Thailand’s Elephants – An Educated Appraisal

Posted on Sep 12, 2013 | Comments Off on Thailand’s Elephants – An Educated Appraisal

John Roberts Anantara's Conservation Director

Brave New World (or why you should support your local trekking camp)

By John Roberts
12 September 2013 04:25:00

This is a repeat of a blog written by John Roberts, the expert behind the elephant training program of Anantara Golden Triangle. The original can be found here:–or-why-you-should-support-your-local-trekking-camp-/


Ladies and gentlemen, I believe have seen a future for captive elephants in Thailand, at least the foreseeable future (I reckon that to be about 5 years) and I’m here to tell you that, unless we do something constructive, it is bleak.

The future, I believe, of the captive Thai elephant is to spend ten/twelve hours a day walking in a circle with three people on her back, without rest, without good fodder, without jungle time.  The future is to emulate a machine.

The reason for this is not, I believe, cruelty, the reason is ignorance.  Ignorance on the part of some new camp owners who have no idea about elephants, ignorance on the part of the guests who know nothing about elephants but want the experience of sitting on one as, as yet, they have no idea there are other ways to get close and, yes, ever forgiving no matter how many times they prove me wrong, ignorance on the part of the mahouts who have never actually worked, & I mean really worked, liked the old days in the forest or in the logging yards, their elephants so really don’t have an idea how much, or how little, elephants can stand.

The old style trekking camps are not, were never, like this.

So what has changed?  Well, exactly what we said would change.  Thailand has suddenly been discovered as a tourist destination by our very large, very populous neighbour to the North: China.

Every tourism operator worth the title businessman is configuring his business to welcome Chinese guests.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a great thing for Thailand and for the globe, for wildlife in general – “the Chinese” are so often demonised as the cause of all wildlife and ecological ills, I’ve pointed out in these pages and on the web how I’ve not found this to be true in travels to my little part of that massive country, that the chance to actually engage guests that have traveled down the river to join us and explain our points of view have been enlightening and have fallen on fertile ground – despite what many would have you believe wildlife conservation is not an unknown concept in China and most of the folks I’ve had the pleasure of talking to have been keen to learn more, the wild elephants in Xishuangbanna & Pu’er are far more tolerated when they visit a village than they are in some other parts of Asia.

What does every guest, from wherever in the world, want to do when they come to Thailand? (well, yes, that too, oh, yes, and that as well – Thailand is popular for many reasons) but also ride an elephant.  It is kind of one of our trademarks.

I’ve told you before that riding an elephant, an elephant trek in the saddle, is not an inherently bad thing – anyone who tells you it is is either projecting their dislike (which I share) of having captive beasts onto your decision making (while ignoring the history involved and the fact that, until a month ago, an unridden elephant was an unfed elephant) or trying to push their own business agenda.

My point is that, when you welcome even .0001% of the Chinese traveling population to Thailand you are welcoming a lot of people, I’m not sure of the figures but as I travel around Bangkok and other tourist cities, a little empirical study shows me that it won’t be long before our Northern neighbours become the number one nationality to visit.

What’s more China is a boom country, these aren’t your dodgy backpackers grumbling about paying more than 20 baht for a bowl of phad thai, these are guys that are happy to pay a fair price for what they get.

Perfect guests and a lot of them.

So, if you’re a Thai businessman with no consideration that elephants can get tired, you have an unlimited supply of guests and a limited supply of elephants what are you going to do?  …and this is the future and I have seen it:

You get as many elephants as you can and you have them walk in circles for ten/twelve hours a day (the mahouts eat lunch on their eles) they can drop off one set of guests, walk fifteen ele paces unladen (though, obviously with the saddle and ropes still on) and pick up two new guests, follow the arse of the elephant in front of them for fifteen minutes along a well trod route until they get to the ‘off’ platform drop their guests, walk fifteen unladen paces….

Repeat until your legs give out.

From my perspective the guests may as well have paid to get on a merry go round, would at least be merrier – still, what you don’t know, you don’t know and everyone gets to say they’ve been on an elephant, gets a photo to take home.

Now, as I said above, trekking is not inherently bad, when it becomes bad is when it is overdone.  When the saddle is not removed between treks, when there are too many treks, where rubbed skin is not dealt with where – and this is important – the elephant HAS to work in order to make money/food.

That’s when mahouts push elephants to and then beyond their limits.

Interestingly (& we’re losing elephants to this phenomenon here but this is not what that’s about) despite the earnings promised to mahouts and owners for taking their elephants to these camps – it’s a good time to be a mahout if you just want to make money, the bust time is over, the money these camps are offering on a base salary + tip + ‘working minute’ bonus is huge – the old guys are resisting.

