The Asian elephant has been a national icon of Thailand for centuries. Times have changed however, as Thailand has developed and modernized, but the allure of – and respect for – elephants remains as strong as ever. They are seen as possessing strength, intelligence, and even good luck.
The great attraction and interest in these magnificent beasts extends well beyond Thailand’s borders, and nowadays large numbers of visitors come from abroad to see, be close to, and interact with these amazing pachyderms. Thus, Thailand has many venues that now serve as homes and shelters for these larger than life animals: elephant camps, resorts, hospitals, and training and conservation centers.
The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation says it believes responsible elephant tourism can help to save the elephants throughout Asia, but only if camps maintain the highest level of elephant care, food requirements, hygiene and environmental enrichment. Fortunately, there are many such centers that you can visit in the Kingdom.
These elephant centers employ positive reinforcement techniques in training elephants, known as target training. Training the elephant by using target training for routine care or medical purposes has been found to be one of the great alternative techniques to reduce stress and harm. Moreover, it gives veterinarians, mahouts (elephant handlers), and the elephants themselves more convenience and safety when providing routine care, especially foot care, trunk washes and medical treatment.
These techniques for training elephants are similar to those called “operant conditioning” that the psychologist B. F. Skinner advised parents to follow when raising their children; in short, reward and punishment are much more effective behavioral methods than violence and abuse. Since many elephant owners and mahouts have an intimate relationship, these practices are now used very effectively, and ethically, in all accredited elephant centers.
Thailand’s leading elephant camps all treat their elephants with great attention and indeed loving care; animal welfare is always at the forefront of their operations, and visitors can rest assured that no abuse takes place at these venues, which include Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, Patara Elephant Farm, Mae Sa Elephant Camp, Chiang-Dao Elephant Camp and Elephant Hills.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang is an excellent example because it supports the hospital, musth control team and many other initiatives. Likewise, the Thai Elephant Home has a special children's education project in the village where children are taught about environmental issues so that they will grow up to be leaders in the community and help deal with issues like reforestation while also bringing prosperity to the community.
These centers teach visitors about the importance of elephant care and husbandry, including correct eating, sleeping, bathing and exercise. One method of providing gentle exercise for the elephants, and an amazing learning experience for the visitor, is to allow them to ride elephants naturally behind their ears without the use of a trekking chair.
What can you do if you want to spend quality time with elephants in an ethical manner? There are plenty of legitimate conservation projects in Thailand that allow you to feed them, bathe them and spend time with them without causing them any harm. Parks like the Elephant Nature Park or Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in northern Thailand are two more venues that are very reputable and allow human-elephant interaction without compromising the elephant’s safety or comfort.
Just having the opportunity to spend time among elephants is a wonderful and meditative experience. Then, imagine taking mahout training at one of the above centers, feeding and bathing the elephants, and getting to know their personal quirks and idiosyncrasies. You will realize you need no more from these awesome animals beyond this: no elephant paintings or circus tricks. Do your research and you will learn how to visit elephants in a truly ethical manner, one which both you and the elephants will enjoy.
Tourists have many options indeed when choosing a reputable, highly rated, and well-managed elephant center in Thailand. By visiting these ethical elephant camps, travelers are also contributing to the ideals and goals that these places aspire towards, including: environmental sustainability, re-forestation, preservation and maintenance of mahouts and local communities.
Most importantly, thoughtful visitors can rest easy in the knowledge that they are playing a role in the ethical treatment, handling, care, welfare, and preservation of the spectacular Asian elephant.