elephant ethics: A guide

When researching ethical elephant venues, advice can be contradictory and difficult to navigate. Here are some general principles to keep in mind as you plan your travels.

1. Is there transparency in marketing?

Some camps use stories about elephant ‘rescues’ which are not representative of the challenges facing the elephant population in Thailand today. The vast majority of elephants in Thailand are born into captivity and are cared for quite well. They make their owners too much money to be neglected!

Be very wary if the camp is telling you that, in order to follow their mahouts’ instructions, the elephant’s spirit has been ‘broken’ in its infancy. The ancient brutal practice of ‘Pha-jaan’ was ceremonial and is no longer practiced. Now, captive elephant infants stay with their mothers until they are weaned, at between three and four years old, and then are trained at the Conservation Centre and stay with their mothers. Like dogs, elephants are very empathetic and intelligent. They can learn commands through positive reinforcement, just as puppies do.

2. HOW ARE THE ELEPHANTS CONTAINED?

There are only two ways you can safely contain an elephant. You can keep the animal in a secure steel enclosure; this is a very expensive measure that is often not possible in Asian countries. Alternatively, the more common option in Asia is to tether the elephant with a large chain that fits loosely around their ankle. Small chains should not be used since they can pinch the skin and get tangled causing harm to the elephant. Ropes should not be used because they will irritate and burn the skin.

HOW LONG IS THE TETHER?

The elephant should have at least 2 meters of tether while in their eating area. This short tether prevents elephants from hurting each other in a fight over food. At night time, there should be 20-30 meters of tether so the animal has enough slack to move around and graze.

3. HOW OFTEN DOES THE VET VISIT?

Elephants should be checked up on and treated at least twice a year. At Chai Lai the vet visits by default every six months, and more often if needed.

4. HOW MUCH WALKING DO THE ANIMALS GET A DAY? DOES THE COMPANY CLAIM THEIR ELEPHANTS "ROAM FREE" OR MAKE SIMILAR STATEMENTS?

Wild elephants would walk around 17km per day. Each elephant should get exercised every day. On the other hand, elephants also have a need for downtime. An elephant cannot be active and work all day; they need time to themselves to decompress just like us humans.

Be extremely wary of any camp or sanctuary that makes claims like this. Unless the company has been able to buy a huge chunk of National Park land and pay rangers to watch the elephants, it is impossible for elephants to literally roam free. Thailand’s population density is just too high - there are always villages, crops and people nearby. Every ethical camp will be using either enclosures or chains to restrain their elephants for at least part of the day.

Some camps also state that they do not use hooks. Bullhooks are actually vital in controlling elephants in extreme situations, like when an elephant becomes aggressive or panicked. In most camps that claim they don’t use hooks, mahouts tend to smuggle sharp sticks or nails in their bags or hands. You should check for bloody pock marks or scars on or near their rump - this is where they are often hit with nails.

5. DOES THE SANCTUARY BUY ELEPHANTS?

Contrary to what most people may think, the most ethical way to save an elephant from abuse is to rent it. When you purchase an elephant from an absuive owner you often pay upwards of 60,000 USD. That money directly benefits that unethical owner and perpuates the cycle of abuse and torture. If you care about protecting these beautiful creatures, you should not support the purchase of them.

6. IS THE STAFF INSURED?

Responsible employers should pay their staff above minimum wage and offer comprehensive insurance. Working with elephants is dangerous and difficult and staff need to make sure that should any injury occur, they will be taken care of.

7. ARE THERE CHAIR RIDES?

Chair rides are unsafe for elephants. The chairs, already heavy, can carry up to three people, and all that weight is placed on a vulnerable point of the elephant’s spine. Added to that, grit and dirt can get trapped between the chair and the elephant’s skin, causing painful sores.

8. DO THE ELEPHANTS HAVE SUFFICIENT SHELTER?

  • Shade: Asian elephants are jungle animals and can easily get overheated and sunburnt so it's important they have shade from the hot sun. You will often see elephants throwing dirt and sand on themselves to protect themselves.

  • No cement: Elephants should never be forced to stand on cement in their area of containment. Surprisingly, this is one of the leading causes of an early death.

  • Access to water: Elephants should have the access to fresh drinking water least once every 2 hours throughout the day.

9. WHAT IS THE ELEPHANT'S DIET COMPRISED OF?

The captive elephants should be able to pick fresh food from their immediate habitat. The rest of their food intake should be cut from plantations on a daily basis so it does not lose the nutritional value. Diversity of diet is also imperative to an elephants health - if the animals only eat sugary fruit their teeth will rot and their lifespan will be reduced.

10. IS THE COMPANY TRANSPARENT ABOUT WHERE YOUR MONEY GOES?

Unfortunately in Thailand, there are a lot of projects that ask for donations but fail to disclose the details surrounding where that money actually goes. There needs to be transparency and accountability. Look for a disclosure on their website or elsewhere that describes how your money will be used.