazing tusks: who wouldn’t want to see them? Sadly, most visitors are unaware of the cruelty and pain going on behind the scenes to make these elephants to do their tricks or trek the jungle with a big iron chair on their backs. Never before domesticated like dogs or horses, elephants are wild animals even if they born in captivity. To make them obey, their spirits are broken in a process known as “phajaan”, which means “crushing”. These tightly-bonded family animals are separated from their mothers, kept in inadequate conditions and are subject to cruel training procedures to learn to behave. That’s not exactly the stuff that you want your holidays to be made of, do you? One of Exotic Voyages’ most famed travel experts, Ms. Tran Thuy, who specializes in Thailand, a country has between 3,000 to 4,000 elephants living in captivity, will tell you how to support and become a kind friend to these highly-intelligent animals when you visit them in Thailand, or any other elephant park in the world.
Although elephants should be relaxing in the forest the whole time, there’s not enough adequate land to release them back into because they need a lot of room to move around and find their food. When both the mahouts and their elephants need to be fed, ethical tourism is the only method found thus far to pay for their living costs and sanctuaries can be the best option for captive elephants.
Tran Thuy is playing with a baby elephant in Patara Elephant Farm, Chiang Mai, Thailand
While the wild elephant is protected, their captive cousins have no laws protecting them. There are no standards for elephant camps, parks, or sanctuaries, elephant related activities are not regulated. This means they can be ridden all day, can be restrained with bullhooks to control their wild nature (which tourist never see), or they have to carry as many tourists that can fit on their backs. If you see sanctuaries that have elephants displaying unnatural behaviors such as dancing or painting, don’t visit them - this is being done for the owners’ financial benefit, not for the elephants themselves. Please do research before you plan to visit, travel to the right sanctuaries that have enough space for them to live and roam, and treat them adequately, and stay away from places where hooks, chains, and punishment are used to control the animals.
A baby elephant is trying to help his friend. This photo was taken at Patara Elephant Farm, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Spend your time learning about the elephant's natural habitat, typical behaviors as well as about the mahout’s life to have a deeper understanding of the gentle creatures. In a sanctuary, you’ll learn about what you should and shouldn’t do to the elephants, such as not frightening them or not standing behind them and pulling their tails. Be nice to them and say “didi” as often as possible, it’s like saying “good boy!”. You can say an elephant has health problems if you notice these signs:
- Its tail doesn’t swish from side to side
- Its ears don’t flap as usual
- It sits or lies down instead of standing
- Its eyes don’t produce tears (In fact, when an elephant sheds its tears, that doesn’t always mean they are crying. They produce the tears to protect and lubricate their eyes)
You can also know about the elephant’s health issues by testing their… feces. Yes, you’ve read the right word. It may sound disgusting, but an elephant’s poop can say a lot about its health. There are a few ways that you can learn from it:
- Smell: Since elephants only digest 45% of their food, and their waste product is mostly fiber, elephant feces smells like the food they ate. Therefore, if it doesn’t have the smell of grass, leaves, or crops, it might be suffering from a sickness.
- Look: The elephant’s feces has the same color as the food that it consumes. If the feces is black, it might have a digestive problem.
- Count: An elephant produces an average a whopping 50 kilograms of feces per day. If the amount is less than that, it might have to see a veterinarian.
Smell the elephant's feces to check its health
On average, an elephant spends about 16 hours of each day consuming 300-400 pounds of food including grasses, leaves, bark, roots and many kinds of crops. Preparing food for the elephants is a tough job that can take many hours a day, so any help is always appreciated! Feed the elephants with bananas, watermelons, and sugarcane which are their favorite foods. Say “Ma” to make them come close to you, then say “Bon” to make them lift their trunks so you can put the food into their mouths. Or, you can raise your arm over your head to make the elephant lift its trunk, too. Gently pat on their trunks to praise them. In some sanctuaries, they also teach you how to make elephant food from rice and sugarcane. You pound the mixture in a huge mortar then form round balls which are called “vitamins” for the elephants.
The elephants love banana and sugarcane
Say “Bon” to make them lift their trunks so you can put the banana into their mouths
Do you know that, like the human being, elephants can also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? These sensitive souls need comfort rather than tragedy. Although they’ve been released from abusive situations and have found safety at the sanctuaries, they may show symptoms of PTSD long after. Therefore, when you have the chance to get close to these beautiful creatures, show them your love. Touch their skin, pat their trunks, fondle their ears, and have fun with them, have them wrap their trunks around you for a nice cuddle and help them to release their long lasting memories of pain and suffering.
Show them your love and get their love back
Elephant skin is over an inch thick, but because it’s loaded with nerve endings, their skin is highly sensitive. They often throw mud and sand onto their backs to protect themselves from the sun and to cool themselves down. Therefore, their skin is always covered by a thick layer of dirt, home to many insects. To help in cleaning their skin, have the elephant sit down by pushing downward with one of your heels. Hold a few small tree branches to sweep the dust off their skin and if you see their ears and tail flapping, they are showing their happiness and enjoyment.
Use a bunch of leaves to clean their skin
Elephants often must roam at least seven miles each day to find food, so water is not only fun but it also provides many benefits. Their joints in their legs get a break while they are floating in the water. Elephants love mud bathing too. Their skin may look more wrinkled than an 80-year-old granny, but these wrinkles are not related to their age, they help to hold the moisture of the mud to soften on their skin. When you bathe an elephant, apply mud on their bodies to keep them cool and soft, then wash their skin in the pool. It’s an amazing experience to see the happy beasts lying down in the water enjoying their spa treatment. Watch out though, their trunks can suck up as much as 2 gallons of water at a time, and they may spray it up in the air to surprise you!
The elephants love to be in the water.
They know how to make you laugh
Volunteers are very much needed at the sanctuaries. Many sanctuaries have volunteer programs which allow you to help them in taking care of their elephants. This experience allows you to observe elephants in their natural habitat. You will learn tons about elephants, plant their food, feed them their food, bathe them, and walk with them. You will also help to develop a friendly tourism environment and be able to instruct others on how to treat the elephants ethically.
Who doesn't want to take care of these beautiful animals?
A number of ethical sanctuaries which allow the elephants to live in a natural, large space, provide them with the correct foods and veterinary care are increasing in Thailand. If you are looking for a place to visit, we have a blog post about ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that you can trust. Here are some tours offering ethical elephant experiences in which you can support the elephant and show that you care.
1. Home To The Elephants: You will spend a week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park. Each day you will help prepare the food and feed them, bath them in the river. Elephant Nature Park is considered to be a pioneer among ethical elephant sanctuaries where you can interact with more than 200 beautiful beasts in a variety of activities. The park also has rescue projects for dogs, cats, buffaloes and many other animals.
2. Thailand Elephant Tour: You learn how to communicate and interact with the elephants in the Elephant Nature Park under the instruction of your private trained staff. Stay overnight at the park and get back to these beautiful animals the next morning.