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Elephant Riding As an Integral Part Of Tourism in Thailand

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The world that we all are living in has changed from the very beginning. From nothing evolved everything that we have right now. From the peaceful greens surrounding everything comes the contaminated grays embracing the skyscrapers we are seeing. The world has changed. The world has progressed. But alongside the progression that has come is the deterioration of our mother, mother nature. Mother nature has been a witness as to how the world evolved from nothingness to landlessness caused by the growth and development of the community. A lot has been affected by the change that has happened: the eco-system as well as its components, the biotic and the abiotic. Animals, as part of the biotic component, had been drastically affected by the way of living of the humanity. Animals are a free-spirited creature meant to be spreading their wings as high as they can, running as fast as they can against the wind, and diving deeper until they reach the very bottom. But what has been happening lately? Natural habitats had been slowly destroyed. Some animals are to be extinct. Some animals are held captive and being sold for a lot of reasons: entertainment, laboratory experiments, businesses, and economic growth through tourism. Animals had been exploited and still being exploited for the liking of some human beings. The rate of mortality of animals is increasing day by day. Some of which are due to same reasons as mentioned earlier.

Tourism plays a vital role in improving the country’s image and help nurture the country’s economic growth. Each country sports a majestic spot that makes tourists from different parts of the world spend a lot of money just to have a glance of such. There are many factors that add up to the tourism state of a country, one of which is the animal tourism or known as wildlife tourism. Tourism destinations usually provide a lot of opportunities for the tourists to freely interact with mother-nature. One of which that is very popular is the interaction with many wildlife creatures. Wildlife tourism has been popular to many tourists for it provides a once in a lifetime experiences being with these creatures that are meant to be living in their natural habitats. Alongside with wildlife tourism, its popularity varies differently from each country, each destination possesses its own approach legally and cultural attitudes towards the welfare of the wildlife animals. Animals can be found at different local festivals, used as entertainment on the streets, held in captivity, and can be seen in the wild roaming freely.Wildlife tourism basically encompasses interactions with different wildlife animals either in their natural habitats or any sanctuaries they are in. There are certain countries that are deemed to be exploiting the welfare of animals and some are not.

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There are a lot of animals being exploited by such an example of which is elephants in animal tourism or elephant tourism. It has come to the attention of the animal welfare organizations the total number of elephants involved in the wildlife tourism industry. Based from statistics, there are already 16,000 elephants held in captivity globally resulting to a quarter from the total population of elephants in the planet (World Animal Protection, 2017). Elephants are to be found worldwide but plays a vital role in one country amongst other countries which is Thailand. Elephants have a great reputation in the country of Thailand. Since the late 1500s, it has been given roles to different fields in the country such as: warfare, aid for machinery, and as the country’s national animal wherein they call it Chang. Numerous reasons had been presented as to why the country, Thailand, chose elephants as its national symbol. Elephants are known to be giant animals thus this served as the reason why Thai people celebrate its massive strength, impressive durability, and longevity (Iverson, 2017).

Ironically, alongside with the Thai people’s appraisal of its wondrous characteristics throughout history is the oppression and the maltreatment these elephants experience in this country. Little to no attention has been given to protect and to preserve these elephants from being extinct. The threats or the problems that are usually faced by the elephants of Thailand usually come from various inhumane acts of the humanity. As the years pass by, the number of tourists continues to grow. These tourists visit Asia to have an exciting experience with these giant animals. They often partake in different activities involving a live interaction with these famous Thai elephants. There are usually a lot of choices to have an interaction with these but what tops the list is elephant riding. Beautiful as it is to see and to experience, only a little of the population knows the real deal or the cruelty that has been experienced by these magnificent creatures. Elephant riding, one of the most famous tourists’ activities in Thailand, is considered a bucket list experience by the foreign tourists but what does elephant riding really do? Sitting in a Malaysian styled basket placed at the backs of elephant is elephant riding. These elephants carry the tourists at their backs and often travels from a certain place to other. Elephant riding is a spot for taking photos and at the same time used as a mode of transportation for some. In some hotels, elephants are used to transfer their tenants from one cabin to another. Imagine the pain the elephant undergoes after carrying a vast mass on its back located at its spinal cord. These resulted to number of ethical and welfare issues regarding elephant riding.

This study is made purposively for studying or digging deeper unto the reality of elephant riding in Thailand. Issues that arose from elephant riding are the following: the decreasing number of Thai elephants, the malpractices used in training the elephants, the health and condition of elephants and their habitats, and the effect of captivity to these. Despite all the negative claims that are thrown to animal sanctuaries that are affecting animals in a negative way, the positive side of it must also be known. Upon understanding the combination of both the positive and the negative sides of animal sanctuaries, we can have a more in depth understanding regarding the welfare of the animals. Alternatives are sought by the different foreign tourists as well as the tour operators regarding the proper engagement with wildlife creatures. Commitment to achieve the standards set by ABTA Global Animal Welfare, the tour operators are to improve the different conditions of these animals or else will result to the discontinuation of services offered if they would not be able to reach the set improvements. This does not only give a spotlight to the negative effects but rather also highlights the different benefits these animals get. These sanctuaries help animals from being extinct by giving them proper veterinary assistance it needs and keeping them away from the continuous cycle of predator-prey relationship (World Nomads, 2012).

