Who would say no to the chance of a lifetime: playing with baby elephants.
There are many opportunities regarding elephants Thailand. You can do everything from simply looking at them to riding them. Elephants have been the national symbol for Thailand for ages. Holding great significance to the Thai people, elephants have long been used during battle, for various jobs (such as hauling logs), and as a type of tourism.
I opted to spend the day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for my elephant fix. There is no riding at this facility, only mud baths!
Why, you ask, did I not go somewhere where I could ride them?
Riding on the backs of Giants
When picturing elephants in Asia, the mind immediately goes to an image of people riding elephants through the jungle, the natural habitat of the Asian Elephant.
With tourism demands increasing, the need for more domesticated elephants grew and grew. To support the never ending need for Elfies (selfies with elephants), elephants quickly became a commodity. An elephants gestation period sitting around almost two years (21 months), breeding domesticated elephants was too slow going. Where else could one acquire elephants?
You guessed it – from the wild. You’re most likely familiar with the concept of poaching elephants for their ivory, with over 100,00 elephants being killed in just three years. A less known issue is the capturing of wild elephants to support the growing tourism industry. This has lead to a severe endangerment of wild Asian Elephants.
Elephants, like all wild animals, are not just going to be like “oh yeah, hey human, let me do whatever you want and just forget my eons of evolution and instincts!”. Elephants especially, never forget.
The most desired wild elephants are babies, having been taken from their mother as soon as possible and then confined to a cage or a hole in the ground to reduce movement.
The baby elephants are then starved, deprived of sleep, beaten with clubs, and pierced & tortured with bull-hooks (also known as ‘elephant-goads’) to break their spirit.
This process is called Phajaan or “the crush”. If you’re feeling morbid, here is a video of the process. I could not finish it. However, I did look at a picture.
As the elephants grow older, they continue to live their lives in slavery and fear. Even if the organization you are looking at claims to be ethical and treat the elephants well now, the domestication process was still the same. Bull-hooks are often still used behind the scenes to assert dominance, and as a control mechanism throughout the day.
Additionally, and I know it’s hard to believe because of their size, but the elephant spine is not meant to support the weight of humans, much less a bench with multiple people seated on it. Same goes for Zebras – just because they look like horses doesn’t mean they are for riding.
EVEN IF elephants had evolved to be ridden, many organizations make the elephants work long hours without breaks so that they can make more money. Humans nor animals should ever be subject to this.
What makes Elephant Jungle Sanctuary different?
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a family run business that prides themselves on acquiring elephants from organizations that previously used elephants for riding. Often times, the elephants have served decades as riding elephants (elephants can live to be 100+!), and are no longer able to work. This is usually the only way to free the elephants from their slavery. Every now and then though, a compassionate success story does shine through – but this is hardly a normal occurrence.
About an hour and a half from Chiang Mai, the sanctuary has 6 different camps with different groups of elephants. I was picked up from my hostel and driven out to our camp – camp number 6 (the best, obviously).
During my day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, (which cost me 50 USD) I was educated about the history of the elephants, in addition to information about why the activities that we will be doing are different – they are not only ethical, but helpful to the elephants.
My day with the elephants included meeting the babies, feeding bananas to the adults, and giving everybody mud baths! Did you know that elephants can only sweat through their toes? This can make it very hard to cool off, which is where mud baths come in. The mud assists with wicking away excess moisture and provides a cooling element.
After bathing the elephants in mud, we moved to the rinsing pool where they are rinsed off with natural running water. This further aids the cooling process and makes sure that any remains of possible elephant feces have been washed off. Yes, the elephants sometimes poop in the mud pool. Everybody poops, guys.
I have to say, I had some concerns about the elephants being forced to take these baths and get in the mud, but the goofs were playing it in before the group ever got to that part of the itinerary. It is obvious that elephants have emotions, just like us.
I also had concerns about the same group being forced to bath multiple times a day.When I worked in the service industry, my hands would become chapped from washing them so much. It seems logical elephants would suffer from similar conditions. After speaking the the volunteers, I learned that each group only has one bath per day. Boasting a herd of over 50 elephants, there is plenty of dry skin to go around!
After the feeding, playing and rinsing we were served a delicious Thai lunch and the chance to talk to the volunteers. I asked them all kinds of questions about their time here, the elephants, what other industries are like in Thailand and how I can help. I’m considering coming back here for a week later in my trip to volunteer.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary supports a happy and healthy lifestyle for the elephants. Think of it as a retirement community. The elephants are gently guided, respected and loved. I had a wonderful experience here – and the photos were free!
Despite the upbeat and happy environment of the sanctuary, and the playful nature of the elephants, if you look into their eyes closely, you can see that they will never forget the previous pain and anguish they suffered.
How can I help?
You know what I’m about to say don’t you? Money makes the world go round. Donations will make the highest impact.
I encourage you to donate to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary since I can personally vouch for their intentions. However, there are many other organizations that are just as legit that could use your dollars.
I want to help, but I can’t make a donation!
As someone who always seems to be on a budget, I totally understand! Don’t worry, there are plenty of other ways you can help these beautiful and intelligent animals. <3
- Share this post!!!! Please for the love of God, sharing is caring. You never know who might have a special place for elephants in their heart, or who might be feeling generous for the day.
- Spread the word about elephant mistreatment. If you know someone who is going to travel to Thailand, mention your newfound knowledge. If you ever hear someone say “I’d love to ride an elephant!” gently try to educate them. Most of the time, they simply do not know much of the information I’ve shared with you today. Hell, I almost rode an elephant myself because I saw pictures of a friend doing it when he visited Vietnam. I admit, it looked fun!
- Do not ride elephants if you ever have the opportunity. Back home in the states, this goes for the circus, festivals and various carnival attractions. I will try to have an open mind and not judge you if you do it everyone has their own ethics I guess.
- Volunteer to help animals in your hometown. Elephants aren’t the only ones who need our help!
I know this was a bit of a bitter-sweet post folks. Before you go, I have one last note about animal tourism, specifically tigers because they are still very under represented.
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