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Ethical vs Sustainable - Elephant Welfare and Care in Thailand

I have been trying to be more heathy recently, running more regularly and being careful of what I eat and so two weeks ago, while I was in Thailand for a work trip, I continued this new habit with some morning runs. On my second morning of running, I came across a mass of maybe 30 elephants on the roadside. It was just after dawn and so the light wasn't quite bright enough to clearly see the total number of elephants, but there were many. I have since learned there are over 80 elephants in total.

It was strange - they were just there with no barriers to stop them running away. I began to notice that the elephants were all spread out, each in their own section, none of them walking or moving around. I honestly can't remember whether they were chained or roped - like I said, the light was low and even photos I took can't really identify anything on their ankles - but I do know that elephants are tactile and affectionate creatures, who like to touch each other, interlock trunks and feel closeness and so this was a strange sight.

I felt sad for them. Ethical elephant care has been something on my radar ever since 2014. We had innocently taken an elephant ride as tourists, being taught that they were working elephants and to take work away from them was to deprive them. Honestly - I had no inkling that what we were doing was contributing to unethical tourism and I even enjoyed the experience. We had no idea how uncomfortable it was for the elephants, or the sort of abusive treatment they would have suffered until later that year when I found out that law had just been passed that very year to protect these magnificent animals. I lacked education on what was right and what was wrong.

That morning at the roadside, I felt uncomfortable with what I saw. I was running with a colleague, who challenged my thinking - yet again. Knowledgable about the area, he asked me to consider the generations of elephant handling in this manner, the financial provision it would bring the village and the lack of education they might have. Since then I have researched this particular place. It was founded many years ago and the last time they took elephants from the wild was in 1906. These elephants are all born in captivity and tourism has boosted the economy of that region. I looked around the area as we ran back to our campsite. It was rural - locals lived in small homes with tin roofs - shacks stood on the roadside, mini shops that sold drinks and light snacks. I found out that these shops were all operating as a result of tourism - the elephant village drawing people in. Paddy fields surrounded me for the 4km run, electric pumps drawing water from the Pa Sak river, pushing it out to the crops. These fields providing food for the locals, the shops providing money. A simple stop to the unethical treatment of these elephants would also stop tourism and in turn, reduce what the shops could sell and ignite a real problem for the local economy.

It was then I realised that the demands of the tourists dictated the treatment of the elephants. In many places around the world, education has enabled change - Singapore Zoo stopped elephant rides in 2015 and the shows stopped in 2018. We went to an elephant sanctuary in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2022, where we just followed the elephants as they roamed the forest - keeping a distance and not really interacting with them. In both of these situations, the tourists are still prepared to fund the experiences and I wondered whether the same would happen in Thailand. In these areas where education on elephant welfare is scarce, would tourists take the responsibility to promote and encourage ethical elephant interactions? Trip Advisor have a new feature on their websites where they let tourists know whether particular attractions are ethical or not - this particular elephant village is listed as "unethical", yet tourists are still reviewing it as "5 stars - life changing experience, riding the elephants".

Unlike the mistreatment of these elephants, this blog may have a rather abrupt stop. I am still processing and considering all of the options I am aware of, as well as continuing to do some research to have a better understanding of the local life as well as elephant welfare. The conclusions I can make so far is that it is not as simple as protesting and getting angry at the elephant handlers in these regions. Education first. Shared responsibility on tourists and elephant keepers. Legislation with support... Either way, the challenge is ensuring ethical care is sustainable for both the elephants AND the humans.

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1 Comment

So well said Jonty. Complex and intertwined.

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