Is it ethical? Here are ways to tell if an elephant camp is as animal-friendly as it seems.
Is it really a ‘sanctuary’?
Almost definitely not. At present, no tourism-funded ASEAN elephant facility meets all the requirements that define a true sanctuary. Animal sanctuaries don't allow the public to come in contact with wildlife, and only in Thailand’s national parks do wild elephants roam free. Companies that provide homes for Thailand’s domestic elephant population often permit visitors to get close to, touch, bathe and feed elephants. These camps range from exploitative to very ethical - but none of them should be calling themselves a ‘sanctuary’.
Does the camp claim the elephants are ‘free to roam’?
If elephants roamed free outside of Thailand’s huge national parks, there would be significant danger to human life, as well as to the elephants, as they encounter traffic and other risks. Domestic elephants have to be enclosed, and camps use chains to tether the elephants at various times of the day and especially at night.
A lot of westerners get very emotional when they see elephants in chains, but actually this is a good way to keep an elephant safe. Ropes chafe and cut into an elephant’s skin. Chains should loosely fit around the animal’s ankle. Enclosures quickly become barren from over foraging. The elephant should have at least two meters of tether while in their eating area. At night time, there should be more tether so the animal has enough slack to move around and lay down without getting tangled.
How are the Elephants trained?
In captivity, training is important so that people and elephants (or any animal) may live together safely. It is also necessary for the health and well-being of the elephants. Training helps the elephants smoothly and efficiently follow commands for behaviors needed to receive medical care and daily husbandry. Basic commands, such as holding the mouth open for an oral examination, holding a foot up for examination, or holding still for wound care are key elements of good elephant husbandry. In addition, many elephants respond positively to training for mental stimulation and physical challenge. Elephants should be trained using positive reenforcement such as target training.
What are the elephants’ living conditions?
Ethical camps provide plenty of the following:
Shade Asian elephants are not savannah animals and can get overheated and sunburnt, so it's important they have trees to shade them from the hot sun. You will often see elephants throwing dirt and sand on themselves as natural sunscreen.
Natural ground to walk on- Elephants should never be forced to stand on cement all day. This is actually one of the leading causes of early death.
Access to food and water- Elephants should have access to lots of fresh drinking water throughout the day. They should be able to pick fresh food from their immediate habitat and the rest of their food intake should be harvested daily. Food diversity is also imperative to an elephant's health - feeding them watermelons all day long is not great, for obvious reasons!
Cleanliness and bathing- Being surrounded by piles of their own feces isn’t great for anyone. Good camps keep up with disposal of the elephants’ dung and ensure their areas are regularly swept and hosed constantly throughout the day. Also elephants love to spend time in water and the happiest elephants are those who have the plentiful opportunities to bathe and play in the water! A dirty mud puddle where elephants are forced to wallow doesn't count: parasites, which thrive in mud, are really dangerous to elephants.
Exercise- Ideally, elephants should walk about 17km each day
- Friends- Elephants need love too. Ideally there should be one or two bull elephants and several females at each camp. And happy, comfortable elephants make babies!
- Medical treatment- A qualified veterinarian is the foundation of good health care and has a direct impact on the elephant's health and well-being. Elephants should routinely be checked by a vet biannually and treated quickly if problems arise between visits. The elephants are comfortable being tethered so the vet can treat them. The camp should be able transport a sick elephant to the elephant hospital if necessary.
How does it benefit the local community ?
Elephants need a lot of space so most Chiang Mai elephant camps are located far from the city, often rural, poor and economically marginalised villages. But does the company support the local community and do their part to care for the natural resources? As a tourist your visit should benefit the place your visit.
Community based tourism involves communities controlling, managing and developing their own tourism industry. Some camps offer Karen homestays in the mahouts' villages where travellers can experience the community's way of life and consider their social, economic, and environmental impacts upon the destination they are visiting.
Also, good companies pay their staff well, ensuring no-one is forgotten: their porters (who bring food to the elephants), their guides, and their mahouts should all receive a living wage. It’s really hard to discern from a passing visit or through a website whether a company pays fairly, but it’s definitely worth asking questions!
Does the camp buy elephants?
Contrary to what most people may think, the most ethical way to ‘save’ an elephant is to rent it. When you purchase an elephant from an abusive owner you often pay upwards of 60,000 USD - a lump sum which directly benefits the exploitative owner and perpetuates the cycle of abuse and torture, usually by financing the owner’s next purchase of a smuggled wild baby elephant. The horrible animal abuse called pahjaan is an old style of training used for "breaking" wild elephants. Buying an elephant can perpetuate the cycle of trafficking and abusing wild elephants.
Does the camp claim the mahouts don’t use bullhooks?
The reality is, elephants can kill. Mahouts risk their lives on a daily basis to look after them, but people often forget about the welfare of these caretakers. Good mahouts will form a close bond with their animal based on kindness and respect and rarely have to use physical methods. Nevertheless, bullhooks are backup, necessary for ensuring everybody’s safety, including the elephants’. But they should absolutely not be over-used or used too harshly.
If camps become obsessed with appearances and instruct mahouts not to use bullhooks, they will resort to the use of nails or sharp sticks instead, keeping them tucked out of sight in their hands. If you are concerned about the use of sharp objects, you should check for bloody pock marks or scars on or near the elephant's rump - these usually indicate that a past or present mahout is overusing one of these tools.
Is the company transparent about money?
Ethical organisations always disclose the details of how donations are used. Transparency and accountability is important, so there should be documentation readily available to the public.
Are there rides?
It is not as simple as rides or no rides. We must take into account all the factors that affect the elephants health and happiness. Elephants, like horses, have been ridden in this way for thousands of years and there are ways to do it that promote wellness, and ways that work the animal to death. Chair rides CAN hurt elephants but not in the way most people think. The padding under the saddle needs to stay dry which means the elephant can’t go to bathe and cool off. Elephants can die from heatstroke. Chairs ensure a higher person to elephant ratio, a pure profit-making move for unethical camps. Such places are more likely to over work elephants (and caretakers) and create a dangerious situation.