Why Are People Still Riding Them? Over the years that passed by, wildlife tourism is still one of the most sought by the different tourists from all over the world. Among one of the many that falls under the wildlife tourism is Elephant Riding in Thailand. Millions of people are given a lot of tourist activities to participate in but what tops amongst all tourist activities is riding an elephant. Upon landing on Asia, riding an elephant is still highlighted within every tourist’s bucket list. A lot of people also opts for beautiful photographs with the largest land mammal. Upon riding on these elephants, this gives people a beautiful experience within the country’s culture. As romantic as it is, only a few truly knows the adverse effect upon riding these animals thus also put both parties at risk: the elephants and the tourists. Tourists from different nationalities pack their bag and head to Thailand every year just to witness Thailand’s explicitness and take photos with its elephants ranging from small to gigantic ones. Some offers either painting with the elephants watch these elephants perform. Not much awareness was given to the tourists as to how these industries try so hard to hide the unacceptable truths about the reality of elephant entertainment. The figures that arose had come to the attention of different animal welfare organization. With all the countries combined, Thailand garners the highest number of elephants used in tourism. Based on 2016 figure, the total number of tourists that visited the country has doubled and reached more than 30 million. The 40% of the said population from different nationalities plans to partake in riding elephants. The rate of elephant captivities has risen in order to sustain equilibrium with the increasing demand for entertainment involving elephants. The captive elephants roughly gave the 13 million people a ride in the year 2016 (World Animal Protection, 2017).

Most of these tourists are unaware of they are signing up for. Oftentimes, signing up for these activities are because of their so called love for these wild animals but little do they know about the dark side behind every opportunities: riding, photo, and tricks. According to the statistical data, 3,000 elephants which are used in providing entertainment nearly four quarters of it are placed in cruel conditions. An investigation was conducted in order to determine the condition of the 2,923 elephants that are found at different tourist venues in different countries namely Sri Lanka, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, India, and Thailand. It was found that 77% of which was not given the proper care and treatment. Ignorance to the different effects must be minimized in order to eradicate or decrease the number of these oppressed elephants. Basing from a certain study on tourist attitudes dated in 2017, it was discovered there was a 9% rate drop in the total number of people who deems riding in elephants is acceptable in contrast to findings three years ago. In the year 2014, there was a total of 53% of the sample surveyed that agreed with the claim “Riding elephants is acceptable”, compared to the 44% in the year 2017 (World Animal Protection, 2017). From the studies itself, we can say that an urgency is needed for the promotion of tourist education must be done by these different institutions.

A proper and an in-depth education must be done in order to educate the tourists regarding the regulation of wildlife tourist attractions and in choosing the proper interactions with wild animals. In connection to this, there were already some companies who have given their commitment to devoid the ticket selling advertising spots or venues that are giving elephant tourism related interaction. As quoted with that Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, a Global Wildlife and veterinary adviser at World Animal Protection, said it is inferred that tourists must be thoroughly educated with the growing number of cruel trends directed to these elephants used for giving them rides and providing impressive shows. They must be enlightened that these elephants were illegally captured from their mothers even in their young ages. Thus, are forced to live their lives enduring the pitiless training and bear substandard living conditions (Marshall, 2018).

Elephant Training

There are two distinctive types of elephants that are usually found in elephant tourism: Asian elephants and African elephants. These are respectively found in Thailand and Africa. These two species of elephants usually have significant differences. Elephants of the Asian type usually has a smaller body and lighter mass as compared to the size and the mass of African elephants. These two also differ in terms of ear, head shapes, teeth, trunks, and toenails. Usually, the Asian elephant has a smoother skin. In addition to this, both male and female African elephant manifest ivory horn-like overgrown teeth while in Asian elephants only the male ones have tusks (Williams, 2018). Asian elephants are the ones found in elephant tourism in the country of Thailand. Thus, before being able to be part of the tourism industry, the elephants must first undergo elephant training or the so called “Phajaan Training”. This is generally the most accepted traditional practice in Thailand culture. This has served as the center-piece of ritual in Northern Thailand that has continued for centuries-long (Protect All Wildlife, 2018). This training is intended to achieve the domestication of the young elephants. The majority of these young elephants are screaming and kicking while being seized from the wild and usually taken from their mothers. After being captured, these elephants are stored or lived in a small confine for weeks.

