The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand

Part 1: The Dream Crusher

One of the most popular tourist activities to do when you’re in Thailand is to visit an elephant camp or ride an elephant. Riding an elephant sounded like a once in a lifetime experience, until a fellow French backpacker promptly crushed my dreams.

“You mean, you don’t know?” she asked me in disbelief.

She then went on to lecture me on how elephants used in riding camps are dragged from their mothers at a very young age and then tortured in a process known as phajaan, to learn to fear humans and obey their every command.

This was all news to me, as I heard about it in Bali, the first stop on my Southeast Asian backpacking itinerary.

So, I asked myself, did this mean I’d be crossing elephant rides off of my bucket list?

Part 2: There is Still Hope

I began to look around for alternatives to elephant riding. Many tour agencies offered “ethical” elephant tours. These tours did not let you ride the elephant (as elephants, despite their massive size, really aren’t meant to carry loads on their back). Other agencies advertised that they did not use the bullhook to train their elephants.

The bullhook looks something like this …

The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand. By Wooly Ventures.
The bullhook. Photo credit to:

It’s definitely not the friendliest looking instrument. Critics say that this instrument is used to inflict pain upon the elephants so that they will obey the mahout’s every command. But who would want to hurt those friendly giants?

Maybe I was a bit naive, but I saw elephants as some of the most gentlest creatures on the planet, and was shocked to find out that that wasn’t exactly the case. Am I the only one who didn’t know that elephants can (and have) intentionally killed people?

Part 3: A visit to the Chiang Thai Heritage Elephant Sanctuary

Although I was still skeptical at the prospect of visiting an elephant sanctuary, even one that is proclaimed “ethical” (it’s not like they’re regulated, and they’re still making a profit), I decided to go ahead and see it with my own eyes. I ended up choosing the Chiang Thai Heritage, a smaller and lesser known elephant sanctuary. These guys are founded on the principle that they train their elephants without use of a hook and they don’t allow tourists to ride on the elephants backs.

The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand. By Wooly Ventures.
At Chiang Thai Heritage. Here, our guide is explaining how the elephants are trained with the use of food as positive reinforcement.

We were only about ten people total in the tour group, which was about 2 people per elephant. Not bad at all if you want to get a lot of uninterrupted “me” time with the elephants. The tour began with our tour guide explaining all the wonderful work they are doing in rehabilitating the elephants and training them without the use of the bullhook. He also encouraged us to donate extra money, if we had the means, to the Chiang Thai Heritage, so they could use this money to purchase the elephants.

Okay, so it appeared that Chiang Thai Heritage didn’t exactly own their elephants. Instead, they were “on loan” from a larger elephant park next door. This elephant park had dozens of elephants and was a much more well established and large tour company. At one point during the tour, our tour guide pointed out the sound of a mahout (elephant trainer) shouting at the elephant from the adjacent elephant park. He was quick to criticize.

You should never have to shout at an elephant for it to obey you, he told us.

At Chiang Thai Heritage, food replaced the bullhooks to reward the elephants for their good behavior. Sounds like a great system! I mean, isn’t that the way we train dogs, with positive reinforcement? At the same time, the fact that the elephants were on loan made me feel a bit skeptical. It was like, okay, now they’re being treated fairly (or so they say). But how long does the loan last? And what happens if (or when) they go back to their previous owners?

After the tour, I followed up with an email to Chiang Thai Heritage and asked some of these questions. I got no response.

The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand
Taking the elephants to the river to be bathed.

For the next hour, we learned the basic commands used by the mahouts to train the elephants (“Come”, “eat”, “lay down”, “stop”, etc.). We then wandered outside into a paddock where approximately five elephants were standing, each with their mahout.

Up until now, my attention had been focused mainly on the elephants. With all the horrible stories I had heard from others, along with the terrible images of baby elephants being tortured roaming the internet, it’s no surprise why. But as I looked towards the elephants, my attention turned towards the mahouts instead.

Part 4: The Mahout’s Untold (and Unknown) Story

I hadn’t heard many stories about the mahouts, other than that they were the ones responsible for inflicting so much pain and suffering on the elephants. So, up until now, they didn’t have a very good rep in the world of the backpackers / animal lovers. I mean, who would do that to such a cute, defenseless creature? Those poor baby elephants!

I had also heard that mahouts, at least traditionally, are assigned to an elephant from an early age, spending most of their life with the same elephant and forging an important bond. Even at Chiang Thai Heritage, the mahouts lived in simple huts right next to the elephant paddock, so they were always very near.

The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand. By Wooly Ventures.
The mahouts with their elephants.

One of the mahouts seemed quite young. He looked to be as young as around 13 years old, although it was hard to tell. He was short and skinny, and was paired with a younger elephant. As I watched from afar, I marveled at how the mahouts were so comfortable being in such close proximity with these huge animals! The baby elephant seemed a bit fidgety. Uhhh, isn’t he going to move out of the way? I thought to myself as I looked at the mahout sitting on a bench with his feet oh-so-close to the elephants.

I could barely believe it, but I saw the baby elephant step on the foot of the younger mahout. But the mahout didn’t even flinched. Maybe this wasn’t the first time this has happened? His feet seemed a bit gnarled and malformed.

