Among the things to do in Thailand, volunteering with elephants is 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.
Elephant Welfare in Thailand
In Southeast Asia, elephants are often abused and treated unethically for the benefit of mass tourism – they are used for tourist activities like elephant riding, circus shows, and are poached for their ivory. It breaks my heart to know this goes on, but thankfully there are elephant sanctuaries committed to rescuing elephants to feed, clean and nurturing them back to health.
Patara Elephant Sanctuary focuses on young elephants that are mothers and fathers with the potential to reproduce. There work is helping to combat the declining elephant rate in Thailand. In the last 45 years, half of the Thai elephant population has disappeared. Today, only about 6,000 elephants are left.
Did you know, baby elephants can 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. But this little one was sooo playful and full of energy, I just wanted to take her home!
Dan’s elephant was named “Maboondee” and she loved to tickle!
We each had an elephant to look after for the day, to clean, brush, and bathe. A dirty elephant is a good sign that it’s healthy – it means the elephant slept well, and layed down to rest the night before. Ear flipping is also a positive sign that elephants are friendly and happy (elephants should flip their ears every minute at least).
Should you ride an elephant or not?
Elephants are one of the largest animals in the world, but they are also one of the most sensitive. They can continue to suffer years of emotional and physical distress from abuse.
Although Patara is not a riding camp, mahouts do ride them a very short distance to take them back into the forest to sleep and relax for the night in their natural habitat, away from visitors. The riding is done bareback and without those hard trekking-chairs, which are often used at other camps. There is research that shows this is the least painful way to ride elephants, but there is also research which supports any riding can be harmful to them.
Some people in our volunteer group decided to ride but personally, we didn’t feel comfortable with the idea so Dan and I decided to walk alongside them instead.
We’re not elephant experts with enough sound knowledge. Because of this, we didn’t want to make a decision that could have been potentially harmful or exploitive to the animals.
You can still get the most out of your experience if you choose not to ride elephants. It was the most amazing feeling playing, feeding, and bathing these rescued elephants that we didn’t feel we needed to ride them to enjoy our encounter with them. I think travellers can still have an equally memorable experience like 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 in the camp this way they are able give each one their personal attention
- visitors are limited and the camp allows only 8 visitors at one time
- there is about 10km of open land giving elephants plenty of space 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 a blogger and elephant advocate 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 ask yourself when choosing to volunteer with elephants:
- are elephants chained at the camp?
- 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 to make a difference. Where and how 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 that some elephant sanctuaries are not perfect but Patara does rescue elephants who need to be cared for, which would otherwise be left in torturous or abusive conditions somewhere else. They do put an emphasis on the elephants’ welfare and it seems like a good step towards helping the elephant population in a sustainable and ethical way.
I was a guest of Tourism Thailand on assignment for their #ThailandInsider campaign in Chiang Mai but as always, all opinions are my own.