In National Geographic Traveler Magazine (June/July 2019), I found an article on wildlife tourism, specifically as it pertains to elephant encounters in Thailand. I just happened to be headed to Thailand in November of 2019, so I politely asked my dad if I could rip the article out of his magazine. He looked at me, scandalized that I would ask such a question, and I meekly went to scan the article into the computer and email it to myself (this of course worked much better because then I didn’t have two loose magazine pages floating around).
I’ve been meaning to write this blog post ever since I got back from Thailand, but as I clearly haven’t gotten around to it, now seemed like a relevant time to bring up wildlife tourism, what with Netflix’s Tiger King being all anyone can talk about (besides coronavirus) on the internet.
It seems like almost everyone I know is concerned about wildlife. They, like me, want to go to ethical animal rescues. But here’s the problem with that these days: those same companies that used to offer elephant rides, and circus-type shows, and keep their elephants on short chains in small enclosures, are still doing these things, but are now calling themselves “rescues” and using words like “ethical” and “sanctuary.” So how can you tell if these places really are ethical?
I took the easy route and went to the sanctuary that National Geographic recommended. It’s called Elephant Valley Thailand and it was wonderful in every way.
I walked up the long, curving gravel drive dragging a suitcase and accompanied by a man who had joined me that morning checking out the beautiful temples of Chiang Rai. Now we were both headed for a half-day elephant experience, and I was planning on staying the night. We met a group of about 15 or 20 other tourists in the shaded outdoor eating area. About half the group had done a morning tour and the rest of us were there for the afternoon, and we all sat down to lunch together (a fabulous homemade Thai lunch, I might add). A high wooden fence surrounded the seating area and through it we could see the elephants. I was already in love.
After lunch we joined our small group and ventured into the elephant enclosure. At EVT, you will not touch the elephants. You will not bathe or walk an elephant. You will probably not come within 100 feet of an elephant. And this is how you can tell a “rescue” from a rescue: the elephants’ safety and well-being comes before the tourists’ photo ops. You’re not allowed to touch the elephants at EVT because they are busy learning to be elephants again.
Elephants in tourist attractions have lost the fundamental skills of being an elephant. Some are born in captivity and never had the behavior of wild elephants to begin with. At EVT the elephants learn to walk without chains, and eat grass, and wash themselves, and sleep under trees—not things you would think you’d have to teach an elephant. (Incidentally, this is why you can’t just release domesticated animals into the wild and expect them to survive.)
You should always be wary of chains in animal encounters, but sometimes they are necessary. Since captive elephants are used to sleeping in barns, the new elephants at EVT will spend the whole night rampaging around their enclosure looking for a roof to sleep under. They have to be taught to sleep under trees and the only way to do this is to chain them. Then, once they are used to it, they won’t need the chain any more. This was one of the saddest things I learned. These poor elephants never got the chance to be real elephants and they’re just learning how. How many elephants won’t ever get this chance?
This property of EVT’s is only about 40 acres and is referred to as the primary school of Learning to be an Elephant. Here is where the elephants will have the most contact with humans, though significantly less than they would have elsewhere. Mostly the elephants graze and swim in their pond and wander around their enclosure, free to do as they please, mostly ignoring us tourists observing from a respectful distance. In the afternoons, if they want it, they elephants can report to the spigot where their mahout will give them a shower. The tourists are not allowed to give the elephants showers and the mahouts only do it because the elephants haven’t yet learned to do it themselves. When the elephants graduate from this facility, they go to secondary school where they mostly live on their own with minimal contact with carers and tourists.
Why, you ask, don’t they rehabilitate the elephants and release them into the wild? They’re worried that these elephants won’t be accepted into wild herds. They hope to acquire more land for a private reservation so their elephants can have as close to a natural and wild life as possible.
Once a day, tourists are allowed to feed the elephants. But wait! That doesn’t sound natural! You’re right! But remember: these elephants come from captivity. They are used to being hand fed, and if they are not, they follow humans around expecting a treat. Mahouts and guides at the rescue never hand feed the elephants so they don’t learn that their handlers will have food. Instead a rotating cast of tourists gets to feed them once a day. Perhaps in a few months, the feedings will go down to once every few days and then once every few months until they aren’t doing it at all. Then the elephants will be ready to graduate. But even while feeding, tourists are made to stand a good distance away and aren’t allowed to touch.
I spent the night at EVT which I highly recommend. I had a room all to myself—a luxury when you’re a hostel traveler—and a balcony where I could watch the elephants. I also had the opportunity to do some volunteering to help out the sanctuary. Another volunteer from Germany, who was staying five days, and I helped pick up elephant poops from each elephant’s sleeping area. It was just as glamorous as it sounds, but definitely not as gross as it sounds. All they eat is grass, after all. I’d take that over dog poop any day.
Later that morning, I made my way back to Bangkok, very sad to leave the quiet and beautiful Chiang Rai and especially EVT, where I could happily have lived the rest of my life.
So here you are planning your trip to Thailand or India or Nepal or South Africa, and you want to see elephants or tigers or cheetahs, or sloths, or lions (because who wouldn’t, right? We all love animals). But because you are a conscientious traveler and you care about animal welfare, you follow the ABCs (taken from @catmanchrispoole)
A – always do your research. Find places National Geographic recommends, read the one and two star reviews of popular animal encounters—it’s there you’ll find the people who had reservations about how the animals were treated. Read such articles as Natasha Daly writes for Nat Geo and educate yourself.
B – babies/breeding. Don’t go to places that breed to create a bigger captive population, or just to have babies for tourists to hold. Often once these babies lose their cuteness factor, they are euthanized or released into the wild where they have no idea how to survive.
C – contact. Chris Poole suggests touching big cats in animal encounters helps to fuel the exotic pet trade. Also many places you can touch a docile tiger only because the animal has been heavily medicated, declawed, and/or had its teeth removed. None of these things are done for the good of the animal, I assure you. Now Chris Poole talks specifically about big cats, but in my opinion if it’s a wild animal, you shouldn’t be touching it, not elephants, not big cats, not sloths, not sea turtles, no monkeys, not snakes. We don’t touch chipmunks in the National Park because we don’t want them to develop bad, human-dependent habits (or give humans rabies), so why would we do it with animals in captivity? I’m not trying to tell anyone who has done an animal encounter on their travels that they are horrible people who are animal abusers. All I’m trying to do is raise awareness and ask all of us, myself included, to be more conscientious consumers.
Yes, more than anything I want to shove both my hands into a lion’s mane. I want a selfie with a cheetah. I want to ride an elephant. But it’s not about me (just like social distancing). I want to be part of a positive change and I want to be an advocate for those who do not have voices. As Natasha Daly points out in her Nat Geo article, “When travelers decide they want something different, the wildlife tourism market will change.” Let’s be that change.
And remember, if you want a better photo of an animal, don’t get closer, buy a bigger camera lens.
To find out more about elephant tourism in Thailand check out this article from Natasha Daly (not the printed one I mentioned at the beginning of my post, but this one is a good one too).
To learn more about Elephant Valley Thailand, head over to their website. To make a booking, send them an email at email@example.com. They are very accommodating and flexible so feel free to design your own stay. You can also follow them on Instagram @elephantvalleythailand.
If you’re interested in saving cats, big and small, follow @catmanchrispoole on Instagram.
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Current location: Socially distancing at home in Colorado