The Asian elephant is a wonderous and awe-inspiring creature. It’s no surprise that one of the most popular tourist activities in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, involves elephants. Just about every tour agent’s office offers some form of elephant tourism; from weeklong volunteer and conservation programs to an afternoon trek to appeal to all types of travelers.
Many tourists are thrilled at the opportunity to get up close with these magnificent creatures, but I could never understand why so many settle for an “elephant trek” experience that merely has them sitting on an elephant’s back for a 30-minute ride. Where’s the interaction in that? Besides, many tourists do not know this either, but those wooden benches strapped across the elephants’ back actually cause harm and damage to their spines. And that’s not even mentioning how “domesticated” elephants get that way, but that’s a topic I’ll save for another day.
There are better options for tourists looking to interact with Asian elephants. For those who may not be able to invest the time to volunteer with elephants (the most humane and in my personal opinion, the most rewarding experience), a mahout (elephant handler) training camp is a better alternative to the jungle treks that I’ve seen so many tourists participate in. At a mahout training camp, you can learn more about the elephants themselves and get a more fulfilling experience of getting to know an elephant on a more personal level.
Eddy Elephant Care is one such training camp in the Chiang Mai area where you can learn more about elephant handling and get quality face time with these beautiful giants. Started just three years ago by Eddy, a mahout and elephant trekking guide himself for over 15 years, Eddy Elephant Care is a more hands-on elephant experience than most others that I have seen. Eddy takes the time to teach guests about the elephants and their history with mahouts, giving us a better understanding of the relationship between elephants and their human guardians.
Although Eddy is willing to take groups of up to 25 people, I was lucky to only have an intimate group of three, plus Eddy’s adorable six year old son, whom we were lucky to have join us (it was during the weekend). The four of us happily fed and played with the elephants for awhile, getting ourselves comfortable in their presence. The baby elephant was just too cute, though a little more worrisome than the older ones as he was quite playful and not aware of just how big and strong he really was.
Shortly after, we had a bare-back ride through the jungles on the river to give give the elephants their daily bath. This was my least favorite part of the day. I just have no desire to sit on an elephant. Despite their sheer size and bulk, these elephants are supremely gentle and careful. Their mahout had instructed them to roll over onto their side in the water, with us still on their backs, and they did so with enough skill to drop us into the water, but without crushing our legs.
Then it was an all out water fight. Elephants started spraying water on each other, themselves, and us! It was great fun!
When I had to leave in the afternoon, I was truly upset. I was just getting to know these fascinating creatures; I didn’t want to leave! My other two companions were smarter. They has signed up for the 3-day, 2-night mahout training camp so they were going to stay in a mahout hut, just next to the elephants, for two more days of fun with the elephants.
Looking back at my Eddy Elephant Care experience, I recall being in absolute awe. It was my first time being so close to an elephant, and certainly the first time I had touched one and allowed them to feel me up with their trunk. It was truly a magical day, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.
It wasn’t until I went home and took a look at the photos where I realized something wasn’t quite right. Although I had a wonderful time at Eddy Elephant Care, it really troubled me that we were interacting with the elephants in such a way that’s just not natural. It also bothered me that the mahouts had their hooks with them at all times, and although I didn’t see the mahouts at Eddy Elephant Care use the hooks on the elephants, it’s disturbing to know that these poor, incredibly gentle creatures could have pain and abuse inflicted on them at any given moment.
These animals are truly magnificent, and I came to realize that the only way to truly love and respect them is to avoid elephant tourism all together.
It’s no easy task, given that so many people want to enjoy a day with elephants, and of course, domesticated elephants need support from their mahouts, who in turn need to earn enough income to sustain and raise these elephants, as well as their own families. In an ideal world, elephants should be able to live in the wild as freely as they were born to be, yet, this is no ideal world and there are no easy answers.
I do hope that others who are interested in elephants and elephant tourism will take a moment and think about the experience and what that experience means; to themselves and to the elephants. Opinions and time will change things ever so slowly, but until then, elephant tourism will continue. Hopefully, more humane and interactive elephant tourism, like mahout training camps and elephant conservation projects will become the more popular options and elephant trekking will become a thing of the past.
*Disclaimer: My day with Eddy Elephant Care was sponsored by the company and Cool Asia Travel, but all opinions are an accurate and honest view on my experience there.