Each year thousands of tourists to Thailand tell their friends and family about their experiences with the delicious food, beautiful scenery, stunning Buddhist temples, and photos of themselves with animals, such as tigers and elephants, and tales of riding atop a massive elephant, or elephants playing football or painting. Unfortunately, few stop to consider how it was made possible for them to pose with, pet, or ride these normally wild, dangerous animals.
Asian elephants are an endangered species. Experts say that Thailand now has less than 2,000 wild elephants in the whole of the country, and the population is rapidly declining because of illegal capture and trade for use in the tourism industry.
A wild elephant must be tamed before it can be ridden, but the taming process in Southeast Asia is very brutal and cruel. Phajaan or “the crush”, is performed on young baby elephants until its spirit is completely broken. Additionally, elephants are not designed to carry weight on their backs, so riding them causes pain and discomfort, as well as injury. They are also worked to exhaustion, and many die every year as a result. Many places claim to handle their elephants “responsibly”. However, keep in mind how they obtained the elephant and what they did to make a docile adult. They live with lifelong daily abuse so that the “handlers” can make money from tourists like you. Likewise, tigers are abused and heavily drugged to keep them docile, and cubs are taken away very young for illegal trafficking.
Another popular tourist attraction has been Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno temple, better known as the “Tiger Temple”. On 30th May, over 500 officers, wildlife officials, vets, and police raided the temple. The 137 drugged tigers were taken into protective custody and the temple was closed.
They also discovered 60 tiger cub carcasses, 40 frozen and 20 in jars of formaldehyde. As well as tiger carcasses in the living quarters of the temple abbot, whose whereabouts are unknown after leaving for Bangkok in July.
A monk was caught trying to abscond in a truck with two tiger pelts, more than 1,000 talisman vials containing tiger parts, dozens of fangs, and plastic bottles labelled “tiger power”.
The United Nations Environment Programme released a statement saying these things represented “(…) only a tiny proportion of the enormous extent of an illegal trade in wildlife that is pushing species to the brink of distinction.”
There are animal-friendly options, however. For example, Elephant sanctuaries that genuinely protect and care for rescued elephants, where tourists can safely interact with the elephants in a respectful manner.
By favouring businesses that support elephant-friendly tourism, and avoiding parks and shows that do not, you can help protect elephants from a life of harm, and abuse. The same is true of other animal-based tourism.
SpiceRoads Cycle Tours operator is such a business. We have officially signed the Elephant-friendly tourism pledge with World Animal Protection (formerly WSPA) Thailand, on May 4, 2016, under the commitment to offer elephant experiences from only those operations with a high standard of elephant welfare and conservation, with responsible viewing of elephants in wilds or semi-wild habitats, as well as pro-actively communicating this commitment to protect elephants to their customers, and encourage elephant-friendly tourism.