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For most travelers to Thailand, riding an elephant is a top priority. There is something about the notion of lumbering through the rolling tropical hills atop a five ton gentle giant, that elicits imagery of exotic and faraway lands.
I'm not going to lie. Like many others, I've thought about it too. Riding elephants has been marketed as a uniquely "Thai" experience and, thus, has kept tourists flocking to the country in order to cross elephant rides off their bucket lists.
Having spent a year living in Namibia--in close proximity to some of the world's best wildlife reserves--I, too, became fascinated with the world's largest mammals. So, when planning my trip to Thailand, I made sure to pencil in a day at one of the country's many elephant refuges.
|Mahout and his Elephant|
Elephants have been prominent in Thai culture and folklore for centuries. Yet, Thailand has seen a dramatic drop in the numbers of wild elephants in recent years. This drop can be attributed to loss and destruction of habitat, illegal poaching for ivory and the sale of animals to tour operators.
Until the ban of the logging industry in 1989, elephants were instrumental in assisting their owners with clear-cutting the country's forested areas. Ironically, by working in the logging industries, elephants were involved in the destruction of their own environments and, as a result, contributed to a rapid decline in the number of their kin throughout the country.
However, while generally a good thing, the logging-industry ban has acted as a double-edged sword for the well-being of the animals. On the positive side, the animals no longer have to toil laboriously at the hands of their owners to clearcut the very areas where they once roamed wild. Yet, on the other hand, lack of employment in the logging industries has left many elephants hungry and neglected at the hands of owners who no longer have the means to provide them food. Healthy male elephants eat nearly 350 pounds of food every day, which is no small amount for their owners to provide.
As a result, many elephant owners have entered the lucrative business of street-begging with their elephants. Today, though illegal, it is still common to see elephants roaming the streets of Bangkok--eating plastic bags, food scraps and any other odds and ends they can find--as their owners parade them through the streets to collect baht.
In order to rescue animals from street-begging and heavy labor, conservation centers have mushroomed around the country and taken the animals into their care.
I had originally planned on visiting the Elephant Nature Park--a refuge for elephants that have been abused and neglected in the logging and tourism industries. The park has stellar reviews online and is incredibly popular with tourists to the region. However, since my visit to Chiang Mai coincided with Thailand's yearly lantern festival, the Elephant Nature Park was completely booked when I planned on visiting.
Knowing that I still wanted to spend a day with elephants, I leafed through countless brochures in the hostel lobby to try to find an alternative to the Nature Park. Yet, it seemed that all the other tours functioned more for the entertainment and curiosity of the tourists, than for the well-being of the animals.
After a bit of online searching and consulting with the hostel staff, I found the Ran Tong Elephant Sanctuary.
Like the Elephant Nature Park, Ran Tong is a refuge for elephants that have been neglected, orphaned and physically abused. The center purchases the animals from private owners and seeks to rehabilitate them by providing medical care and nursing them back to health.
|This Baby Elephant Orphan Has Been Virtually Adopted by the Elephants at Ran Tong|
While elephants today do not engage in warfare and are not employed in the logging industry, they have, in addition to street-begging, been recruited in droves for tourism-related jobs.
Ran Tong, too, relies on tourists to generate income for elephant rehabilitation and even offers limited elephant rides. I was initially disappointed that Ran Tong makes elephant rides available to tourists, but pleased that the sanctuary at least abides by a series of strict guidelines.
Mahouts (elephant trainers) do not chain the animals. They do not beat, kick or slap them. They do not force them to draw pictures or stand on their hind legs in order to entertain visitors. Instead, they ensure that the animals in their care (most of which have suffered from owner abuse and neglect) are provided with adequate food and given ample opportunity to interact with one another and roam about the center's grounds.
Though the sanctuary offers rides to paying visitors, it only pairs tourists with the healthiest elephants, ensures visitors sit on the napes of their necks rather than their fragile backs and prohibits the use of large platforms for riding. The platforms used by many tour companies are especially dangerous to the animals because they weigh nearly 300 pounds. Many of the elephants I interacted with at Ran Tong had permanent spinal damage due to years and years of hauling tourists around on platform-mounted thrones.
Despite the romantic notion of riding atop a three meter gentle giant, I opted to participate in Ran Tong's no riding program--a program designed especially for those who were wary about the negative impacts of elephant riding, yet nonetheless wanted to spend the day interacting with the animals. As a participant in the program, I spent the day feeding, walking with and bathing the majestic gentle giants.
|Elephants Playing in the Water|
We started the tour with elephant feeding. Our guides provided us with buckets full of bananas so that we could feed the animals out of our hands and begin gaining their trust. The animals devoured the bananas so quickly that I merely had time to pluck another banana off its stem, before I would feel a leathery trunk prodding me for another piece of fruit.
When our buckets were empty and the mahouts felt that the elephants had gained sufficient trust, I paired up with an old female elephant and led her through the muddy fields to drink and play in the water.
I walked with her barefoot across green fields, my feet squishing in the puddles of slimy mud, until we reached a small river. At the river, I let go of the rope I had used to guide her and watched as my elephant splashed around in the water and rolled in the mud with her friends.
I'm sure that sloshing around in the mud, dodging heaps of elephant dung and bathing the large mammals in brown poopy waters is not the romantic image that most people envision when traveling to Thailand. I, too, had thought that riding atop an elephant would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But I am so happy that I did my research and chose to participate in the no-riding program at Ran Tong. Some things are not worth doing merely so that they can be checked off a list. In fact, after learning about the abuse that elephants throughout Thailand endure on a daily basis due to curious tourists, I decided to remove elephant riding from my bucket list completely.