Whether you’re traveling on a volunteer program with GIVE, or you’re on your own, it’s important to be mindful of the treatment of elephants and other animals for the benefit of tourism. We recognize that there is no perfect solution to the various controversies that have riddled the elephant tourism industry, but we have carefully chosen an alternative that protects the well-being of these incredible creatures. We are excited to support our partners overseas or who playing an active role in advancing these methods.
The elephants volunteers will interact with in Thailand are, in fact, domesticated elephants. These elephants were separated from their mothers at a young age and broken to ensure their obedience and reliance on mahouts – the Karen Tribesmen native to this region that have been training elephants for centuries. This process is known as phajaan; it is physically, mentally and emotionally painful for the elephants. That being said, Thai elephants must coexist with humans in order to survive. It’s a simple truth, given the current number elephants living in Thailand (nearly 3,000) and the remaining natural habitat available to them. Wild elephants are just that - wild. If left unchecked they will destroy locals’ rice paddies, ransack villages and wander on to roadways (YouTube it!), putting themselves and any human bystanders at great risk. It is not in their nature to be subservient towards any other living creature, which is what makes phajaan such a necessary, albeit painful, action for mahouts to take. More humane methods of positive reinforcement training have recently been developed at zoos and elephant sanctuaries in the developed world; however, the resources and training necessary for Karen mahouts to follow suit are not currently available. We are optimistic that such humane methods will become more practical and efficient in the coming years and ultimately be adopted in our host communities.
Most elephants in Thailand are currently being rented out by their owners to large tourist camps – often owned by wealthy investors - where bulky wooden saddles are strapped on to the elephant’s back for tourists to mount and enjoy rides of varying length and distance. The physical impacts of working in a traditional tourist camp are extremely taxing on elephants, as they are consistently expected to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. The weight of cumbersome saddles and tourists generally exceeds the load elephants can safely carry on their backs (about 150kg), often resulting in broken spines and life-long disabilities. The straps of these saddles also create painful sores that can become infected if not treated. Please note that GIVE has NEVER included such activities in our itineraries.
Many Karen mahouts, including those you’ll interact with on GIVE’s volunteer program, are infuriated by such treatment of their elephants and have begun to create more grassroots tourist camps in their home villages - reintroducing elephants to the surrounding jungle and allowing them to live a semi-wild existence while working less hours and spending more time in their native habitat.
The benefit of such projects for the elephant’s well being is multi-faceted. Studies have shown that an elephant’s overall health is greatly improved by foraging their natural diet in the jungle. Camps and sanctuaries that must produce the various crops to feed the elephants are harming their immune system and also creating a dependency on humans. Elephants that were raised in such camps have struggled greatly when being reintroduced to their natural environment, and many experts fear that over time they will lose their foraging instincts and become completely dependent on humans for nutrition. Furthermore, the smaller number of tourists and shorter work schedules are much less demanding on the elephants, and the type of tourists who choose to visit such camps are generally more conscious of the elephant’s well-being and will choose less intrusive forms of interaction, such as bareback riding or simply observing. Finally, the ability to socialize and interact freely with other elephants is paramount to an elephant’s mental health. Reintroduction and free roaming in the jungle allows them to do this on their own terms, and the human’s only role is to appreciate it.
To provide the most authentic, transparent and gratifying experience for our volunteers, we strive to consider all perspectives of the industry. This includes appreciating the centuries old relationship that the Karen Tribe has formed with elephants and respecting their reputation as the most storied mahouts in the region. With an already meager existence and very low access to education in the rural communities of Northern Thailand, the outlook for mahouts to earn an alternative income is bleak if elephants were to lose their economic value. In essence, the survival of their families, their culture and their elephants are all intertwined. One truth that an outside observer must always respect is the unconditional love these mahouts have for their elephants. They spend years, often lifetimes, forming a mutually beneficial bond that is very hard to explain and nearly impossible to replicate. The unfortunate necessity of phajaan should never overshadow the lifetime of love and care these mahouts offer their elephants.
We will always continue to reassess and adapt our programs to ensure that our impact aligns with our mission and purpose overseas. We invite you to research this issue further and here is a great article to get you started!