How to interact ethically with elephants in Thailand

For many people, riding on the back of an elephant in Thailand is the ultimate bucket list experience. However, there’s now overwhelming evidence to support claims by animal welfare experts that this form of tourism is harmful for Asia’s gentle giants.

Unbeknown to many travellers, newly-captive and captive-born Asian elephants are traditionally subject to systematic abuse in order to ‘train’ them to accept riders and perform in shows. It might also come as a surprise to learn that elephants don’t have very strong backs. Experts claim that adult elephants can only support a maximum of around 150kgs on the middle of their back for up to four hours per day, but many of Thailand’s elephants work eight hour shifts, carrying two riders at a time. Metal seats, which tend to be used over lighter bamboo versions, add an extra 50kgs. And this is before factoring in whether these elephants have adequate access to water, healthy food (not just sugary bananas handed out by tour operators) and shade.

Armed with this information, it’s easy to argue that supporting elephantourism in Thailand is wrong. However, Thailand’s elephant ‘problem’ is a complex issue. There are thought to be fewer than 5000 elephants left in Thailand, yet a whopping 4000 of them are captive – and the latter still need to be fed and exercised, and financially support their mahout (traditional carer). Following Thailand’s 1989 ban on using elephants for logging, many mahouts claim that without charging tourists for rides and shows, they and their animals would starve – elephants cost a minimum of 1000B per day to feed properly.

Fortunately, there are a small but growing number of elephant refuge centres in Thailand that are employing more sustainable methods to keep tourists, elephants and their mahouts happy. All of which run comprehensive volunteering programs if a short visit isn’t enough.

One of them, located not far away from Hua Hin is Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, Petchaburi. WFFT runs nine animal welfare projects across Thailand ranging from an elephant refuge and education centre to a marine research and rescue outfit and a gibbon rehabilitation program. The elephant refuge camp is equipped for day visits, during which guests will learn about the conservation issues threatening Thailand’s elephants before taking some of the residents for their daily walk and shower. Visitors will also follow WFFT’s volunteers on their feed out to the 350 rescued animals at the centre, and get to see the bears and monkeys enjoy their meal.

Contact your Service Manager if you wish to book a day trip to WFFT if you are a guest in one of our our villas.