The abuses of the elephant tourist trade in Asia – and particularly in Thailand – are well documented. For all the media coverage about the ethics of riding elephants, and ‘ethical elephant sanctuaries’ that may turn out to be little of the sort, there’s another side to the Elephant Tourism Trade. A side that gets much less airtime.
Like many travellers, my love for elephants and my awareness of the complex nature of Elephant tourism presented me with something of a dilemma on my travels in Asia. To go and support the efforts of those who were doing things differently (i.e. not offering elephant rides and protecting the elephants), or to stay away completely for fear of falling prey to “greenwashing” scams.
While travelling in Thailand last year, I had the chance to visit Mahout’s Elephant Foundation in Northern Thailand (about 3 hours drive from Chiang Mai). I’d heard about their initiative “Walking with Elephants” that supports their work rescuing elephants from the cruelties of tourist camps, and walking them back to the forests to lead a better, and semi-wild existence.
In summer 2015, the founders of Mahouts Elephant Foundation embarked on a 130km walk with two elephants rescued from Chiang Mai. It would take them 8 days to walk with the elephants to the forests nearby the villages of the Karen Tribe in Northern Thailand, where the elephants would live as close to a wild existence as possible. In the forest the 2 elephants were joined by a young bull, and in November 2015 baby elephant Sunti was born in the forest.
Along with the elephants on their walk home, came their mahouts.
It was not until my time visiting Mahouts Elephant Foundation that I gave the position of elephants’ mahouts much thought. When we think of the cruelty involved in Elephant Tourism, it seems we are quick to blame the humans closest to the problem – the mahouts.
The term mahout is derived from the Hindi word mahaut and means “elephant keeper”. An ancient tradition that was held in high regard as mahouts and their elephants were often valuable during times of war. Traditionally, a mahout would own his elephant and stay with it for all its life. It used to be considered something of a prestigious role.
But times have changed, and today, mahouts who have been born into a family of elephant keeping and have spent much of their lives with the gentle giants are a small minority. Mahouts today are not always elephant owners, but rather those who are closest to them and work with the elephants day in day out. Many young men, sometimes in their teens, come to Thailand from Myanmar as illegal immigrants, or from ethnic minorities in Northern Thailand. They become mahouts and are forced to accept poor conditions, even poorer wages and insufficient training. In fact there are no standards of training at all. When one considers the huge responsibility involved in handling a multi-tonne highly intelligent mammals and overseeing their interactions with tourists, l it makes it all the more shocking.
Mahouts die every month, but it’s impossible to get a handle on the scale of the problem because such deaths are not reported.
I learned that recruiters from tourist elephant camps still pass through villages in Northern Thailand, particularly the areas close to the Myanmar border, trying to persuade mahouts to bring the elephants to their camps, with the promise of getting rich from elephant tourism.
The reality is often rather different.
In some camps, Mahouts are not paid a salary at all. They are forced to rely on tips for a living, which can backfire even further when tourists complain about “aggressive” hustling for tips. But that’s the least of a Mahout’s concerns when working at a tourist camp. Mahouts die every month, but it’s impossible to get a handle on the scale of the problem because such deaths are not reported.
Equally as concerning are the misleading assumptions that the mahouts are responsible for ill treatment of elephants – when in fact, the vast majority of mahouts care for the elephants to the best of their abilities. When things go wrong, is when elephants are put under too much strain by the activities of the camps.
One person that was involved in elephant conservation told me that she had received death threats for posting a video on youtube that showed the damage caused to elephants’ backs by riding with chairs at a neighbouring elephant camp
The tourist who was trampled to death in Koh Samui in February last year is just one incident where mahouts allegedly warned camp owners that elephants were not safe to ride because they were in musth – warnings that some camps repeatedly ignore because revenue comes first.
The reason for these ‘accidents’, neglect and lack of duty of care for elephants or their mahouts is often simple. It’s an issue of profit for those running elephant camps. The amount of wealth invested in elephant tourism in Thailand is such that reporters and media are unwilling to speak up against individual camps or expose damning details for fear of reprisals. During my time in Thailand one person that was involved in elephant conservation (unrelated to Mahouts Elephant Foundation) told me that she had received death threats for posting a video on youtube that showed the damage caused to elephants’ backs by riding with chairs at a neighbouring elephant camp.
The demand for elephant rides is not decreasing. The number of tourist elephant camps in Mae Wang, a popular location close to Chiang Mai has doubled over recent years. Many point fingers at the increase in tourism from China, where elephant rides are high on the bucket list for many.
The future for elephants in Asia does not look good. But what hope do the elephants have if we cannot place more value and recognition to the humans who are closest to these wonderful animals?
For further reading about the ethics of elephant tourism and how to support ethical elephant experiences, download the Horizon Guide to Elephants in Asia, Ethically.
Ellie Cleary is the author of the Soul Travel Blog. You can read more about the author’s time visiting Mahout’s Elephant Foundation here.