Have you always wanted to visit an elephant conservation park during your travels? Arienne shares her experience at Baan Chang Elephant Park in Thailand, and what you should know about the elephant tourism industry in Thailand before visiting the country:
Elephants are the largest land mammal, possess an enormous amount of strength, are easily recognizable by their unique physical characteristics, and capable of living more than 70 years. Located mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, the elephant can be classified into two separate species, the African and Asian elephant.
For centuries, the Asian elephant has played a prominent role in Thailand and is ingrained in the culture. In ancient times, they were used in war to defend the country’s borders. They later became working animals, primarily aiding in the logging and timber industries. Today, they are the country’s national animal, even appearing on the nation’s flag during the 19th century. They have been used for royal ceremonies and processions, and represent power and peace.
However, caught between greed and expansion, elephants have paid a costly price. While the African elephant is listed as vulnerable, the Asian elephant is considered an endangered species. The International Elephant Foundation estimates that only 30,000 Asian elephants remain in the world today with human-elephant conflict accounting for the decrease in elephant numbers worldwide. From poaching to the ivory trade, loss of habitat to the logging and timber industries, elephants have seen their numbers dwindle considerably over the last few decades.
In an attempt to thwart continued deforestation and illegal logging in Northern Thailand, the Thai government banned logging in 1989. This had a drastic impact on working elephants as suddenly they, along with their owners/trainers (called Mahout in Thai) were out of work. Having to find new means of income, some elephants were abandoned and/or sold to neighbouring countries, while many Mahout re-purposed their domesticated elephants to work in the booming tourism industry, with some even being used to beg for money on busy Thai streets as is still seen today.
Tourism plays a major role in Thailand’s economy, and the Elephant tourism industry is ripe with controversy. Taking advantage of the curiosity and ignorance of tourists, many of Thailand’s domesticated elephants are made to perform in shows (from war re-enactments to elephant soccer games), are painted and dressed up for photo ops, and the most sought-after tourist experience, riding on the back of an elephant. But what most tourists aren’t privy to understanding is how poor many of these elephant’s living conditions are, how they suffer from abuse, malnourishment and chronic pain.
In response to this growing sector of the tourism industry, many individuals and organizations have set up elephant conservation parks to remove elephants from abusive situations while allowing tourists the opportunity to learn about the behaviours and care the animals require in a safe and ethical environment. While travelling through Thailand, I visited the Baan Chang Elephant Park, about an hour’s drive outside of Chiang Mai. Here I was able to get up close with the elephants, hand feed them bananas and sugar cane, learn some of the commands the Mahout use to direct them, and bathe them at the end of the day.
It was very intimidating standing so close to the animals. As I held bunches of bananas, their trunks would reach out nuzzling there way to the food. But it was also funny and entertaining to watch them use a tree trunk to scratch an itch on their legs and roll around in the water, cooling off from the day’s heat.
It was an educational experience, one where I felt much more connected to the animals than I would of in any other performance or zoo-related capacity.
It’s important to educate yourself about the elephant tourism industry in Thailand before visiting the country. Take the time to research those places that treat the elephants well and don’t exploit them for financial gain. Many of these organizations, including Baan Chang, actually purchase the elephants from their previous owners and rely on our visits to fund their endeavors. They also regularly look for volunteers to round out their support staff, thus making an elephant park an ideal location for those interested in volunteering during their travels. Some stays can be as short as 1 week or as long as 1-2 months.
Nothing says you can’t have that quintessential elephant experience in Thailand, but it’s important though that you choose to support those who do it in an ethical and sustainable manner.