One hot day in September 2015, I met majestic Bourjour, who was set to change my outlook on her kind forever. She lives in the hills of Chiang Mai, Thailand, is 30 years old and is shadowed everywhere she roams by her 3 year old daughter, Ari. When we first met, she was shy and weary, and it was hard to see past the scars on her ears and shoulders that told a story of pain and fear. Bourjour spent much of her life as a slave in a circus, routinely being mistreated and forced into performing for crowds of tourists. That changed when she was bought from her owner by Patara Elephant Farm and rehabilitated, a process which allowed baby Ari into the world.
At the time of meeting Bourjour, I knew very little about her or her species. I had my ethical concerns, and I had heard some terrible things about the way elephants were treated in Thailand. Conscience told me not to visit her. But the traveller in me wanted to experience her.
The ethics of elephant tourism is something that is becoming increasingly important to more and more young travellers, and rightfully so. The generations that preceded us (my parents included) have travelled Asia visiting the sedated and mutilated tigers, the chained and tortured elephants and other endangered species of the continent. Today, animal welfare is increasingly prevalent in our consciences, and documentaries like Blackfish and animal welfare stories shared on social media (such as a recent video posted of a tiger in Thailand’s Tiger Temple being punched in the face, January 2016) aggravate this ethical conundrum for young travellers. There is a growing pressure to behave ethically and treat animals with respect. This pressure is increasingly ubiquitous online; young people are forced to think twice before they share experiences that could be deemed unethical on social media platforms. However, the desire to get up close and personal with the towering elephants still repeatedly triumphs this moral dilemma, begging the question: Is there such thing as ethical elephant tourism?
Throughout Thailand’s long history, elephants have been celebrated and revered as magnificent beasts of power and majesty. To this day, the locals regard them as lucky, and display their symbolism in prominent places around their homes. In ancient times of war, elephants were used to ride and charge at enemies (I suppose in the way that the western world would use horses). Some old practices have continued into the modern day, including their use working the land, pulling logs and primitive farming machinery. These old cultural customs continued over time determine the ownership of elephants as conventional and ingrained in modern society, translating to their fate of being owned and trained to this day. United with the booming tourism industry and the changing landscape of Thailand, a dramatically decreasing elephant population is the troubling result. Tourism, and the desire for smaller, “cuter” animals, means that calves are regularly separated from their mothers and families are split, causing trauma for the elephants and reducing the likelihood of reproduction. The construction of motorways, cities, and general expansion can separate herds and diminish their habitats, adding to the challenges of reproduction that the small number of wild elephants already face.
The tourism industry has taken these aged cultural practices, and adapted them into a circus-style attraction for visitors, forcing the elephants into demonstrating historical skills of pulling or stacking logs, and adopting fierce military poses symbolic of battle. Irrelevant skills are showcased; you can visit elephants who can paint, play instruments or play football. “Fantasea” show in Phuket displays these proud creatures standing on their hind legs, or standing on their heads, all in extravagant and humiliating costume. These “elephant shows” or circuses are only one type of elephant tourism in Thailand, however. In Ayutthaya, you can ride an elephant around the ancient ruins on a heavy saddle with a canopy above your head. In many of the major cities, you can pay to touch elephants being paraded down the streets, or have your photo taken with them. This practice is exacerbated by the prominence of the elephant of a symbol of luck and strength in Buddhism – the Thai people will often pay to give their respects to these elephants, traditionally alien to the city streets.
One thing to remember, if ever planning to visit the elephants in Thailand, is that if they are in a show, exhibiting behaviour that seems unnatural in any way (e.g. painting, parading) they have been through a very painful process called “phajaan”. A quick search of this word into Google, or Youtube, will give you a clear idea of this torturous training practice; elephants are essentially beaten and tortured into submission, so that they can be trained to perform for tourists.
All this we held in the back of our minds as we debated visiting an elephant farm in Chiang Mai, and wrestled with the moral dilemma facing travellers of Asia today: Can you indulge in the presence of these majestic creatures without aiding the cruelty of the industry?
We visited Patara Elephant Farm for the “Elephant Owner for a Day” program, deciding to pay considerably more for our experience than the average elephant farm/camp in Chiang Mai (5,600 Thai baht as of September 2015, converting to approx. £110 per person). I was nervous, and all the way there I was praying we had done the right thing. The first encounters were breath-taking, but I worried the baby elephants wrestling Liam to the ground and playing excitedly was a well-planned distraction.
I was heartened by the talk we soon had from an English-speaking mahout. We learnt that the admissions money was used significantly on food, with a secondary focus on saving enough to buy elephants from surrounding circuses, shows and walking streets. He explained that the owner of Patara would regularly approach the owners of baby elephants being used in urban areas and ask them to contact him when the baby grows too big – to avoid them being sold on to circuses or other attractions. My “Elephant for the Day,” Bourjour, was bought by Patara from a circus in Chiang Mai. They focus on the rehabilitation of elephants and particularly on reproduction, giving the females a comfortable and nurturing environment for them to make a new start. We saw no fences, and no chains, and the mahout told us that out of the 70 elephants they keep, they only use 12 per day for the program, and the rest of the time it is common for the mahouts to lose their elephants out in the forest for days or even weeks at a time.
Sometimes people will criticise me for riding Bourjour; I am still not sure where I stand on this. There were no saddles, just me, and her mahout taught me to sit between her ears like he did. She seemed at ease but I am unaware what sort of training she went through to be as comfortable with me as she was. This is perhaps my one regret about my day; as a tourist perhaps you can never be 100% sure of the ethics of your actions.
I am not so naïve as to deem Patara as wholly ethical, as the argument exists that they are still a business using the elephants for tourism. But in such a fragile environment, there logically seems to be no way that these creatures could survive on their own in the wild – there are too many challenges threatening their survival. Patara creates a safe environment to encourage the conservation of Thai elephants, and is successful in creating an exhilarating and heart-warming experience for the tourists willing to splash out a little more in order to reject the unethical shows and performances rampant in Chiang Mai. We had an unforgettable day as we connected with these astounding creatures; feeding them, bathing them, riding them through the jungle and a million more heart-warming experiences along the way.