When international tourists think of Thailand, the first images that come to mind are plates of delicious Thai food, stunning sunsets or beach shots from the south, and breathtaking vistas of the mountainous north. Tourists love to appreciate the natural wonder of Thailand, but it’s not only limited to the country’s flora and landscapes. Interacting with the local wildlife, like at an elephant nature park, is an activity that many list high on their ideal itineraries.
Thailand has numerous elephant nature parks all over the country, both in the wilderness and in tourist areas. But like many things in Thailand, there are light and dark sides to the elephant entertainment industry. Despite growing global awareness of animal welfare, there are still a handful of elephant nature parks that deploy antiquated and cruel training methods which injure the elephants mentally and physically.
To counteract the actions of the elephant nature parks that perform this kind of cruelty, many elephant sanctuaries have opened to much public success. In these elephant nature parks, the elephants are looked after, not made to perform. All of the proceeds from admissions goes towards keeping the elephants fed, healthy, and safe.
But as a tourist, it may be difficult to identify which elephant nature parks are altruistic sanctuaries and which are entertainment centers. Rather than list out which we feel are the ones to visit and avoid, we’ve identified which practices constitute as animal cruelty and which are safe so you can decide for yourself if you want to patronize their business or not.
Many tourists have grand expectations to ride an elephant and feel the rush of being atop such a powerful animal. Many parks will offer elephant rides where guests sit in wood or bamboo chairs with cushions that rest on top of an elephant’s upper back and neck area. While these rides look like fun, they are actually terribly painful for the elephants.
In addition, the weight of the sitting area is sometimes so great that the elephants develop spinal or neck issues. Some are left permanently injured from this type of work because elephants do not naturally use their necks and backs in this way.
If you see an elephant nature park that offers elephant riding, know that each ride causes the elephant pain.
Thai elephants love to swim and baht in the country’s many rivers and ponds. The hot sun and thick jungle humidity make elephants yearn for a nice cooldown. At some elephant nature parks, bath time is a daily ritual where elephants are led to water to wash off the mud debris from their bodies with the help of patrons.
Contrary to elephant riding, this activity actually benefits the elephants, as patrons help clean the elephants and improve their wellbeing. In addition, playing with the elephants increases their overall happiness and elevates their moods.
Bathing is a safe and healthy activity that usually indicates the park has the elephant’s best interests in mind.