Elephant tourism and how to avoid supporting cruel practices

The day I met Soi in Pai, Thailand

Ever since I was a little girl, I have adored elephants. Such intelligent creatures and so human-like in their emotions and social values. I had seen them in the wild in Tanzania. I had experienced the amazing work that the David Sheldrick Foundation does with orphaned elephants in Kenya. This only deepened that love and pull towards getting to know more about them and protect them.

It’s taken me a while to write about my experiences with elephant camps in Thailand and Sri Lanka. I get emotional every time I think about it. But it had to be written. It will help get the word out about how to approach elephant tourism, particularly in less industrialised countries, and avoid cruel practices. It may help people understand the plight of these magnificent animals.

Elephants from Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage penned into a small space in the river for no apparent reason. Adults nudge babies into the centre to better protect them.

I had been travelling for a few months through Southeast Asia and ended up in a small town in the mountains of Thailand called Pai, just north of Chiang Mai. It’s a popular spot for digital nomads like me. It is better known as a hippie town, but its popularity has grown fast amongst travellers. I needed a place to drop my backpack, rest for a while, and catch up with some work. I rented a bungalow surrounded by rice paddies and a scooter to get around with, enjoying a slower pace of life for a while. 

The day I met Soi
On one of my scooter rides I found an elephant camp just outside town that had two elephants. Most importantly, it did not allow riding. It started out as an afternoon having fun helping an elephant bathe in the river. It quickly developed into a deep, life-changing love and affection. 

Soi (her name means necklace in Thai) is a female elephant, enjoying an early retirement from the logging industry. She spends her days splashing about in the river and munching on bamboo and bananas, humouring us humans who want to spend a little of our time in their presence. She took to me as quickly as I took to her, letting me stroke her trunk within seconds of meeting her. 

After a few visits she would press her trunk against me looking for me to stroke the more sensitive undersid. It’s one that they won’t often let humans touch. She also let me introduce her to all those who stopped by to feed her and say hello. It was an incredible feeling to know that she was slowly building a relationship with me. If I stayed long enough, perhaps I could have a fraction of the connection she had with her own handler (mahout), who she clearly adored. 

Looking for elephant volunteering opportunities 
I couldn’t stay in Thailand forever. So I began to research opportunities to volunteer with rescued elephants and eventually discovered a US-based organisation that runs volunteering programmes in Sri Lanka. I applied for a two-week stay. They quickly accepted me and eventually assigned me to an elephant camp in the town of Kegalle. It would mean spending my birthday amongst these majestic giants, so I was beyond excited; what better way to celebrate than by shovelling elephant poo and lugging around bamboo for their dinner? 

Just before I was due to fly out to Sri Lanka, I began to investigate the camp itself a little more. I was horrified to find out that they make a lot of their money – allegedly to support their rescue programme and provide food and care for the elephants – by offering elephant rides to tourists. Furious, I wrote to the organisation’s headquarters. I demanded to withdraw from the programme and get a full refund on the basis that none of this information was available earlier on and that they supported cruel elephant practices. They tried to argue, even making the point that the elephants are trained for riding, which only horrified me more. After a lot of wrangling and emailing, I finally succeeded in getting my money back.

After my initial protests, the organization had offered me a spot at an alternative camp at Pinnawala. Close to Kegalle, it did not offer elephant rides. But I found through my research that the conditions in which the animals are kept are not ideal either. I was determined to raise awareness of how the elephants were treated and looked after and the cruel practices employed. So I decided to visit Pinnawala to see for myself just how things were there.

What’s Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage really like? 
I arrived around bath time, just as the elephants marched down the hill to the river. I quickly bought my ticket, kept my reasons for being there to myself, and wandered off to watch the elephant procession.  

There’s something about watching a herd of elephants amble along, knowing they’re on their way for some R&R and for a splash around. Even the oldest matriarch can act like a juvenile again when in the water! For a moment it brought the smile back to my face. There were 28 elephants in total on their way to the river, ranging in age from the older matriarch to young babies. 

That smile vanished pretty quickly when I witnessed the cruel elephant practices employed. It was soon obvious that the elephants feared the handlers. It was clear in their eyes and in their behaviour. I spent two hours observing them in the river. One of the younger keepers was a bit too liberal with the bullhook. I also watched him and another keeper throwing sticks at the elephants when they weren’t doing what they wanted them to and couldn’t be bothered to round them up. His voice was not authoritative and none of them seemed to have any relationship with any of the elephants.

The matriarch, with her chain around her neck, being ‘controlled’ under threat of the bullhook. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.

