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Thailand Elephant Tours: A Cautionary Tale

When I’m working as a travel agent and have clients who request elephant excursions in Thailand, I strongly advise they book their tours ahead of time.  I’m convinced that this is the only way to guarantee they will support an ethical facility where both the tourists and animals have a positive experience.

For hundreds of years in the kingdom of Thailand, elephants were domesticated for transportation and labor.  Their representation in society became admired and iconic, as is demonstrated by the prevalence of elephants in Siamese literature and art.  Today, elephants (known in Thai as “Chang”) are a still symbol of the nation’s history and culture.  However, as a result of industrialization, elephants are no longer utilized by Thailand as they were in the past.  Centuries of domestication combined with deforestation have made a return of these creatures to the wild problematic.

Fortunately, there are numerous humane organizations in Thailand that provide sanctuaries for elephants to be rehabilitated.  It’s a popular attraction to visit these sanctuaries, where tourists can interact by feeding and caring for these gentle giants.  Unfortunately, for every humane elephant sanctuary that exists in Thailand, there are countless more where the animals are being abused.  To steer tourists clear of patronizing unethical facilities, I like to share this cautionary tale.

It was my first trip outside the US/EU.  I was a rookie traveler and very naïve.  I’d been in Thailand for three days when I decided to visit a nonprofit elephant sanctuary.  I specifically asked the tuk-tuk driver to take me to one that I’d found listed in my copy of Lonely Planet.  What I didn’t know at the time is that oftentimes drivers in Thailand, along with some small local tour operators, are paid incentives to bring tourists to unethical elephant parks that operate under the guise of legitimate sanctuaries.

We were out on a trail somewhere in a forest, so aborting the trek wasn’t much of an option.  I smiled and took pictures and went along with the tour because I was still fairly ignorant to the gravity of the situation.  I remember that the trainer forced the elephant to walk through this disgusting, putrid pond riddled with urine and fecal matter.  The trek ended at a camp where I saw countless elephants, suffering and miserable, all chained to the ground. 

I’m not proud to admit that this was my experience, and I still feel guilty about it to this day.  I hope it serves as a word to the wise.  This is why I’m so adamant about booking ethical elephant tours in advance when I have clients who are planning their first trip to Thailand.  It may take added time and effort to do some investigating, but this research is part of a travel agent’s job.  Advising clients to visit reputable elephant sanctuaries is a moral obligation that mutually benefits the animals and the tourists involved.

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