The old mahouts from Surin (some of our guys) and ‘other’ big elephant owning community from the mountains above Chiang Mai so far want no part of it, I think this is because they’ve all done hard work on their elephants, they’ve all seen mahouts work elephants too hard – back in the old days up in the forest when the work was truly hard – they know the damage that can be done.

Young guys without that experience and with the promise of a lot of ready cash, well, they’re off (in some case overruling the direct order of very respected elders).  What can we say?  The money’s huge.

So, what can we do?

Well, support your local Trekking Camp for one, I’m thinking the ones up in Chiang Mai, but in other places too, camps run by families that have, for generations, looked after elephants – be it in the logging or the tourism business – stuck by the eles in the hard times and, yes, made a profit in the good times.  Camps that employ vets, or work with the Government vets, camps that understand elephants, nutrition and workloads, places that know elephants need to rest.

Of course, it would be easier for me to give you the opposite advice – we are not a trekking camp, it would be easy for me to join the rising tide of voices calling for the abandonment of trekking, come ONLY to my camp, we’re the only ones doing it right!

But hey, we actually care about elephants, and that is bad advice.  An unridden elephant is no longer an unemployed elephant, in the current climate the owner or mahout will have no choice but to make an unridden elephant a violently overworked, undernourished elephant.

If you want to visit a camp with a no hooks, no chains message, that’s your right – but believe me every captive elephant/human interaction is a form of control, some camps really do not use hooks and chains but they use other control methods, some better, some worse day to day, all worse when things get out of control; most camps just use different control methods when you’re around and revert to hooks and chains when you’re not.

But do go if that’s what your conscience tells you to do.

However, please do not use your visit there as an excuse to push your opinion on others – I have been watching the “boycott trekking and let the industry collapse” campaigns (the “go only to the camp I went to” campaigns) for ten years now.

I’ve seen one or two informed reports and a thousand campaigning websites come and go for ten years and guess what?  The trekking industry is far, far stronger than I’ve ever seen it, the price to buy an elephant to take it trekking is now almost three times what it was ten years ago (partially thanks to people buying elephants to prevent them from trekking but mostly within the business).

This industry ain’t going to collapse any time soon – it’s growing and mopping up every able bodied elephant – the ONLY result of informed (and ‘informed’ is a funny concept; I’ve been living in elephant land for fifteen years now, have visited camps of all colours and messages by surprise and pre-announced, undercover and overt, spoken with, drunk whisky with, elders, mahouts, campaigners, camp owners, researchers, soul searchers, scientists and conservationists and I’ve seen no evidence of many of the ‘facts’ that turn up on campaigning websites, how folks who’ve spent far less time, traveled to far fewer places and not sat with as many people get their information with enough certainty to feel they can present it as factual is anyone’s guess).

Sorry, start that paragraph again the ONLY result of ‘informed’ guests (even the entire Thai traveling public of a single European nation) boycotting the camps that look after elephants properly is that the elephant owners will have no choice but to take a payrise and join the new camps that do not.

The trekking industry when controlled and limited by people who see their elephants as an asset and who understand the physical, and to a certain extent mental, needs of an elephant may not be perfect but it is neither demonic nor dangerous and it is currently the only sustainable answer for the majority of captive Thai elephants.

Rather than demonise these folks with spurious claims why not work with them as we have, to introduce positive reinforcement training, as the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre do to introduce the mahouts to basic health care and education, as we both do to offer veterinary support? – talk to them, in fact, you’ll probably find they understand these things far better than you gave them credit for and use these techniques far more commonly than you’ve been told.

In the meantime we’ll continue to happily welcome our Chinese guests, give them our points of view and, as we do with all guests, both sides of every argument, we’ll work (as we already do on ivory and conservation education issues) with media from our Northern neighbour and with Chinese language media within Thailand to ensure that a bigger picture is pushed out there – ensure that as many people as possible understand that 15 minutes on the back of an elephant walking in a circle is not the only elephant experience available and that elephants can get tired.

We’ll explain that trekking is not inherently a bad thing and that an informed choice of camp is essential and we’ll keep our attention on the English reading world too to continue to explain the same thing but may add the message that a demonising website based on lies and inaccuracies, or even an informed report based on anti-captivity prejudices (which, again, I share), will do nothing to help even the elephants in question and, if 100% successful, will make the lives of those elephants violently worse.

In short, check it out first and ensure it’s a good one but support your local trekking camp.

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