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Elephant Trekking in Chiang Mai, Thailand…Is it Moral?

Update: Since originally writing this article in 2011, I have formed a very different opinion and firmly believe elephant trekking is not something tourists should participate in when visiting Thailand. I highly recommend reading Wildlife Tourism In Thailand: An Elephant-Sized Controversy and Irresponsible Tourism: 7 “Attractions” Promoting Animal Cruelty from my own online magazine, Epicure & Culture. 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. 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?
Jessie Festa standing in front of grafitti wall

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  1. Melissa on at 3:20 pm

    Thanks for bringing a different perspective to your readers. It’s all too easy for foreigners to immediately take up conventional and moral schools of thought, which say that using animals in such a manner and certain methods used to control them are not morally right.

    When you live in Asia, you start to see that its not so black and white, and generic western morals cannot always be applied in different countries, its like pushing a square peg moral into a round hole situation.

    I am glad you decided to do the trek in the end, so you could see for your own eyes and decide for yourself. Otherwise, how would you have met the mahoot? and experienced first hand that there is in fact a whole other side to the coin.

    As a side note, if every tourist stopped doing elephant treks and visiting elephant camps, how would the mahoots make a living? and how would the elephants survive? They have been out of the wild for so long, it is unlikely they could survive in the forest independently now.

    The same thoughts can be applied to long neck tourism and also to the boycotting of travel to Myanmar. Should we try it to experience for ourselves what the real situation is? Will we see a whole other side to those coins too?

    • jess2716 on at 2:56 pm

      Thank you both so much for commenting. When I went I was definitely glad I experienced the trek for myself, although being from a Western culture it was a little hard for me at some points. However, I felt it was important to learn more about the trek for the culture and could definitely understand the idea of using animals in a different way than we do in the states, although if you think about it, there are a lot of ways we use animals here that probably aren’t 100% moral. For example, I doubt if a horse loves being forced to jump over blocks of wood everyday while a 150 pound human sits on a its back. I think it’s important to keep an open mind.

  2. Zablon Mukuba on at 1:56 pm

    i have tremendous respect for you for keeping an open mind. the question is – is it their culture to use elephants for everything or is it animal abuse. if its their culture then we cant really judge them for elephant trekking

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