Elephants in Thailand: Exotic or Exploited?

In the Spring of 2018, my family and I traveled to Phuket, Thailand to celebrate my spring break from school. We chose Thailand as our destination because it was both a short flight from our home in Korea, and a new country we haven’t had the opportunity to visit before. Because of our relation to the military in Korea, we knew several other American families who had chosen Thailand as their travel destination in the past, and regarded Korea’s position in Asia as rather convenient for traveling cheaply to Southeast Asian countries. (I’d rather take a 5 hour flight from Seoul than an 18 hour flight from the United States!)

Sunset on the beach in Phuket, Thailand
Long-tail boat in Krabi Bay

However, we knew that as tourists, there were certain things we needed to know before traveling to Thailand, like brushing up on the cultural customs, basic vocabulary, the Dos and Don’ts, and one that I felt was particularly important: elephants. It’s no surprise that places like Thailand have a problem with elephant exploitation. Thousands of tourists a year are drawn to countries such as Thailand because of the chance to see, touch, feed, and even ride “exotic” animals. It’s worse than visiting the zoo; not only are these animals chained up in unnatural habitats, taken away from their mothers and environment, they are forced to give rides and have exploitative interaction with thousands, millions even, of tourists.

Obviously, I wanted to see elephants, but I wanted absolutely nothing to do with fueling money to the horrible conditions of these poor captive animals. Before we made our flight, I did some research on elephant sanctuaries – places of refuge that actually take elephants that have experienced abuse in captivity, and give them a new chance to recover and integrate back into a healthy state of living. We decided to scope out the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Phuket after seeing positive reviews claiming the sanctuary to be truly a place of rehabilitation for the elephants. Indeed, when we rode into the dense jungle and woods, bumping along dirt trails, we got to witness the sanctuary and the elephants up close. Upon arrival, we were briefed on the condition and location of the elephants. Wild elephants were kept at a different sanctuary, and they had very limited interaction with people due to their nature. The elephants we would be seeing on this tour would be ones that were rescued from unethical riding and captivity organizations around Thailand, so they were somewhat docile due to the unfortunate circumstances. We would be feeding them bananas and watermelons, accompanying them to their bathing site, and watching them play and wash. After, we would say goodbye to the elephants and eat a lunch provided by the sanctuary. While I had my doubts at first, I soon realized that the elephants at this sanctuary were living a much better life than whatever they had endured before. They were free to roam on a huge plot of cleared jungle, without ropes or chains, and without clothing or harnesses. They came and went whenever they felt like it. Luckily for us, lots of elephants (and even some babies!) decided to show up for their feeding.

Baby elephant that allowed me to feed him some watermelon.

We fed them buckets and buckets of freshly cut watermelon and bundles of bananas. We were told that the sanctuary caretakers needed to buy hundreds of watermelons and bananas to feed all the elephants daily. They were gentle, conscientious and aware of their surroundings, and even incredibly polite; some would point to their mouths as if to ask, “More please!” I was humbled just to be around such powerful but sweet animals. Of course, as I watched a grown elephant smash the rind of a watermelon like it was made of cotton candy, I couldn’t help but think that any one of these majestic creatures could snap me in half if they really wanted to.

When they had enough watermelon, the elephants began their journey through the jungle to the mud bath, where they sprayed each other and played in the mud. The sanctuary employees encouraged us to go in the mud, too, some even cheekily dragging people in against their will. (Like me, for example. I will never forget the feeling of my clothes becoming soaked with orange, gritty mud. Gross.) It was relaxing and peaceful to just see the elephants in their natural element.

Photo time – a designated time of the tour where our photo was taken with one of the elder elephants. He was camera shy, but so was I!

While the experience of being around beautiful, powerful creatures was unforgettable, I can’t help but feel saddened at the thought that the industry even exists in the first place. The elephants who so sweetly accepted bananas from me were once chained up. I couldn’t look at them without my heart aching for all the animals that would never receive this kind of life.

So many tourists travel to places like Thailand because of the country’s appeals: exotic landscapes, unique animals, strange food, untouched beaches. But it’s not exotic or “undiscovered by humanity”. The very aspects of Thailand that tourists seek to experience are dwindling away because of tourism. It’s hard to appreciate the vast beauty of the jungle when 200 foreigners are right next to you, blocking your vision with their selfie sticks. While sanctuaries such as Elephant Jungle help fight the damage done to elephants as a result of tourism, there are still countless companies that are involved with inhumane elephant captivity. Someone I knew personally visited Thailand at the same time as I for our spring break vacation, and shared their pictures of elephant riding on Instagram. Whether they were ignorant of the ramifications of unethical elephant riding, or they just simply ignored it, the fact of the matter is that there are still tourists giving into this cruel industry.

Photo taken from “Elephant Jungle Sanctuary” Facebook page

So how can we help? What can we do? I think, in my opinion, it is absolutely so rewarding to experience these things firsthand. I learned a lot from my trip to Thailand, and not just about elephants – my perspective on affluence, economic development, and global affairs shifted significantly. However, not everyone will have the chance to take a trip to Thailand in their lifetime, but if you do get the chance, your life will change. If you can’t participate in something like an elephant sanctuary, education and awareness is the next best step. Already, many travel agencies have pulled elephant rides from their itineraries. Taking the time to read about elephant abuse and which companies to avoid is a good step. Support travel agencies who advocate for sanctuaries over elephant riding, or tell your friends and family who are planning to travel to a country known for “exotic animal” tours. Even if you can’t participate directly, sanctuaries such as Elephant Jungle are part of a program called the Care Project that accepts donations and volunteers to help not only establish sanctuaries for elephants, but also supports community involvement for litter cleanup and environmental education. The Care Project has undertaken initiative to support the rescue and medical treatment of abused elephants.

Thailand is a beautiful country, full of rich history, amazing and kind people, and precious animals. It is essential that we do our part to preserve the safety and happiness of all Earth’s creatures, and we can start by spreading awareness on elephant cruelty.

If you’d like to learn more about The Care Project and what they do for elephants, you can visit them at https://www.thecareprojectfoundation.org/

If you’d like to learn more about the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, you can visit them at https://elephantjunglesanctuary.com/