HM_Thai_2327In honor of World Elephant Day, I want to share and compare our experiences with elephants, both in captivity in an elephant park in Thailand and those living on a game reserve in South Africa.

Confession time: I’m ashamed to admit it, but when we went to Koh Samui, Thailand, going on an elephant ride was at the top of my list. I thought it was just what you did in Thailand; a rite of passage, if you will. The idea of riding high atop an elephant sounded like a fun and unique experience.

Sadly, I didn’t educate myself about the process of training/taming elephants to the point that they allow people to ride on them and how the rides affect the elephants over time.

Blissfully unaware, we paid our entrance fee to Namuang Safari Park for an elephant ride and elephant show (time filler until we could get a ride scheduled). We filed into the stands to see what an elephant show entails. After the trainers worked the crowd for elephant rides and afterwards informed the volunteers that they had to pay (total scam), it was time for the show.

Seeing circus-like displays like humans vs. elephant tug of war, elephants playing soccer, elephants balancing on their two front feet, and spinning hula hoops with their trunks got huge ovations from the crowd.

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Are these people seeing the same show I’m seeing? Yes, it’s entertaining, but I didn’t see the appeal. I’m not a crazy animal activist (props if you are!), but elephants are not meant to do these things and they did not look happy to me.

I started looking closer at the elephant trainers and noticed they all had a hook over their shoulders (I later found out they are called bullhooks). This can be used to pull the elephants by the ear or apply pressure to sensitive spots as a training mechanism. Although I didn’t see them use the hook on the elephants at the park other than to “guide” the elephants, its presence brought me to question its use in the park.

You could also tell that the elephants were overheated. Occasionally, they got a spray from a hose between performances in the show, but their skin dried almost immediately under the intense Thai sun. Performing is a lot of work for an elephant that in the wild generally just wanders around eating grass at a very slow pace all day.

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Baby elephant tied up in the holding pen

I couldn’t help but reflect back on the elephants Jan and I observed while on a safari in South Africa a year earlier.

The game reserve we stayed at, Kichaka, has 7,500 hectares (or approximately 14,015.5 American football fields) for the elephants and other animals to roam around and freely explore.

Although they are technically confined to that space, the reserve monitors and protects the animals as much as possible from heinous crimes like being poached for their ivory tusks. But they don’t have total control over everything that happens amongst the animals; the food chain plays out on the reserve as it would in the wild.

Observing the elephants on the game reserve was incredibly fascinating. We were lucky enough during our twice daily game drives over three days to have numerous encounters with the gentle beasts.

During one rainy morning game drive, we stumbled on a lone elephant that cautiously stared at us for a while and then started meandering towards us. I really thought he was going to take something from the car with his trunk because he was THAT close. It was like Jurassic Park; we didn’t move and tried not to startle him. After pausing for a few seconds he decided we weren’t a threat and went on his merry, yet soggy, way.

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Check out those eyelashes!

One the highlights of our safari experience was when we saw a huge herd traveling through the savannah. They trumpeted with their trunks as they went through the forest then they enjoyed a drink and a bit of a bath in the lake. The elephants are clearly social animals and enjoyed the company of the rest of the herd.

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Stopping to smell…err, eat the flowers

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Another close encounter…

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Beautiful

As you can see, the life of the elephants on the reserve was very different than what I was witnessing at the elephant park in Thailand.

Feeling downtrodden after what we just saw in the show, we debated if we even wanted to take the elephant ride. We already paid for it, so we figured that we may as well do what we originally came for (the elephant show was purely a time-filler until we could get a ride). It didn’t seem that bad…

Yet again, we made an uninformed decision.

Elephants’ spines are not meant to carry the weight of people, let alone the chair, which can lead to permanent spine injuries. An elephant can support up to 330 pounds, but the chairs (called a howdah) can weigh up to 220 pounds alone. Jan and I are definitely much heavier than 110 pounds collectively! The howdah can also cause blisters that can get infected. Lastly, the wear and tear on the elephants’ feet can cause blisters and infections as well.

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The loading area and the Howdah on the elephant’s back

Perhaps it was my state of mind after watching the elephant show, but the elephant ride was really not all that awesome. It was cool for about two minutes to actually get on the elephant and to be so high up, but outside of that it was just a leisurely and wobbly stroll through the forest. The novelty factor wore off real quick.

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The guide with his bullhook over his shoulder

There was a portion of the ride where I was able to ride on the elephant’s neck which was much more exciting and felt more natural. Stroking its prickly hair and tough skin made me feel like I was giving it some comfort, even if just for a few minutes. That was the highlight of the afternoon at the park.

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After learning what I know now, I would not have gone on that elephant ride. I thoughtlessly searched out the most convenient place we could ride elephants and didn’t think about the broader impacts of that decision. However, I will strive to be more aware when making future decisions involving animal tourism.

If you still want the elephant encounter experience, I encourage you to seek out a reputable elephant sanctuary. These provide as close to a natural habitat as possible and don’t train the elephants to do unnatural tricks.

A few examples of these sanctuaries in Southeast Asia are listed at the end of this article.  There are others in South Africa and around the world.

Have you gone to an Elephant Park or Sanctuary? What was your experience like?

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