During my time teaching English in Thailand with the Mirror Foundation, part of the program was to take part in a day of elephant trekking. There are myriad companies you can sign up to take an elephant ride with, such as Akha Hill House (I also did a homestay in the Akha Village, which allowed me to volunteer in the village and live with a local family) and Karen Elephant Camp Baan Ruammit. Don’t stress about advance bookings, as once you arrive in Thailand you will have no problem finding a local tour operator for this activity.
The trek took me along jungle, farmland, mountains, and through rivers. It was absolutely beautiful, and I honestly did feel very in touch with nature. However, there was something about a man-made bench being attached to the elephant’s back that ruined the serenity for me.
Now, I am well aware that the debate exists on the humanity and morality of engaging in elephant trekking. Before doing the activity I was torn on if I should go through with it or not. When the elephants are not giving tourists and locals rides they are chained up to a fence. They are so big and beautiful, and it’s heartbreaking in a way that they are not wandering around in the wild. It’s also difficult to think about how it must feel to have one or two adult males sitting on your head. Yes, elephants are enormous animals, but how can that be comfortable?
In the end, I opted to do the elephant trek for the cultural experience and to get a first hand perspective of what it was like. I actually had a conversation with one of the locals about the morality of the activity, and his reply made me feel a lot better.
“In our culture, we use animals for everything, especially labor.”
Okay, so giving tourists elephant rides wasn’t exactly labor, but for many locals it was a way to make a living. The point is, it’s a different mindset in South East Asia. Being from the United States, as well as being someone who was a proud PETA member for 10 years and a vegetarian, it’s definitely hard for me personally to wrap my head around. At the same time, however, it’s important to keep an open mind when traveling and try to understand the different ways of thinking and doing things.
What’s your opinion on elephant trekking?