As a tour operator in Thailand it is inevitable to get requests for elephant riding. Perhaps our tour itineraries that include safari drives to look for elephants are adding to the confusion. But our tours are solely about watching animals in the wild. Trying to sit on one of those wild elephants would be suicide.
For those who don't know, there is a dark side about elephant riding. This tourist activity is bringing the species closer to extinction in the wild.
At first sight, elephant riding does not appear to be any different from horseback riding. Well, OK, elephants don't look like horses. But other than that, it seems no different. There is a large population of domestic elephants in Thailand, more than there are remaining in the wild. Most of these are somehow working in the tourism industry. Either for riding tourists around, or simply begging on the street.
Breeding elephants is a time consuming and expensive process. The gestation period of the Asian Elephant is around 18 - 22 months. And normally, only one calf is born. Raising a calf until it reaches a size ready for elephant riding takes many years. The captive bred calves are sold for substantial amounts of money, anywhere between 500000 - 2000000 baht (12000 - 50000 EUR; 14000 - 55000 USD). A lot of money, especially for Thai standards.
But what if you would not have to take care of the mother for the nearly 2 years during gestation? What if you can get a calf for free? Very tempting!
Poachers know their way into the protected areas of Thailand. Some try to kidnap wild elephant calves. Calves are always in a herd with adults. And the adults will do everything to defend their young whenever they are in danger. The only way to kidnap a calf, is by killing several adult members of the herd. From the stories we have seen in the news, often 4 adults get killed to kidnap one calf. The calf will stick to its mother. Even when the mother has already died. And it is then easily captured by the poachers.
Every now and then these stories make it in the news in Thailand, but the problem extends across the borders. Apparently 50 to 100 elephant calves are sold from Myanmar to Thailand each year!
If catching these endangered, but magnificent creatures from the wild is not bad enough, wait until you have seen how the young elephants are tortured into tameness. The inhumane practice of 'breaking the elephants soul' is heart-breaking to see. Below, you find a link to a very disturbing video. Be prepared, but when you have seen this, you surely will think twice before riding an elephant. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcvGGe-zpIA
There are various organizations in Thailand that seem to have their heart at the right place. They often take care of retired and injured elephants. A proper online search will help you find the right ones. We are not going to recommend any, because we have no 'hands on' experience with any of these elephant sanctuaries. We purely stick to the wild.
All we try to do with this page is to inform you about the facts about elephant riding. We do not want to say that every domestic elephant is, or has been treated badly. But only when demand of the tourists stops, the illegal trade from the wild, and the brutal tortures will stop too. It might feel cruel not to give any support to the young elephant in poor shape that you might see wandering around in a city with his owners. But there seems no other way to stop this. Even buying the elephant from the owner would simply mean a new one will be taken from the wild or bred in captivity and tortured to follow up the other.
The best you can do is to share this information with as many people as possible. We have seen an increasing trend of tour operators that stopped offering tours that included elephant riding. Lets hope all will follow. Don't hesitate to email any tour operator you see actively offering elephant riding. Tell them about what happens and how you decide to book with another operator because of this! When the money stops flowing, people might start to listen. Sad, but true.
To finish this on a more positive note. There are still wild elephants in Thailand. In certain places, a sighting is almost guaranteed. By far the best spot to see wild Asian Elephants is in Kui Buri national park. We have seen them in all of Thailand's big national parks. But only in Kui Buri nearly all of our our guests have been fortunate to see elephants. It is much more rewarding seeing them at their home. Click here to check out our Kui Buri elephant safari.
Thank you for reading, and please, spread the word!