Is riding an elephant in Thailand on your bucket list?
I understand why. At first glance it seems fine... I mean elephants are huge. Much bigger than horses and we ride them all the time. Not to mention the pictures would be great! Plus, getting to be one on one with this amazing animal would be a crazy experience. Why would you not?
Unfortunately, riding elephants anywhere in the world is a huge ethical issue. Elephants are kept in awful conditions. They are made to work long hours with no food and barely any water. There have been cases of elephants passing out with riders on their backs. Not to mention the horrible training they endure just to allow humans on their backs.
When you google "riding elephants in Thailand" these are the first search results you see. Why anyone ignores this and continues to book elephant riding is beyond me.
Despite their gigantic size their backs are extremely delicate. Anatomy wise, elephants spines are not made to be load bearing. Iron and wooden benches that are strapped to their backs cause infections and permanent damage to their spines. Even just carrying humans bare back is awful for them.
What happens if you find a park that only allows one rider a day? While in Thailand I spoke with a man who spend 12 hours at a sanctuary one on one with an elephant. He said the handler showed him many of the tricks that his elephant could do. (huge red flag) He spend the day feeding him, bathing him and just simply chilling with him all day. At the end of the day he got to ride the elephant for over an hour. While at first glance this as well seems ethnically fine - it isn't. Training these animals to perform tricks and allow humans on their back involves crates, whippings, and torture from a young age. Babies are ripped from their mothers and taught to obey humans. While on the scale of harmfulness you would be on the low end you are still contributing to the torture of these beautiful animals.
So what can you do instead?
If you want to spend a day with Elephants visit a TRUE sanctuary. Do your research ahead of time. Find one that rescues and rehabilitates elephants. If there is any mention of tricks, riding, or commanding of the elephants do not go there.
When I was in Chiang Mai I spent an amazing 8 hour day bathing, feeding, and just observing elephants with Elephant Nature Park. You can read my full article on that experience here.
The Best Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand
While planning for Thailand I did a ton of research on reputable sanctuaries. Below is a small list of true elephant sanctuaries I found during my research.
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), Sukhothai
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, Petchaburi
The Surin Project, Surin