The matriarch’s keeper used the bullhook a lot. Although she was the only elephant chained, she was chained for a while, nonetheless. Chaining may be necessary at times. Elephants are huge animals and are still wild. A rampaging elephant can cause a lot of damage and potentially kill people and livestock.

But chaining an elephant when it is in the water robs it of the ability to rest its joints and cool off in the heat in a way that allows it to do so comfortably. And there is more than one way to chain an elephant. When they are in their stockades or feeding stations they still need some room to move around. One chain should be sufficient, if it is ever needed. Two – one on the front and one on the back legs with no give, as I witnessed – is not the way to do it. An elephant literally cannot move, making it one of the more cruel practices used.

Young elephants chained at their feeding stations. They also have a chain on their front leg. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.

The bullhook
Let me dispel some myths about the bullhook. It is a long, spear-like instrument with a hook on the end, used to jab at an elephant’s most sensitive spot, the toe. Ostensibly, they use it to protect humans and other elephants from those who are either too boisterous or too aggressive. There were a lot of posters about bullhooks around the sanctuary site and they offered a one-sided view of the need for it.

You do not need to hurt an animal for it to listen to you. You need to build trust. I thought back to Soi and her mahout. Never once did I hear him say a harsh word to her. Never once did I see fear in her eyes. But all I saw was fear in the expressions of these poor elephants down by the river.

Sign at the orphanage justifying use of the bullhook. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.

What was it like at the orphanage? 
There, they were all chained to their feeding stations. Two short chains, one on the front and one on the back leg. The local representative who had been writing to me had been adamant that the babies are not chained. Absolutely not true – that is not what I saw. 

I spent a bit of time talking to one of the assistant keepers who spoke good English. You could tell he cared about the animals. He confirmed that they are all chained in the evening, babies included. They kept saying that this is for their protection. But some better-built stockades should negate the need for that, irrespective of the amount of space they have. 

He also told me that the ratio of elephant to keeper is 1:1. But this is not what I saw by the river. I asked him about the bullhook. He gave me the same story about protection and told me that it’s part of a carrot and stick approach to keeping the elephants in line as they are still half-wild. I mentioned what I’d seen at the river and the behaviour of the keepers there. His told me that the previous year they had fired someone for being a little too fast and free with using it.

He was much more affectionate with the animals. There was one young elephant in particular that he was trying to treat as we talked; he had had his tail bitten by another elephant and needed to get some medicine on it. The little one was having none of it though. To him, being manhandled for treatment was the same as being controlled in any other way. It took two men to spray the syringe-full of medicine onto his injured tail. 

I left feeling utterly dejected. I was glad that I had managed to avoid supporting such cruel elephant practices by volunteering with the organisation. But I had hoped that what I had read about the treatment of the animals was untrue or an exaggeration. Sadly, it was not.

Young, seven-year-old male elephant chained on the front and back legs while eating. The chains are short and do not allow him to move. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Sri Lanka.

What can change?
Ultimately, these orphaned and rescued elephants do need to go somewhere and be fed and looked after. What I thought was missing from the sanctuary was a more balanced education around the gentle nature of these giants. Their human-like traits, the importance of socialising to them. Why being comfortable in the water is so necessary for their wellbeing. There should be more information on the effects of using elephants for tourist rides; how training for this takes place and why it is detrimental to the animal. Why using chains and bullhooks is likely to do more harm than good. There are sanctuaries that manage to have happy animals without any cruel practices, so it is not without precedent. Take a look at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for a more humane way of looking after elephants.

What can you do? 
First and foremost, please, NEVER EVER RIDE AN ELEPHANT. Know that if you choose to ride an elephant, it has most likely been abused to tame it and break its spirit. Using bullhooks, beating, even starvation, humans will ‘break’ an elephant with such cruel practices. They will make it accept a heavy basket on its back without objection, on one of the boniest parts of its spine. They will add to that the weight of Western tourists – often overweight tourists. Then they will make the elephants walk on roads, where it hurts and burns the soles of their feet. 

Imagine walking barefoot on hot tarmac, in the middle of a hot tropical afternoon. Now imagine adding the weight of an adult on your back, and you begin to get a sense of how it must feel. 

Do your research before visiting any animal sanctuary. Make sure you are not inadvertently supporting inhumane practices or involuntarily leading to animals being harmed. If you’re unsure, don’t do it. I have learned my lesson the hard way. While I still have reservations about zoos, sanctuaries, safari parks, etc., if it is the only place where an animal can be looked after when it can’t do it alone in the wild, then as long as it is treated well, I am ok with it. 

Happy travelling.

Look out for signs or information that confirm no riding takes place. Pai, Thailand.

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