I’m trying to finish this post for some time because even if it seems the opposite, we always go around and do everything we write to be as accurate as possible and the message we want to convey is understood. But in this case it happened to me that I got too much unnecessary data, too much information that I wanted to include because I thought it was important, but in fact the concrete and that I do not want to be lost in the meantime written, is extremely simple:
BEWARE of elephant tourism
- Elephants should not carry people on their backs
- Elephants are not born artists, do not paint by nature, do not do acrobatics by nature, do not play football by nature
- The “sanctuaries” are not always true refuges
It is not something new, that we are totally against animal abuse, for whatever reason. We pointed this article to this particular case because it touched us very closely and we lived it, we felt it and it affected us to such an extent that we decided to tell our experience and share it to raise awareness and perhaps reach some traveler who is still in doubt.
In Thailand we found a huge variety of activities involving elephants. There were painter elephants, circus elephants doing acrobatics; walks on elephants, “sanctuaries” that offered to feed small babies… We arrived with a tremendous desire to meet them because we like animals very much and these in particular, as many others may think, are incredible. The size, the intelligence, the “mystique” they radiate… That’s why we did not doubt it and as soon as we arrived in Pai, in the north of Thailand, we decided to look for some place that would allow us to know them more closely.
Do you want to know our tour in Northern Thailand? Click here: Diario – El Norte de Tailandia
Without having read too much about the elephant rides, the idea did not convince us at all because we did not have to be too awake to realize that the way to tame the animal could not be anything pleasant. For this reason and after hearing among several travelers about the existence of the famous Sanctuaries, we decided to choose to visit one that allowed us to see them in their own habitat and if we were lucky, get to touch them. So, we consulted the owner of the cabins where we were staying and he suggested a particular place he knew and said to be “trustworthy”.
We rented a motorcycle following another traveling advice, and decided to go on our own to see what it was all about. It was a little bit hard to get to the place because it was a few meters from the route, a little hidden between hills and trees. But between comings and goings, one of us said: “there they are!” And with our hearts in our mouths, we went straight to where we thought there was something.
We got off the bike and walked on until we saw a thatched roof and some men talking, hiding from the sun. We headed towards them and a few meters before arriving, we caught sight of two elephant cubs feeding on the reeds that grew along the river. We could not believe it! There they were! So close, so noisy, so absorbed in their task. We stayed for a while watching them. There was no way to be distracted by anything else.
But we did not just want to look at them. We also felt like touching them. They were so close that we could not leave without having felt them with our hands. We consulted the men who were sheltered under the roof if we could approach and they answered that at 13:00 (in 2 hours) the group of the tour arrived and we could join them to do the same tour. As we did not think to stay that long and the tour was very expensive, we kept watching them as trying to record that incredible image in the retinas, and one of the men took pity on us and told us that we could approach.
He gave us a bouquet of bananas for each to feed them and between him and another man, they stayed all the time next to us to control, if necessary, that the little animals do not stir.
We approached with a little mixture of fear, nervousness and anxiety and we stretched our hands, each in front of an elephant, to give them the bouquet of bananas. They extended their tubes and took to their mouths everything that we had to give them. We came a little closer as they continued to devour everything in their reach until we could finally touch them.
We stayed only a short time, said goodbye to the people, we thanked them very much and walked in silence to the motorbike. We turned a couple of times to see for the last time those two beautiful animals that we had had two seconds ago so close to us and we began to cry. And I tell it and I get emotional again.
I can not really explain where that strong feeling we experienced comes from; it made us thrill to tears and left us with a huge smile. What we felt reached our hearts. I do not know if it was them who transmitted this energy to us (this is to believe or to burst), or it was us who were already predisposed by this enormous desire that we had to know them. Whatever the reason, we like to believe it was them. That we feel them. That there was magic. And that moment of happiness was one of the most special that we lived during the whole trip. Of those that continue to push us to follow.
Animal abuse behind tourist attraction
Sadly, we reported late on what was hidden behind the fake Sanctuaries. We can not assure that this place was a real refuge and although I check again and again the photos that we took to try to find some evidence that determines a yes or no, I do not find it. The elephants were not chained, there was no caretaker with “bullhook” (it is the tool they use to hurt and “tame” them), they did not have marks of wounds and they looked very healthy. But we say it, little knowing and with the only desire not to have contributed to animal abuse.
If you want to know a little more about Elephant Sanctuaries and how to recognize an elephant captured in the wild, we invite you to click on the following link: Turismo y Animales Santuarios de elefantes
There are many camps throughout Southeast Asia that claim to be called “Sanctuaries” or “Shelters”, but they only take advantage of the ecological tourism boom by offering another alternative that actually ends up hiding the mistreatment still present.
After experiencing the happiness of being able to see, touch and feel these animals, we encountered the other side of the situation and as I can not explain what we felt with the first experience, I can not find words to describe the sadness of seeing them chained, each of them side by side, thirsty and looking for a trickle of water, waiting for one and another ride carrying more of the weight that their loins are capable of supporting.
We felt very sorry to see them in a river, mounted by their mahout (caretakers) who beat them constantly with their bullhooks while offering to anyone who passes, take a bath with the animals. It was terrible to see people everywhere riding their backs, giving “walks,” after learning that the elephants can not stand more than 150kg and that they usually end up with severe spinal injuries.
But the worst thing was to know how people bend these animals, to get to do what they do and to obey another animal that does not reach his heels in size or strength. This practice is known as “breaking the soul”. No need to give too much explanation, but a few seconds of the video Breaking the spirit of the elephant are more than enough. I warn you that it is a very hard video and you do not need to see it.
However, there are sanctuaries that fulfill their true function and in this link you will be able to find a very complete guide to know where to go and where not to: Dónde ver elefantes en Tailandia – Mochileros en Tailandia
We also recommend visiting Dónde ver elefantes en Tailandia (y dónde no) to know the experience of other travelers who opted for a responsible alternative.
The social part of these activities
On the other hand, tourism activities that use elephants as the main attraction, feed entire families. Nobody talks about this aspect, but we can not leave it aside because we would be scaring only the surface of the problem. We can not label as “bad” to anyone because we do not know the hidden story, we do not belong to the same culture and we can not pretend that everyone thinks and feels as we think and feel. Perhaps here we lacked to investigate a little with the local people, how they live all this paradigm change in relation to the way of doing tourism; how it affects them, how is the government involved and many other social issues that are also related to this.
Knowing and learning makes us more free in decision making and in turn also more responsible for what we decide. As travelers of a certain nationality, certain culture, certain age, social class and many other factors that condition us, we can not tell you what to do and what not to, but we can propose you to think before making any decision, about the effects that can generate what you are going to do and put on the balance what is worth more: in this case may be, get rid of the urge to walk on the back of an animal to which we have so much admiration; or stay with the desire and help that animal continue to exist.
There is no way to do tourism without impacting in any way the place that is being visited. Whenever it is a place different from ours, we are leaving our habitat and interfering in another. It remains for us to determine which mark we want to leave.
Do you know the difference between Sustainable Tourism and Responsible Tourism? Here we explain: Turismo Sostenible y Turismo Responsable
We invite you to share your experiences with us, to give us your points of view, whether they are for or against what we write. Differences in opinions make the debate much richer, so they are all welcome!
Until the routes meet us again!
Torre Santa Susanna, Italy – 02.05.17