Is there such a thing as ethical elephant riding in Thailand?
That was the question we grappled with as we planned activities during our visit. On the one had, we had been looking forward to riding elephants from the moment we started thinking about visiting Asia. On the other hand, we had found blog posts like this one condemning elephant riding because of the treatment many elephants endure as a result of this activity.
It’s an extremely controversial issue, with strong feelings on either side. We tried to think about it with an open mind and consider all arguments.
In the end we decided that we could have an ethical elephant riding experience and it was a highlight of our trip. Read on for the full story.
Background on Elephant Riding in Thailand
Elephant riding has been a part of the culture in many parts of southeast Asia, including Thailand, for hundreds of years. Spend even a few minutes in Chiang Mai and you will realize how important these majestic creatures are in the culture. Images of elephants are everywhere, from t-shirts to temple sculptures.
For years elephants in Thailand were employed in the logging industry. When logging was essentially banned in 1989 many mahouts (elephant caretakers) and their elephants could no longer earn a living.
Elephants are extremely expensive animals to take care of. Asian elephants need to eat about 200 kg (440 pounds) of food every single day. To help pay for the care of their elephants, some mahouts started trying to earn money by tapping into the tourism market.
Unfortunately, the allure of the tourist dollar has led to many abuses. Elephants working in the tourism industry are often overworked, mistreated, malnourished, and lack adequate health care.
The Elephant Riding Debate
Our first source of travel information these days is typically from travel blogs. The conventional wisdom in the travel blogging world appears to be that elephant riding in any form is unethical. Besides the day to day mistreatment that many elephants endure, bloggers often point to the fact that many tamed elephants in Asia have endured an extremely brutal training technique when they were young referred to as “the crush”.
The argument against elephant riding is that tourist money encourages more of the same practices that have harmed elephants including the inhumane original training and day to day mistreatment. Most travel blogs about elephant tourisim in Chiang Mai advocate experiences that do not involve riding.
We agree that properly directed tourist money can help shape a more ethical world for the elephants, but saying all elephant riding is unethical makes a complicated issue too black and white.
Other guides, like our Lonely Planet book, took a more balanced approach that we think makes more sense. In practice, many visitors to Thailand make their way onto an elephant and there are many elephants in Thailand, and throughout Asia, that need care. Finding a way to provide for the elephants’ care is important.
From our research it seems that it’s not the elephant itself riding that is inhumane (if it is done properly – i.e. bareback), but certain training methods and day to day mistreatment. If elephants are well cared for and trained humanely, then riding seems an appropriate way to leverage their strength (literally) to help pay for their care and support their mahouts and mahouts’ families.
While it is true that an elephant you ride today has probably been mistreated in the past, that fact does not mean that riding an elephant today encourages future mistreatment of elephants. To the contrary, contributing to the success of organizations that rescue abused elephants and treat them humanely today provides opportunities for young elephants to be trained and cared for humanely in the future.
Elephant riding in Thailand is not going anywhere. It is part of a culture going back generations. Do we want the only elephant riding opportunities to be at the hands of unethical providers?
Rantong Save and Rescue Elephant Center
Kat spent a lot of time vetting elephant experience providers. In the end we chose Rantong Save and Rescue Elephant Center.
Rantong rescues elephants from dangerous or abusive situations and gives them a place to live and receive proper medical care. They have two camps: one where they offer riding on physically able elephants, and another where older elephants or those with physical problems are cared for and the tourist experience is limited to observing and bathing the elephants.
Our Rantong guide picked us up promptly at our hotel in a nice van with AC and leather seats. Nana and Papa were joining us for this adventure and were very happy for the comfy van! After picking up other guests around town and stopping at their office to pay for the day’s activities (the cost was 4,800 baht, $150, per elephant and up to two adults can ride one elephant). We then drove for about an hour to their camp northwest of Chiang Mai.
We hiked down several flights of steps along the hillside from the road to their camp. Along the way our guide handed out bunches of bananas to feed the elephants.
Once we arrived at the camp we found a large dirt yard with several elephants. Some of the elephants were tied or chained near the perimeter of the yard and others walked freely about with their mahouts nearby.
We fed bananas to the elephants to introduce ourselves. They eat the whole thing, skin, stalk, whatever. Green or yellow. This was really fun. Their trunks make a “whoosing” sound like a vacuum cleaner hose when grabbing a banana. The kids were a little scared and Jasper also doesn’t like getting his hands dirty. After Mommy got slobbered by the emus at the zoo he’s been skeptical of animal feeding opportunities! Eventually both Aurora and Jasper gave it a shot though.
