One of the most popular activities for tourists traveling in Thailand is to ride on elephants. Elephant camps offer [tourists] fun interactions such as feeding bananas to baby elephants, treks through the jungle, bathing elephants in the river and in some cases, watching elephants paint. Most visitors are probably familiar with the criticisms environmental and animal activists level toward these camps for the maltreatment of elephants. But what these critics almost always miss is the elephants’ most trusted companion: their caretakers, the mahouts.
Mahouts used to hold a much more revered and well-paid position in society, due to the degree of expertise, experience and physical strength it takes to work so closely with such large, intelligent, sensitive, and potentially dangerous, animals. In the best scenarios, the mahout and elephant develop a lifelong bond of love and trust through which they can work together. However, the increasing demand for cheap tourist attractions drives prices down and caretakers are forced to take work well below the minimum wage.
Elephants are powerful animals that can attack each other and humans, especially the males when they are in musth. Most people would not put their lives on the line for 6000 baht (less than 200 USD) per month. So these jobs are often filled by undereducated, inexperienced and unprotected people from ethnic minority groups, such as Karen refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar. As refugees, they usually lack money and legal access to work and public education. The Karen language is also very different from Thai language, which makes it even more difficult to assimilate. However, in Thailand, they often also face intense discrimination and rights violations. As stateless people, undocumented workers or as ethnic minorities (even with documentation), many mahouts are exploited, taking on extremely dangerous and frequently lethal work with incredible risks, for almost no pay.
The high demand for cheap tourist attractions places stress on both the elephants and the mahouts. In the worst cases, this can lead to deadly encounters where mahouts are killed and their families are left even more vulnerable. Meanwhile the tourists who participate in these attractions vilify the mahouts (who not only make these attractions possible but also serve as the only protection between the elephants and tourists), thanks to misguided animal rights’ movements that spread misinformation and emotive rather than well-informed calls to action. These help neither the elephants nor their caretakers.
For some of the young men who start working with elephants, the job is not their first choice. They’re often nervous of the elephants at first and want to rely on more aggressive means of control. With the help of more experienced mahouts, they can learn that the best way to control their elephant is by building a trusting relationship and learning to read the animal well. For example, if an elephant is showing signs of stress, the mahout can recognise that quickly and defuse the situation non-violently by removing the elephant from the stressor. This obviously helps the mahouts too, because it makes them feel a lot safer, and enables them to enjoy their job a lot more.
Many tourists have no idea that there are labor abuses going on all around them. And they are in vacation mode, so human rights aren’t necessarily at the forefront of their minds! Based on her experience working with indigenous groups and the animals they care for, Bay offered some recommendations to consider:
Notice them. Talk with them. Most Karen people are shy about speaking English but you can try to talk with them and encourage them as they practice this skill. Chai Lai Orchid’s staff say that positive interactions with tourists reinforce their sense of dignity and help make the day more pleasant.
They may be your spirit animal, but they are still 5 ton animals who need personal space! And respecting the elephants may help prevent needless deaths and injuries for their mahouts.
To support conservation, Chai Lai Orchid has a policy of not buying elephants. When an elephant camp or sanctuary gives a large sum of money (60,000 USD) to an owner who exploits elephants, it actually fuels the cycle of trafficking wild elephants from the jungle. Wild baby elephants (not domestic or captive ones) are beaten and tortured into submission to be trained. Wild elephants are endangered, so it is very important not to contribute to anything that results in the purchase of elephants. Domestic elephants are trained holistically over time, and some may not even be separated from their mothers. Don’t support camps or so called sanctuaries who buy elephants.
Look for companies which work sustainably, with and through their local community, to enact grassroots change, rather than those who hail their founders as heros or who excessively promote ‘saving’ elephants. This helps to reinforce the dignity of the local community, plus ethical organizations are usually glad to direct you to other organizations whose work they respect and appreciate. Good NGOs and social businesses understand that their work is collaborative. The success of one should not obstruct the success of another.
Even though you are traveling to experience a foreign culture, you may still be (and probably are unknowingly) influenced by cultural imperialism. Racist stereotypes and ‘otherization’ enables sex tourists to buy young women and feel like they are saving them or helping them. Likewise, racist stereotypes and ‘otherization’ allow people to vilify mahouts while imagining they are saving the elephants. Always be ready to learn and open your mind, and be prepared for the fact that the process might not always be a comfortable one.
A great deal of misinformation on social media about captive elephants is spread due to snap judgements and lack of knowledge. Of course, the ideal would be for there to be no elephant tourism and for all elephants to be able to roam wild, but this is neither the case nor is it feasible. There are no officially designated sanctuaries, so elephants must be chained at night to prevent them from roaming, damaging crops, and hurting people or themselves.
The question then becomes about implementing the best possible practices that consider the welfare of both the animals and the people who spend their whole lives caring for them. Many visitors are uninformed about the history of elephants in Thailand, the circumstances that led to the growth of elephant camps and the reality of caring for captive elephants vs. the small population of wild elephants. But they still write blogs and social media posts about the welfare of elephants that often cause more damage than good.
Wages and practices should facilitate a respectful and loving bond between the elephant and their caretaker, based on experience, expertise and trust, where neither is stressed out, exploited, or abused.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She currently writes from Berlin.