In short, the answer is no but don’t get mad. You can still get up close and personal. Like you, when I told people I was going to Thailand the first thing that was suggested by both people who have been and who haven’t visited was, “make sure you ride an elephant, I want pics”. Because seeing one human ride a majestic beast isn’t enough, we all must have this same exact experience at the mere cost of $30USD.
I feel a minor wrath coming on, so I am obligated to mention, I love elephants. Not in an, I want to ride one kind of way, but in an, I need to protect them from people, kind of way. People who harm them intentionally but most importantly from the people who don’t do it intentionally. From the people who don’t think twice about their 200lbs against a 2-5-ton elephant. For the people who forget that they are ridden 100’s of times a week for decades. For the people who don’t notice the holes in their ears from the mahouts beating them into submission just so they can get a picture-perfect angle. I love elephants so having an up-close experience that ensured I was an asset to their lives rather than a burden was high on my priority list while visiting Thailand. We often forget how important the way we spend our money while on vacation is.
As tourists, we have a responsibility to not spend our hard-earned money on experiences that harm other people or animals. The gram will survive with one less picture of a lion being bottle fed or the skin of an elephants’ back chaffed from being ridden relentlessly. If I never see another picture of a tourist on an elephant’s sunburned back, hole filled ears and humped neck, it would be too soon.
Elephants are not meant to be in captivity. They aren’t supposed to dance for food in the streets. Or jump through hoops for your entertainment. Thailand has a long history of elephant exploitation fed by what I will assume are uninformed tourists. In the early year’s elephants were used in the army similar to how Americans use horses. They were also used for hard labor, to pull loads. Once that trend passed and people realized they could make money from using elephants as tourist baits, they begin moving these gentle magnificent beings into cities. While visiting The Wildlife Friends Foundation (WFFT) we encountered elephants that had limps from being hit by taxis and other vehicles while walking the city streets to attract tourists. Now I want you to imagine Bangkok as a not so mini NYC. Skyscrapers, people, all day rush hour and commerce. Now imagine an elephant in the middle of it all.
The WFFT is essentially an animal rescue sanctuary located about 2 hours outside of Bangkok. They have approximately 25 rescued elephants and 100’s of other animals. This place is not a zoo. These animals are not confined in small areas to encourage human interaction. Most of them are in huge enclosures and are unable to be released into the wild because they were in captivity for too long; they wouldn’t know how to survive. We met an orangutan who we were told not to wave at because he spent so long with a rich Thai family, putting on shows for their guests, saying hi was one of his tricks. The sanctuary is doing its best to curve those learned behaviors. Booking a day tour at WFFT will cost you about 1600 baht and include lunch. Animals range from several different species of monkeys to bears, to birds and large iguanas. All of whom were used for pure human entertainment at one point in their lives.
The facility has full time staff including live in vets to care for animals. They also have a unique approach to how the enclosures are built. Many focus on encouraging natural animal behaviors; for instance if a specific type of primate would naturally be confined to the treetops in the wild, they put goats and other ground dwellers in the enclosures as well to encourage those natural behaviors. Once monkeys are rehabilitated, the ones who have a chance at surviving in the wild, are moved to an area surrounded by water called monkey island. There they have little to no human interaction, there is no gate or border, they find their own food and are acclimated to a wilder like environment before leaving the sanctuary all together.
During my time at WFFT I was able to get to know one elephant intimately. Her name is Bundi and she is blind in one eye. Bundi has a very cheeky personality, which is a bit refreshing to see. Unlike other animals in captivity she isn’t pressured to perform or appease human existence so there is no need for her to stand still or wait for you to finish taking photos. She let me feed her, give her a cool bath and then walked away when she was done with me. Being so up close and personal to her was eye-opening and reminded me of how small I am compared to her but how huge my decisions can impact her life and other animals I encounter. That impact can either be positive or negative and I have the ability to choose.
So, I ask of you to stop asking your friends to send pics riding the elephants. Tell them why you’re taking a hard stance against it. We as tourist hold the blame for the pain of the animals we encounter while on vacation because if we stopped paying for those perfectly placed pictures of pet monkeys on our shoulders or massive iguanas or to ride elephants, there would be no industry for it. Thai people would find another way to make money and surely, we can find better ways to enjoy our vacations.