Why Elephant Trekking Should Be OFF Your To Do List

Remember to research any elephant farm you go to. It will be beneficial to the elephant’s health, and also to your conscience.

Elephant farm chiang mai
Elephant trekking Chiangmai. Photo: Laura Paterson

Is it the romance that draws so many people towards riding elephants? Or is it the excitement of being so high up on a magnificent creature as it ambles though its natural forest habitat?

The thought of being on the back of the world’s largest land mammal is often a very pretty picture, and it is one of the most popular tourist activities in Thailand particularly, and we are constantly bombarded by pictures of tourists riding their “elephant for the day” on Facebook and Google.

Riding an elephant has never been something that I’ve wanted to do, as I grew up seeing young horses being broken in for riding, and even this was an exhausting and often emotional experience for myself and the horse in question. If it was that hard to get a domestic animal who is bred for this exact purpose, then what must a wild and incredibly emotionally adept creature such as an elephant go through to be “trained.”

Elephant trekking Chiangmai Thailand 1
Photo: Laura Paterson

The Training

Young elephants are taken from their mothers and put into a Phajaan, or crush, where they are confined. It is in this confined area where the trouble starts. These elephant calves are repeatedly beaten with bull hooks on their heads, they are lassoed, sleep deprived and electrocuted with cattle prods, and this is all done to make them submissive, to crush their will to live.

Only when they reach this point are they ready to be taught how to carry the chairs, and the people that will inevitably come to experience an authentic “day as a mahout” or 3 day elephant trekking safari. The people will come in fast and these elephants will work everyday for the rest of their lives. They will be chained up to keep them from wandering, and will be controlled using bull hooks to the most sensitive parts of their bodies.

Elephant trekking Chiangmai Thailand 4
Photo: Laura Paterson

Why Are People Still Riding Them?

I’m going to chalk it down to naivety and ignorance. Most people do not research the elephant camps they are going to, and may simply not know the horrendous treatment that 90% of these creatures receive in captivity.

Elephant trekking Chiangmai Thailand
Photo: Laura Paterson

The Solution?

Not all is doom and gloom at the end of the day, and it is entirely possible to find reputable companies where you can spend some time with these gentle giants, while also respecting them. Two of my favorite are the Elephant Nature Park and Patara Elephant Farm. Elephant Nature Park is a well known sanctuary for abused and injured elephants from Thailand and Burma, here they find a safe and spacious home where they are not ridden or subjected to any other physical stress. Here you can feed and spend time with the animals while learning about their pasts and what you can do to help towards their future. More information can be found at www.elephantnaturepark.org

Patara is a different kind of rescue sanctuary and successful breeding center where you can play with the newborn babies, and spend time washing the adults. While riding is offered, it is bareback and doesn’t put the same stress on the animals—you won’t find a bull hook in sight. The mahouts seem to be genuinely connected to their elephants and control them via voice command. Patara is a more hands on and cheaper option than the Elephant Nature Park. More information on Patara can be found at www.pataraelephantfarm.com

It is important to understand the plight of these amazing creatures, and while it may be tempting to book a trek through a tour company, remember to research any farm you go to. It will be beneficial to the elephant’s health, and also to your conscience.

Elephant trekking Chiangmai Thailand 2
Photo: Laura Paterson

Laura Paterson

Laura's favorite country and where she calls home is Zimbabwe, Southern Africa. Her travel style is laid back and she often ends up on the greatest adventures by mistake. She also can't travel without laughter.

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