The air feels hot and heavy as we sway through the dusty paths of Chiang Mai – I let a small cry out, a nervous laugh, really, as the creature shakes its massive head – but we’re safe, seven – eight ? – feet above ground, on a large seat roped to the beast. That’s a lot of ropes – and, is that a pick-axe the handler is holding? A bullhook?, but – oh well. They’re such strong animals. Such thick skin. Time to tick off a wish from my bucket list.
That’s not my story. But it’s the story of thousands of people who go to elephant rides in the streets of Thai cities and neighbouring forests. Western culture, in its everlasting duality, stands as the main consumer of the elephant tourism industry alongside China, whilst also featuring at the forefront of vocal protestation against the exploitation of elephants through charities such as PETA and the likes which reject animal exploitation in bulk.
The report of the recent death of a mahout last year in Mae Wang, killed by an elephant, sparked many comments from Westerners, most of them effectively claiming « Score one for the pachyderms ! » or « Good for the elephant. » (Daily Mail). But the reality is hardly simple: mahouts heavily depend on the thriving tourism industry to survive. Most of them are migrants, ethnical minorities from war-ravaged Myanmar, underpaid, overworked: they are threefold victims of Western consumerization that allows the industry which put them at risk of physical casualties to bloom, of moral condemnation that cheers for their death, and of elephant owners exploiting them.
Yet, the unabashed cruelty of elephant tourism has to come to an end : from phajaan (« breaking » an elephant to tame it) to the exhaustion and the mental strain they face on a daily basis, there is nothing ethical about this type of tourism. Currently, releasing elephants in the wild isn’t a possible solution : as a result of massive deforestation, there would not be enough land to sustain the lives of the 3,000 to 4,000 of elephants used in tourism.
Earlier this year, a friend told me about her experiences riding elephants in Thailand. She looked for hours for a place that respected elephants as much as possible, and found it. The elephants work for a maximum of one hour per day (two 30-minutes walks), and, while on a walk with a passenger on their back, their natural rhythm is very much respected, and they can stop to eat whenever they feel like doing so. Young elephants are tamed by getting them used to sitting on their backs no more than a few minutes here and there. No seats were roped to the elephants for the comfort of tourists : they carried only two people – or one if their weight exceded 90 kgs –, bareback. So, on one hand, yes, coarse hair – very, unexpectedly coarse hair, she recalled – but on the other, a lesser risk of physical injuries for mahouts, respect for the elephants, and a prospective economic revenue for locals that allows them to own the elephants.
The name of this organisation is Elephant Discovery Chiang Mai, and it is a two hour and a half drive through the Thai countryside. Other alternatives include volunteering with elephants without riding them, but instead, bathing and feeding them exclusively, through elephant rescues and sanctuaries such as the Elephant Nature Park based in Chiang Mai – which I am absolutely looking forward to go to should I find myself going to Thailand.
The recent rise in interest for the notion of ‘ecotourism’ as well as the international pressure faced by Thailand regarding its treatment of elephants allow for an increasing change in attitudes. Even though tourists’ awareness of the conditions elephants are put through is still lacking, and although both visibility and accessibility to these alternative forms of elephant tourism are limited, these types of structures stand as examples in terms of being « Elephant Ethical » : community-driven, with a deep respect for the animals’ lives, they manage to combine the benefits of tourism as well as working with animals respectfully in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.
All that’s left for us to do as tourists is to choose to go there, and continue to spread information to our friends who might fancy a trip to South-East Asia one of these days.