Everyone says you’ve got to see the elephants when you go to Thailand. Unlike most people I know Dan and I are just not animal people. We’ve never really been. But when you get to encounter gigantic life size creatures like elephants it becomes an experience you just never forget.
We got to spend the day volunteering as a “mahout” (elephant keeper) at the Patara Elephant sanctuary about 30km west of Chiang Mai in Samoeng. We spent the day playing with rescued elephants, feeding, bathing and caring for them.
Baby elephants gain as much as 1 kilo a day! This one was born at 120kg already and as an adult they can weigh 3-5 tonnes! They have to learn how to walk one hour after they’re born and if they can’t, it’s not a good sign. She was sooo playful I just wanted to take her home!
Dan’s elephant was named “Maboondee”. It’s important to brush them clean although a dirty elephant is a sign that it’s healthy – it means the elephant slept well, lying down the night before. Ear flipping is also a sign your elephant is friendly and happy (elephants should flip their ears every minute at least).
Elephant Welfare in Thailand
There are so many videos and articles out there about the abuse and mistreatment of elephants. In the last 45 years, half of the Thai elephant population has disappeared – sometimes they are forced into entertainment or circuses and often, they have been poached for their ivory. Today, only about 6000 elephants are left.
During the time that we spent there, we found Patara to be fairly ethical in their practises however, they do offer elephant riding. At the end of the day, volunteers take them into the nearby forest to sleep and relax for the night in their natural habitat away from visitors. People in our volunteer group decided to ride them into the forest.
Personally, we didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of riding so Dan and I walked with them instead.
Should you ride elephants or not?
I’m not educated enough to judge the full impact of elephant riding but something just didn’t feel right for us to do it. I do know elephants are some of the largest animals, but they can also be the most sensitive and continue to suffer years of emotional and physical distress from abuse, being forced into circuses or poached for their ivory for example. It was the most amazing feeling playing, feeding, and bathing these elephants that we didn’t feel we needed to ride them to enjoy our encounter with them.
At Patara, the mahouts ride elephants bareback without hard trekking-chairs which some other camps use, so it is the least painful way to ride elephants. On the other hand, there is also research that says any riding can be harmful.
Because we didn’t have enough knowledge, we didn’t want to make a decision that could have been potentially harmful or exploitive to the animals. I think visitors can still have an equally memorable experience as we did, without riding if you choose not to.
How to choose an ethical elephant camp?
Before you go, you should do some research to help you choose an ethical elephant camp in Thailand. Here are my observations from my visit at Patara:
they focus on elephants that are mothers and fathers with potential to reproduce, to help combat the declining elephant rate in Thailand.
they care for only 75 elephants on the camp so they can give each one their personal attention.
visitors are limited and the camp allows only 8 visitors at a time.
there is about 10km of open land so plenty of space for elephants to roam freely.
mahouts use positive reinforcement techniques such as verbal commands, instead of sticks or bull hooks to gain compliance.
Before our trip to Thailand, I reached out to Diana Edelman, a blogger in the community who has spent years working with elephants, to get her opinion on the welfare of elephants in Thailand. Her website is a great resource if you’re deciding on volunteering with elephants. Here are also some other things to consider when choosing an elephant camp:
are the elephants chained?
is there a large area for elephants to roam freely?
does the camp sell ivory?
do the mahouts carry bull hooks?
do the elephants show signs of distress like rocking back and forth or are they social with other elephants?
I think as travellers we have a lot of power. Where we spend our money and the choices we make can have a positive impact on our planet, animals and the communities we visit.
The reality is some elephant sanctuaries may not be perfect but Patara does rescue elephants who need to be cared for that would otherwise be left in the dangerous wild, or torturous or abuse conditions somewhere else. They do put an emphasis on the elephants’ welfare and it seems like a good step towards helping them in a sustainable way.
More in this series:
I was a guest of Tourism Authority of Thailand – Canada on assignment for their #ThailandInsider campaign in Chiang Mai but as always, all opinions are my own.