After our introduction we changed into mahout clothes and got some instruction on directing the elephants. We learned some voice commands that the elephants occasionally respond to and then watched a demonstration on how to properly mount the elephant.
After getting aboard we rode the elephants around the field behind the yard for a bit, about 30-45 mins.
Kat and I each had an elephant, and we each took one of the kids with us. We tried our newly learned commands with as much conviction as we could muster, but our elephants mostly did what they wanted. If they really went off course the mahout would offer a banana which seemed to be a pretty effective means of elephant persuasion.
At Rantong you ride bareback, and at most they allowed two people to ride one elephant. Bareback is the safest way for the elephants, as the trekking chairs that you often see are very uncomfortable for them and can cause serious back injuries. The chairs also encourage overloading the elephants as many people can pile on. Bareback is how the mahouts do it.
Riding bareback is incredibly difficult and physically demanding. Jasper was in front of me and I had all I could do to hold on to him and the elephant. My legs were still quivering hours later from squeezing the elephant’s neck to try to stay on. The elephant also has really prickly hairs that left me with a rash on my legs for several days! The towel in the picture above is actually to help protect Jasper’s legs from these spiny hairs.
Riding along you roll and bump with every step the elephant makes. You’re sitting right above their shoulders, and as they lumber you feel their giant bones shifting beneath you. Sometimes our elephant would stop to poke at a tree or get a drink of water, and each time we had to hang on very tight to avoid sliding off.
During the ride I had a chance to talk a little with my elephant’s mahout, Tuli. He looked to be about my age or younger and was from Burma. He spoke little English but I gathered that he came over the border about a year ago to this camp. His elephant, MaeEloo, is 45 so I am assuming he is the second generation of his family to care for this elephant.
After the morning ride we all took a break for some lunch. The Rantong kitchen served up delicious Kow Soi (a famous Chiang Mai noodle soup) and some fresh fruit.
When everyone had finished lunch we mounted up again. This time the elephants brought us up the hill on the other side of the yard. Again liberal use of bananas kept everyone going in the right direction.
Then down the hill to a man made watering hole where the elephants rolled around in the water and we bathed them with buckets. It was a little scary being in the water with them but also pretty neat to be so close.
Getting into the brown water, with elephant dung floating all over, was also “refreshing” experience. Nana and Papa’s elephant luckily kept them dry, though Nana wasn’t so sure she would stay aboard in the picture below. The kids mostly watched this part from the shore.
Finally we took another short ride to the yard where the mahouts did their best to collect the elephants with us on them for a group picture.
We finished up the day with a few more bananas for the elephants, showers for us, change of clothes, and a quick snack before hopping back into the van to Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai Elephant Riding Final Thoughts
Overall we found the elephant experience at Rantong a really fun, unique day. I was personally very apprehensive about contributing to elephant tourism in Thailand before going today, but generally feel ok with it now.
I think Rantong is a very good operation. From all our interactions they seem to genuinely care about the elephants’ welfare and the elephants all seemed to be in good shape and healthy. My only quibble is that they are chained so much around the yard but otherwise they seemed to be treated very well. One elephant was roaming freely up on the hillside when we were there, so they’re not confined in the yard all the time.
There was tons of food around for them and I never saw a mahout with a bull hook. They controlled the elephants solely using their voices and some bananas and other treats. The elephants honestly do mostly what they want anyway.
I spoke with our Rantong guide (not mahout) about training a bit more and he said they only use these newer methods with the elephants (voice commands, bananas) – never physical abuse. He seemed truly saddened to talk about the “old ways” of training the elephants including “the crush” type methods, and indicated they are against such practices at Rantong.
The guide told me that if they had a new baby elephant born in the camp they would train it with bananas, etc. (i.e. positive reinforcement). They are doing this with one young elephant they have now (just over 1 yr old) though this one has already experienced the “old” ways elsewhere before being rescued at Rantong.
Rantong has not yet had a baby elephant born in the camp. Our guide explained that several of their elephants have been particularly affectionate lately, so they are hoping a baby may be in their future. They have 16 elephants now and capacity for about 30.
The fact is there are many elephants in Thailand that need something to do and someone to care for them. Camps like Rantong may not be perfect but they put a big emphasis on the elephants’ welfare and it seems like a good step towards helping them in a sustainable way.
Our family had a wonderful day interacting with these amazing creatures and we will have memories and respect for the elephants for a lifetime.