how to help an elephant anywhere in Thailand – take a ride on its back, feed it

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If you wish to help an elephant in Phuket, jump onto its back. Ride it. Buy it some bananas or sugar cane. If this seems a little demeaning to the elephant, remember its meagre alternatives; begging or going hungry.
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In Phuket and other Thai tourist destinations elephants are sometimes seen in the streets, performing tricks to entertain people, begging and even going to sleep hungry. The elephants that carry tourists on short treks through the forest – and get sufficient to eat each day – are the lucky ones. These are not just animals in humiliation, they are beasts in real danger. Some experts predict the Asian elephant could become extinct in the wild within our life times. Captive breeding of domesticated Asian elephants is slow and, as yet, does not replenish their numbers, putting the survival of the entire species at serious risk.
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The forests that once supported some millions of Asian elephants are nearly all gone, and people are still killing the very few left in the wild. Thailand’s forests are so depleted that even a few hundred remaining wild elephants have trouble finding enough to eat in the dry seasons, and often emerge at night to raid the pineapple and sugarcane crops being grown on their old grazing lands. Human-elephant conflict results in elephants being poisoned and shot in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma each year.
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While wild elephants face a bleak future, things are not much better for domesticated elephants in Thailand. For centuries a large population of trained elephants had permanent employment hauling timber out of the forests. Despite that they laboured for man, these elephants lived in a natural environment with free food all around, and lived a reasonable, if captive life.
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Thailand, however, banned logging in its few remnant natural forests in a belated effort to save what’s left. A few thousand domesticated elephants were thrown into unemployment, and serious hardship, by that new law. Many now wander city streets across Thailand with their mahouts (handlers), selling trinkets and lucky charms, while their beasts perform and beg for a living. Others have become entertainers, carrying tourists on treks or performing tricks on the beach – neither a dignified nor certain existence for these regal friends of man.
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Despite that people everywhere love elephants, that human love does not translate into enough practical help to give elephants a bright future.
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Elephants serve tourists in all major Thai destinations, in similar circumstances

The biggest number of elephants serving the tourism industry, by far, is found in Phuket’s many camps. However, elephants for tourists to meet, photograph, feed and ride are found in all of the country’s major tourist destinations. Chiang Mai has several venues, as has Bangkok. They are also found in smaller destinations like Koh Lanta, Krabi, Khao Lak and Hua Hin. Bigger resorts like Pattaya and Koh Samui have even more elephants in several locations, all easy to find through advertising and brochures in hotel lobbies.
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Wherever you meet elephants in Thailand, the same country-wide circumstances apply. These tourism elephants are luckier than their fellows wandering the hot roads of cities and towns, begging for a living.
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All elephants should live in reserves, many people argue, not tourist resorts – like a lucky few dozen in north Thailand. That’s not surprising, and agreed, it’s is a truth no one would argue with. Though a beautiful vision, it's simplistic and naive. Reserves cost money and land, and so far nowhere near enough of either has been donated to the cause of improving the lives of Thailand’s 2- 3,000 domesticated elephants.
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So I repeat, wherever you are in Thailand, riding an elephant will help feed it. And the work it does carrying tourists is quite light for these huge, powerful beasts. I can testify from personal experience: the work Thai elephants did over the previous hundred years or so, hauling logs through thick forest, up and down steep slopes, was many, many times harder than wandering around with a few tourists on their backs.
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elephant camps on Kata Hill, prices for elephant trekking on Phuket

Phuket has a significant population of domesticated elephants – all imported onto the island to work in the tourism industry. Elephant camps are found in most of the major tourist zones. The single biggest concentration, with about five camps, is on the high mountain between Kata Beach and Nai Harn Beach in the far south of the island. All camps offer elephant rides through the rubber plantations (and perhaps a little natural forest), often with beautiful views to sea. Do go ride an elephant while on Phuket, for as stated, this is a good way to help ensure they get enough to eat each day. The rides do not cover long distances, and the elephants are always given time to rest, or even forage for food along the way. Carrying a tourist family is not a particularly arduous task for a healthy elephant.
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Typically, an elephant ride lasts a half-hour to an hour, and can cost anywhere between 500 and 1,000 Baht per person. A mahout generally rides atop the animal’s head, with 2 - 3 passengers in the basket behind. Sometimes, when the elephant is female and docile, the mahout will walk off in front, allowing a passenger to assume the more exciting position on the elephant’s head, and try their hand at controlling the beast.
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Male elephants are also used for trekking, but not during the periods when they are going through ‘musk’, the occasional times when both their mating hormones and levels of aggression run high. Happily, this is clearly evidenced by a gland on the side of their faces which oozes fluid. At such times bull elephants will be kept well away from tourists.
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Those who want to help elephants can go further than just taking a ride or buying bananas. You can hire an elephant for all kinds of reasons, be it for a guest appearance at a party, a photo shoot or for a beach wedding. Elephants are often called in for functions related to corporate incentive conventions. Such high-impact elephant rentals can easily be arranged though an elephant camp.
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While some critics claim this is a demeaning and inappropriate exploitation of magnificent animals, the day-to-day practicalities suggest the alternatives are worse. Every bit of precious income helps owners care for their jumbos better, providing healthy meals and paying for the medical attention that is needed quite often.

