Think Thailand – Think Elephants

The Thai flag from 1893-1917

When many people think of Thailand, they think of elephants.  It’s easy to see why.  The national animal of the Kingdom of Thailand is, of course, the elephant.  Indeed, the national flag of Thailand used to be simply an elephant on a plain red background.

The Thai ‘War Elephants’

While the Thai national flag may have changed, the Thai national football team’s badge still prominently features an elephant – the team going by the nickname of the ‘War Elephants’. Then who can deny the fact that one of the first words many visitors to Thailand learn is ‘Chang’ – the name of the nation’s most famous beer also means – yes, you guessed it – ‘elephant’.  It’s little wonder then why many people associate Thailand with elephants – an association that reflects the deep regard most Thai people have for their pachyderm pals.

Many visitors to Thailand are there for the ‘Chang’.

An Historic Relationship  

What many people may not know is that humans and captive/domesticated elephants have coexisted in Thailand for thousands of years – long before the nation of Thailand we now know was even born.  Elephants were used for warfare, logging, transportation, farming, and in cultural ceremonies.  Of course, today elephants are no longer used in warfare, mechanisation has replaced the plough, and the car and motorbike have long since replaced the elephant as a mode of transportation.  Up until 1989, most captive elephants were used for logging, but in January of that year the Thai Government passed a decree banning the practice.  The result?  Several thousand captive elephants that were used for logging were now effectively out of work.

The Rise of Elephant Tourism

While it may seem good that these elephants no longer were used for logging, it brought with it a big problem.  The reality is that feeding an elephant is not cheap – an elephant eats approximately 10 percent of its body weight per day.  Sadly, the result of this ‘unemployment’ meant many elephants and their mahout owners were faced with an unenviable dilemma – how to support their elephants, their families and themselves?  Some turned to illegal logging and the dangers that came with it.  Others turned to taking their elephants to the streets to beg.  Thankfully, the logging ban coincided with a dramatic rise in the number of tourists visiting Thailand.  The result?  Many elephant owners turned to elephant tourism to help generate an income that could help support their elephants, families and themselves.

 Elephant Tourism – The only option?

I wish that all the elephants could live in the wild, but unfortunately, we currently have between 3,000 to 4,000 captive elephants in Thailand, all of whom need to earn some form of living in order to be fed. There is nowhere near enough habitat to release them back into – not by a long shot. Tourism is the only sustainable method so far discovered.John Edward Roberts – director of elephants and conservation activities at the Anantara Resorts & Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.*

Many tourists who visit Thailand want to see the elephants.  This is good because it helps to provide an income to the many thousands of captive elephants and human communities who rely on elephants for their livelihoods.  What is less clear cut is what elephant tourism should look like.

Elephants perform in an elephant show

Elephant tourism in Thailand takes many different forms.  From elephant rides, to watching elephants perform in shows, to bathing elephants in elephant camps, to volunteering to work in one of the many elephant sanctuaries located across the country.  Thanks to the historical domestication of elephants, there are now many ways tourists can visit Thailand and get up close and personal with these wonderful creatures.  This is also an area of great debate, however.  If elephant tourism is ‘the only sustainable method so far discovered’, how can we support it so that the interests of the elephants, tourists, the mahouts, and their families, are all taken into account and a happy equilibrium found?  Is ethical elephant tourism even possible?

Hand-2-Trunk – Learning by Living with Elephants

We believe that Hand-2-Trunk offers something uniquely different for those wishing to come to Thailand and see the elephants.  Participants on a Hand-2-Trunk program are similar to other elephant-loving tourists visiting Thailand in that they share a passion to see the elephants.  However, those signing up for a program are signing up for much more than the chance to get to take some selfies with an elephant. Among other elephant-related cultural experiences, the Elephant Experience Program includes the opportunity to stay in a rural Thai village where villagers have lived alongside elephants for generations.  By participating, guests are not only gaining a unique insight into what it is like to live among elephants (who live semi-wild by roaming and foraging in the surrounding forests), but are helping to support the very communities that have done so for hundreds of years.  We believe that it is through this unique experience that participants can truly see why elephants are so revered in Thai culture, while at the same time helping to support a form of elephant tourism that truly represents a happy equilibrium for all – not least the captive elephants themselves. *As quoted in the Telegraph, Can Elephant Tourism be Ethical?  2 February 2016

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