During the days of wild capture, while being in the small confinement they are mercilessly beaten with bamboo stick spiked with nails and bull hooks. Aside from the physical abuse, they are also deprived from having the proper meal and the enough hours of sleep. After crushing their minds, bodies, and spirits, the elephants will come to realize that they need to follow the brusque orders of their handlers or mahouts. This Phaiaan Training is purposively done in order for the elephants to put themselves into submissiveness under their Mahouts. These often test the strength the elephant. Oftentimes, the result of this Phaiaan Training is badly injured and traumatized elephants or worse some die during the process. This ritual often puts not only the elephants in to risk but also their mahouts. Some elephants become crazy and aggressive which results to the death of their mahouts. The number of mahouts being killed usually reaches a hundred every year. Every elephant that is held in captivity must undergo this training to further comprehend verbal commands and to accept veterinary treatment. Although the possibility of elephants being domesticated is impossible, for hundreds of years they are already tamed. The Phaiaan ceremony is rooted into its tribalism. The ideology that the tribal shamans could expel the elephant’s wild spirit is through the Phaiaan Training (Nomadic Planet, 2017). We must also take into consideration their handlers or mahouts. Mahouts are usually dependent on the elephants, they serve as the mahouts’ source of income.

The report done had shown that not only the elephants face substandard living conditions but also the mahouts. The money or the income they earn from handling the elephants in the camps is only a little. The mahouts are responsible for the elephants’ well-being. Ironically, like what was mentioned above, the elephants are their sources of income, the money will be generated will come from the services the elephant has been given. After the broody training, the elephants are now taught to perform the following: dancing, playing the piano, painting picture. This also implies that the elephants are now ready accept human riders.

Elephant Health

Aside from the unacceptable training these elephants underwent, we must also determine the other factors that had a great effect on their health conditions. Elephants which are usually held in captivity are restrained and only have a limited set of movements. This captivity oftentimes becomes the root cause of the development of the elephants’ behavioral and health problems. If held captive for a long time, this triggers the elephants to become more prone to aggression and sudden outbursts. The effect of these often result to injuries and fatalities to its handlers and tourists. A reminder of which is an incident that happened in the month of February year 2016, a British tourist met an accident due to sudden outburst of this elephant and was later killed (Manchester, 2016).

Other factor that affected the elephant’s health is from the deprivation of the essentials for survival. Elephants held in captive are usually deprived from devouring on healthful foods, gulping on an adequate amount of water, and given the proper and the needed veterinary-health care assistance. Elephant riding as one of the traditional tourist activities also gives rise to different physical health problems. Notwithstanding elephants’ ginormous size, they are not the horses who are meant to be ridden for they have a very delicate back. A quantity of complications can be experienced by the elephants upon being ridden by the tourists of different nationalities. These complications are the following: feet injuries, back injuries, and infections (Saramelloti, 2017). Elephants used as means of transportation carries at least one person sitting on a Howdah that is usually attached on their backs. Large as they may be seen elephants are not meant for carrying heavy weight on their backs. According to Carol Buckley, a president of the Elephant Aid International, said that elephants have a sharp bony protrusion that are extended upwards from their spine as compared to the usual smooth, round spinal disks. Because of the bony protrusions and its tissue that protects it, this makes the elephant vulnerable from receiving extreme pressure and weight from above (de Waal, 2017). To add up, the spine is not just the only reason why elephants experience back injuries but also with the additional weight from the Howdah that rests on top of the elephant’s back. Howdah is the attachment where tourists sit. The friction caused between the Howdah and the back of the elephants causes blisters. Upon exposure of these blisters from the air, skin infections may arise. Elephants that are used usually experiences discomfort from the different factors that may cause permanent spinal damage, serious infection, and physical deformities (World Nomad, 2011).

From the claim experts made, it is inferred that an elephant has an ability to carry a weight with a maximum of 150kgs positioned in the middle of their backs. The prescribed hours of carrying the said weight ranges from 4-5 hours only per day. In contrast to this, the elephants from Thailand generally works up to 8 hours per day. The average weight of an adult passengers ranges from 80kg – 90kg for males and 65kg- 75kg for females plus the additional weight from the Howdah, and at the same time the Mahout trainer which is sitting on its neck. This exceeds the normal weight an elephant can carry. To reduce the chance of an elephant meeting an injury, some tourists are given the choice to sit on neck behind its ears (Tourism Concern, 2015). Due to hours of trekking, elephants also incur foot infection and injuries. Being the largest land-living mammals, they have a specialized foot morphology which helps in reducing the locomotor pressures and at the same time supporting their voluminous body mass (Panagiotopoulou et al., 2016). Peak pressures generated by long-term trekking causes the wear and tear of the elephants’ feet. Elephants need to endure the walk on untypical terrain of tough, sizzling surface scorches their feet. Afraid of being hit with bull-hooks, elephants aren’t unable to slow down and rest for a little while which injures their joints.


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