2-way controversy: the argument NOT to ride an elephant in Thailand

A Facebook post titled Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand appeared on my screen on 29 March 2015 – a direct contradiction to my assertion above that riding a pachyderm while in Thailand is a good way to help elephants. Written by elephant-lover Matthew Karsten, it was an impassioned argument against ‘elephant tourism’, of which he painted an ugly picture and gained a number of Likes on Facebook, plus messages of support. It sounded good, Matthew, however I see your efforts on behalf of Thai elephants as a simplistic and melodramatic take on an intractable problem.
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Well-meaning, yes; but telling tourists NOT to ride elephants might simply leave some of those gentle beasts hungrier than ever, with medical problems untreated. I thus take issue with much of the ‘elephant info’ in Matthew’s blog, with his quotes shown below in bold, and my comments following. But first, there’s one critical, elephant-size quandary that his blog completely misses – the plight of the great majority of domesticated elephants in Thailand. Those are the hundreds of elephants (or is a thousand or two?) neither lucky enough to be in a sanctuary nor engaged in demeaning work giving tourists rides.
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What about the plight of the many used by their owners to sell trinkets and beg for a living in the towns and streets across Thailand? Forced to wander hot, dusty streets, dodge traffic and inhale black fumes, these elephants have the hardest time just staying cool, getting a belly full of food and a peaceful place to sleep. My observations convince me that the beasts in the elephant camps of Phuket and other tourism destinations are lucky by comparison.
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The really fortunate ones are, of course, the 36 Matthew met in Elephant Nature Camp in northern Thailand. But this, and a few other sanctuaries around Thailand, can’t care for all of the thousand or two domesticated elephants wandering about the country. And besides, most elephant owners who depend on their beasts to make money, won’t give them up to a sanctuary.
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“Illegal capture and trade for use in the tourism industry is also a big problem. This industry thrives because foreign visitors all want to ride elephants, or watch them do tricks, paying good money for the privilege.”
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Where, Matthew, did you get this info? I guess it is regurgitated from stories of old, likely propagated by those squeezing extra sympathy and donations for elephants – with truth now a thin veneer stretched to cover a few decades. In the 1980s an American journalist and myself, as photographer, tried to do a story about wild elephant captures for the Washington DC–based magazine International Wildlife, for which we were regular contributors. We searched around Thailand for an elephant hunting team, and only in Surin, home to Thailand’s famed ‘elephant people’, did we find old men who had once captured pachyderms from the forests of northern Cambodia in their younger days. Long ago, when wild elephant herds were numerous. Capturing wild elephants is no easy feat – in fact it’s deadly dangerous – requiring an experienced, fearless team riding well-trained domesticated elephants.
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Wild captures were still happening, we learned – but not in Thailand. Only across the border in Burma did we hear of one team of Mon hunters, perhaps the last of a dying breed, who were said to make occasional captures. The difficulty of connecting with remote forest hunters at just the right time caused us to abandon the effort. Occasional baby elephants are taken from the wild in Thailand, however, when their mothers are shot or poisoned by village farmers enraged by elephants ravaging their pineapple and sugarcane fields. My understanding is that most of these babies are taken by the forestry department – though who knows where they end up?
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“Brutal elephant training has been a traditional practice in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years..... But the fact is that wild elephants need to be tamed before they can be ridden.”
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it’s a well-known, cruel process, that few would argue in favour of. However, Matthew’s 2015 statement about the taming process in Thailand again jumps back to the past. With no more than a trickle of wild elephants now joining the domesticated herd, most new elephants are born in captivity, and these babies, quite unafraid of humans, do not need such a brutal ‘breaking’ of their non-wild spirit. The famous TV documentary of the breaking-in of a young elephant, not a baby, would be difficult to shoot in Thailand today.
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“Many elephant camps continue to employ bull-hooks to control the animals. While they may not be stabbing them constantly like they did in training, it’s the fear of being stabbed that’s used to motivate them to work.”
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I sense more exaggeration. Stabbing’ their elephants? Please! I too have seen some mahouts who seem to hit their animals unnecessarily hard with their metal hooks, and some animals have scars on their heads from it. But mistreatment is not normal, and it’s never stabbing.
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“Did you know that riding elephants can actually cause serious long-term harm too? Their spines are not made to support the weight of humans. I know it’s hard to believe given their size, but Zebras are the same way.”
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No, I didn’t know this, and will only believe it when I see solid evidence from a qualified expert.
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“The problem these days is that most captive elephants in Thailand are used to entertain tourists rather than for traditional purposes like logging or military use.”
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Does today’s tourism industry – mainly elephants giving rides to foreign visitors – represents a crueler fate for domesticated elephants than their historical treatment in teak forests and on battle grounds? Here’s my take on this:
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elephants in logging: Prior the 1989 national ban on logging I often witnessed, and occasionally joined, elephants hauling logs in the forests of northern Thailand. My observation: lifting, maneuvering and dragging multi-ton tree trunks through kilometres of rough, obstacle-strewn forest was like watching a weight lifter repeatedly straining every muscle, trying to break records – all day, with little rest or respite. That was surely 10 or 20 times as hard as carrying lightweight tourists.
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elephants as war weapons: These mighty beasts were the battle tanks on both sides when Thai and Burmese armies clashed repeatedly in times past. Getting peppered by arrows then repeatedly speared and shot was not so healthy for war elephants; many died on the battlefield.
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My original assertion – that tourism is one of the gentlest forms of mistreatment that elephants have ever suffered at the hands of their human exploiters – still seems to hold up.
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“It’s our demand for elephant rides and circus acts that leads to more baby elephants getting captured from their mothers, tortured, and sold off to entertain us.”
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Baby domesticated elephants are sometimes removed from their mothers when too young, and still suckling. But again, this is not a function of the tourism trade; it’s the owners wanting quick money; and the babies don’t only go into the tourism trade.
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Thailand has more near-destitute, domestic elephants wandering the towns and countryside than the tourism trade can employ. It’s the lucky ones that land a plush job in tourism with – relatively speaking – lots of bananas and sugar cane from admiring visitors in a semi-natural environment. And let’s bury the underlying premise of Matthew’s blog for good; hunting wild elephants for Thailand's tourism trade is nothing but wild myth.
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The link to Matthew Karsten’s blog Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants In Thailand

