How to Interact with Elephants (Ethically!) in Thailand

by  Karen Gardiner | Jul 12, 2016
Anantara Golden Triangle
Anantara Golden Triangle / Karen Gardiner

Given the elephant's association with royalty and Buddhism, and its historical role in battle and industry, anyone who has visited Thailand will be familiar with the Kingdom’s reverence for these gentle giants. Yet despite the strong bond between Thai people and their national animal, the situation of elephants in Thailand is worrisome.

Thailand’s now-illegal logging industry has led to masses of wild elephants being captured and forced into hard labor while their habitats were destroyed. Today, there are thought to be less than 1,000 in the wild and around 4,000 who live in captivity. Since logging was made illegal in Thailand, mahouts (elephants’ lifelong keepers), who depend on their animals to earn a living, have turned to the tourism industry. Sadly, Thailand’s captive elephants are often forced to work long hours offering exhausting rides to tourists, or to walk hot city streets to beg for change for their mahouts.

For many travelers, interacting with elephants is a bucket-list item for their visit to Thailand. But with increased awareness about the cruelty inflicted on these animals by the tourism industry, how can you do so ethically? One conservation and sustainability minded business thinks they might have the answer.

Since 2003, Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort has successfully rescued more than 40 elephants from the streets, illegal logging camps, and elephant shows. Located in Chiang Rai, where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar, the camp works with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation to bring the animals and their entire mahout families to live on the grounds. There, the mahouts receive training in positive reinforcement methods, as well as English lessons, while their children are educated and their wives earn 100 percent of profits made from selling traditional silk garments. The resort currently supports more than 25 elephants and 60 people.

The Foundation stresses that it does not buy the elephants -- simply purchasing one from a mahout family is likely to lead to them capturing another, continuing the cycle. Similarly, while there remains a demand from tourists, the camp believes that avoiding elephant rides doesn’t help the elephants either as they are likely to go to other, less scrupulous sites that will offer the rides. People will always try to use the elephant to make money, says John Roberts, the resort’s director of conservation, so “better they do it in a good way.”

The resort, then, is making the best out of what is a difficult situation. It offers guests a range of interactive and educational experiences with its herd (one activity per day is included in its all-inclusive Discovery Package rates). While you can participate in an elephant ride safe in the knowledge that they are treated well, a far less intrusive activity is the two-hour Walking with Giants experience.

Walking with Giants allows people to develop a deeper connection with the elephants by accompanying them on their daily stroll through the lush grasslands and to the river to see them splash around at bath time. The elephants roam and interact with each other and guests freely -- lightly guided by their mahouts -- and guests are accompanied by the resident vet or biologist who can answer questions and fill you in on the back story of each beast. In preparation, you can also read about some of the creatures' moving histories of abuse and abandonment on the foundation's website.

Outside of the resort, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation has equipped the first elephant hospital in Krabi with an ATV and has donated a special ambulance built to transport them to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang. The foundation also funds wild elephant preservation projects in Kui Buri, Thap Lan, and Khao Yai National Parks in Thailand and is working with the Cambodian Government to fund the protection of an 18,000-hectare elephant corridor in a standing forest in the Cardamom Mountains.

The Golden Triangle Discovery Package begins at $876 per room and includes all meals, round-trip transfers between the resort and Chiang Rai airport (one hour each way), as well as one activity per day, including elephant experiences and cooking classes.

Courtesy The Verb Hotel, Boston
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