Chiang Mai and Elephants!
February 27, 2015
The next leg of our trip brought us to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is a medium sized city in Northern Thailand and home to most of the unethical animal exhibits for tourists. These include tiger farms where you can pet drugged tigers, a monkey “training camp,” a snake farm, and elephant farms. After a lot of research we decided to go to one of the elephant farms; we were not comfortable supporting any of the other animal exhibits based on what we'd read.
History of Elephants in Thailand
The people of Thailand have used elephants for various purposes for over 1000 years. You can think of Thai elephants as two different groups: wild and domestic. Wild elephants make up about 50% of the current elephant population in Thailand and live in densely forested nature preserves throughout the country. Domestic elephants make up the other half of the elephants and many of them work on tourist farms. The elephants we visited were descendants of the elephants domesticated by the Thai people 1000 years ago. There are groups that work to release domestic elephants back into the wild, but they only have a 60-70% adaption rate. The newly released elephants need full-time tracking and intervention during rough times.
Current use of Elephants in Thailand
Besides tourism, logging is the main use of elephants for work in Thailand today. Rough terrain makes it difficult to get machinery into the forests, so companies use elephants to drag out the felled logs. To get as much work out of the elephants as possible, logging companies will work elephants for more than 12 hours a day. This can lead to starvation since elephants need to spend most of their day eating and nourishing their massive frames. Elephants are also found in villages where people use them to beg for money or try to keep them as pets. These elephants are also often starving because feeding an elephant enough food is expensive. Having elephants around people and villages is dangerous for both the people and the elephants. Elephants roaming around villages destroy gardens and farms when foraging for food, and people will shoot them to protect their crops. They can also die from eating poisons that are around homes and villages.
The farm we visited rescues elephants from logging companies or villages and brings them to their farm. They own and house over 40 elephants and pride themselves on treating their charges well. Because they own so many elephants, the elephants don't have to work with the tourists every day and get time off. Not all the elephant farms for tourists are ethically run, so doing research is important if you're planning on visiting one. Some of the farms rent the elephants from other owners and work the elephants every day to get their money's worth.
How the Elephants live on the Elephant Farm
The elephants spend their days as follows. In the morning tourists come and walk around feeding the elephants snacks of bananas and sugar cane. When the elephants saw us coming they started swaying back and forth with excitement. Swaying and movement like this from elephants is good since it indicates health and happiness. Handlers tie the elephants in a large field so they can't touch each other, and one of the most common question guides get is why the elephants can't roam free around the farm. The reason is that many of the elephants don't like each other. If left to their own devices they would get in fights, charging each other, bashing heads, and potentially killing one another.
Each elephant has a handler with them whenever strangers are present. These handlers are crucial because they make the elephant feel safe and comfortable. Elephants that don’t feel safe can become aggressive, hitting people with their trunks or charging and trampling them. Even handlers from one elephant won't approach another elephant without that elephants handler present. Each elephant has 4-5 handlers so that the elephant learns to be comfortable around more people. We saw handlers walking and bathing elephants that weren't ridden by tour groups throughout the day.
Next we learned how to ride the elephants and the commands used to direct them. “Pai” means go, “hao” means stop, and “kwey” means turn. As a tourist we didn't use the command much since the handlers were present and guiding the elephants at all times. It was a good thing, too, because the elephants wouldn’t have listened to us fumbling tourists who had no idea what we were doing. After lunch we paired up two to an elephant and rode them around the farm for their afternoon walk. Walking, not running, is an elephants’ main form of exercise and something they need to do every day. We took them on several loops around the farm and they got to scratch themselves on trees. They also like to blow snot on themselves as they walk, which we got to experience in all its delightfulness from the back of the elephant. John and I had an elephant who was particularly naughty; she kept trying to wander off and eat things. She managed to steal a bag of treats off a tree during our ride, which was terrifying because when the handler saw her she danced away to keep the food and I almost fell off. Silly elephant. We ended our ride in the watering hole where the elephants got a bath. I’m not sure I have ever seen creatures as happy as those elephants while they were playing and cooling off in the water.
The Best Place for Domestic Elephants
The elephants seemed happy and well-cared for, and a farm like this one is the most ideal situation. The elephants can't go back into the wild and can't wander through human inhabited areas. While the elephants would enjoy more walking freedom it's not safe let them wander around hurting each other. I couldn't think of a better scenario for domestic elephants than the farm we visited. Unlike the tiger or monkey farms where there are more humane ways to treat the animals, the elephants have a pretty sweet life. From what I’ve read visiting a humane elephant farm is one of the best things a tourist can do. Money from tourism makes it possible for farms like the one we visited to exist. You can read more about Thai elephants here.