And the link to the Save Elephant Foundation

Phuket's elephants, children and education for the future

With elephants suffering dramatic declines all across Asia, and experts warning of their likely extinction within a generation or two, the domesticated elephants of Phuket offer a rare opportunity for parents to give their children hands-on experience with these wonderful, gentle giants. Here is a safe and fun environment in which we can instil in children an appreciation of some of nature’s most remarkable creations. And perhaps some children will cherish their memories from Phuket and go on to become elephant benefactors of the future. The elephants are certainly going to need kind human hearts among the coming generations, if they are to survive as a species.
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Where personal experience is most powerful of teachers, it makes sense to book some of your family holiday time in Phuket with the island’s elephants. Families who rent their own transport will find it easiest to mix it up with elephants. As said earlier, there are four or five elephant camps along the steep mountain road between Kata and Nai Harn beaches. The trip over this mountain is a pleasant tour in itself, with other attractions along the way. There are a couple of snakes shows, many ATVs for rent, and even a rubber tapping display. At the bottom of the mountain on the Nai Harn side a Muaythai training camp can be seen by the roadside. Here youthful foreign visitors can be seen practicing their martial arts skills in the mornings and evenings.
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Elephants camps and individual elephants can also be found on the road north of Patong Beach , and in the Bang Tao Beach area.
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But elephants are definitely the main attraction. The camps typically have up to 10 beasts each, mostly the calmer and easier to handle females. Some babies can be expected. Aside from riding an elephant, children can get up close and personal with the jumbos, feeding them their favourite bananas and sugar cane. Familiarity with animals breaks down fears and prejudices, and promotes human goodwill towards our fellow travellers on this beleaguered planet.
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Take your kids to an elephant camp. They will love it, and benefit from it. So will the elephants.
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by John Everingham