Elephants in Thailand have a major unemployment problem, a plight which has worsened since the official banning of logging operations in Thailand in 1989.
Following the ban, elephant owners and their mahouts no longer had the income to cover the high cost of caring for their elephants. While many took to busy urban streets and beach locations, selling overpriced fruit to tourists to feed and pose with the elephants, the ban also gave rise to a large number of so called elephant camps where visitors could participate in various elephant related activities. Unfortunately, this unregulated form of tourism involving riding and circus style tricks resulted in many of elephants being kept in abusive conditions. However, education and awareness, particularly via social media, continues to raise awareness of these practices, helping to render them obsolete.
At the beginning of the 20th century, some 100,000 elephants roamed free in Thailand. More recent estimates (circa year 2000) put that figure somewhere between 3000 and 3700 and more recently even as low as 1000. Current estimates of the captive elephant population, largely represented in various forms of elephant tourism, range from 3000 to 4500.
Most experts agree that repatriation of elephants to the wild is not an option due to the loss of their natural habitat from human activities. Consequently, the best options for survival of the Asian Elephant lie in preserving the remaining wild elephant populations, and protecting the captive population by providing suitable environments where they are respected and well care for.
Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals, who form complex hierarchies within their herds based on family ties. In the wild, they spend their time foraging, playing, swimming, exploring, and communicating with each other. Although many elephants spend their entire lives in captivity, it is possible to provide a better life by allowing them to form a herd, with time to forage, socialize, and play, as well ensuring that they receive a good diet and veterinary care.
Following the collapse of tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Thailand’s captive elephants used for tourism returned to rural villages with their mahouts, where it was hoped they could forage naturally. Now, as international visitors are beginning to return, a new tourism model is emerging in locations where community-managed forests are being made available to the elephants. Working closely with local community land owners, such as the Karen hill tribes of Northern Thailand, elephant sanctuaries are being granted access to these community-managed forests, thereby providing the opportunity for people to visit and learn about elephants in an environment of respect, cultural preservation and sustainability.
Sources of information:
Asian elephant facts
While a mahout has many different commands, you might want to try some of these on your visit.
“How How” – relax or stop
“Bon bon” – raise your arm when you say this and the elephant will lift her trunk for you to feed a juicy banana directly to the mouth