I approached the baby elephant and began to feed him the sugar cane as our tour guide had told us to. I also tried to talk to the mahout, but quickly realized he didn’t speak English. Despite the baby elephant doing the cutest things (like giving us big wet kisses on our cheeks with his snout), the mahout never cracked a smile. What had this boy been through to act like this? I wondered.

Side note: Obviously, these are my impressions of the situation from a very Western perspective. If I had been able to talk to or ask questions of the mahout, it might have been a completely different story. I sincerely hope so. But it definitely didn’t appear that way.

Part 5: The Fake Smile

So there I was, feeling a bit uncomfortable about the whole situation, but continuing to feed more sugar cane and accept more wet kisses from the baby elephant, with a rather fake smile on my face.

The rest of the tour group were enjoying themselves, as tourist after tourist waited in line to be picked up by the trunk of the oldest elephant, and took heart wrenching photographs of their arms wrapped around the trunk of the elephant with huge grins.

Sorry if it seems like I’m judging. I think it had something to do with the fact that I was so skeptical of the whole thing right from the start. I didn’t want to start raining on anyone’s elephant tour parade by starting to ask uncomfortable questions such as “This mahout doesn’t look very happy”, and “Should you really be letting that elephant pick you up off the floor like that? It just doesn’t look safe”. So I kept my mouth shut, and continued to fake smile my way through the whole thing.

Other side note: I turned out to be right about the whole elephant trunk not being safe thing! I was told by a fellow backpacker the following week that she had been dropped by the elephant who lifted her up and had hurt her ankle. At the same time, she did get a pretty cool picture out of it. #priorities 😉

The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand. By Wooly Ventures.

Part 6: The Bottom Line

At the end of my tour, I still didn’t have a clear answer whether my visit to the elephant sanctuary was truly “ethical” or not. I was just left with more questions than I had started with. Especially questions about the mahouts. Where did they come from? What were they paid? Why hadn’t I heard about them before?

Also, who are we to call the mahouts cruel in using the bullhook if they aren’t given the experience or training needed to control their elephants?

And just because you don’t ride on an elephant’s back, does that still mean it’s okay to force the elephants to do hours upon hours of tricks for the tourists (kneeling down, lifting up people with their tusks and/or trunks, etc.)

With absolutely no regulation of the elephant tourism industry in Thailand, it’s impossible to know (unless you’re an elephant expert, that is) what these animals should and shouldn’t be doing.

Part 7: Background and History

The visit to Chiang Thai Heritage left me thinking more and more about the mahouts. I scoped the internet searching for any type of article describing their life and living conditions. I came across a number of interesting articles that explored the ethics of riding an elephant in Thailand, and deplored the drunken tourists who rode a baby elephant at a pool party. But I came up with nothing on the mahouts.

Until I came across this one, and afterwards this one, which both describe the dangerous, difficult and low status job of a mahout in Thailand. Not only is it a low status job, but even the mahouts themselves don’t see it highly. A highly skilled mahout with years of experience and dedication, explained in this same article how he regarded someone who is able to fully operate a standard vehicle, as having a higher skill set than himself.

Many of the mahouts come to Thailand, fleeing from Myanmar, to find work as migrant workers. Unfortunately, working as a mahout is now considered a low skill, low wage job in Thailand, contrary to previous times. If we are to push for better living conditions and standards for the elephants, we should be pushing just as hard, if not harder for the living conditions and standards of the mahouts.

The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand. By Wooly Ventures.
Mahouts on the backs of their elephants. Photo credit: Echezona27 via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

This quote, from that same article in the Atlantic, also goes to show that the issue of using a bullhook or not in the training of the elephant is not as simple as it seems.

Mahouts today are caught in a catch-22. Tourists have come to believe that traditional tools like chains and bullhooks are inherently unethical, but still want to be able to have up-close-and-personal interactions with elephants. “I use a bullhook because some elephants we cannot control with our hands,” one mahout explained. “Humans are small. Elephants spook easily and are dangerous. If elephants get scared, they kill people.”

Elephants have a long and complex history in Thailand, and were originally used in the logging industry. When the logging industry was banned in 1989, many these elephants transitioned into the tourism. You might be asking yourself, why these elephants were not returned to the wild instead.

The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand. By Wooly Ventures.
Elephant being used in the logging industry. Photo credit: Christian Haugen via VisualHunt / CC BY

As most of the elephant’s natural habitat has now been destroyed, the elephants have nowhere left to go. Because of this, tourism remains an attractive alternative to house the elephants as well as provides a source of income for their mahouts.

The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand. By Wooly Ventures.
It’s still possible to support elephants in the tourism industry in Thailand without having to ride on their backs. Photo credit: chericbaker via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Part 8: The End

There’s more to it than simply asking yourself “to ride or not to ride an elephant in Thailand”. In order for the elephants to be treated with compassion, it’s only fair that their trainers, the mahouts, be treated justly as well.

Have you visited an elephant sanctuary in Thailand? What are your thoughts on it?

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The Untold Story of the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand. By Wooly Ventures.

The Untold Story behind the Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand