John Roberts

Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation

In an ideal world all tourist camps would be run to the highest ethical standards -- avoiding riding and unnatural interactions, investing in welfare for captive elephants and conservation for those in the wild, working sensitively with ancient communities and traditions, and all the other factors that make a “good” elephant camp.

Trekking feeds elephants and mahouts

But the hard reality is that this model may not be a short-term answer for all of Thailand’s elephants. That’s because there’s a downside to this approach: low impact tourism is expensive. It means having few guests but charging a lot.

Those of us following this approach care for just 200 of Thailand’s (officially registered) 4,614 elephants.

It’s clear that we also need a positive solution for mass tourism in order to cater for the staggering 1.1m tonnes of fodder the country’s elephants need every day, not to mention the livelihoods of around 4,000 mahouts and their families.

This is a bold assertion. If we must accept the existence of elephant camps (at least in the immediate term), it is up to the industry and individual travellers to support operations that don’t cause suffering to their elephants. But how can we know which are which?

Research fills the knowledge gaps

Luckily, science is beginning to show the way with two peer-reviewed papers that can help travellers ask the right questions.

The first paper “Risk Factors for Saddle-Related Skin Lesions on Elephants used in the Tourism Industry in Thailand” is published in Bio Med Central. Its findings are important because they confirm that there is no evidence that trekking in the saddle is inherently harmful.

The paper’s conclusions were that trekking elephants need:

  • Proper monitoring by professional veterinarians, especially for older animals;

  • Fewer than six working hours per day;

  • Use of appropriate padding – specifically avoiding rice sacks.

This is useful as it gives us three specific questions we can all ask before visiting a trekking camp.

Where TripAdvisor and animal welfare clash

The second paper, “The Customer Isn’t Always Right – Conservation and Animal Welfare Implications of the Increasing Demand for Wildlife Tourism” was published by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) in the Plos One journal.

The purpose was to compare TripAdvisor ratings against measured conservation and welfare standards. It found that the majority of reviews tended to focus on the travel experiences and often overlooked the condition and treatment of the elephants.

The point is that online reviewers aren’t experts and we shouldn’t put much stock in a TripAdvisor review of welfare standards. Consumer reviews mostly reflect a facility's ability to deliver the experience that guests expect.

But if not TripAdvisor, where should we look? Again, the research can help. WildCRU employed longstanding criteria that looked at conservation and welfare aspects of assessment – the “five freedoms” of animal welfare:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst;
  2. Freedom from discomfort;
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease;
  4. Freedom to behave normally;
  5. Freedom from fear and distress.

These basic criteria give travellers some guidelines to help make up their own minds before taking part in a saddled ride, a bareback ride, a walkalong in the jungle, a bath in the river, or any kind of elephant interaction.

Problematic price tags

A final question that is almost totally overlooked is the buying and trading of elephants. Even sanctuaries that are proactive about welfare standards ought to be aware of the threats to the species in the wild – and have policies never to buy elephants, which can contribute to wild capture.

The most important questions to ask might be: Where did the elephants come from? How did they arrive at this sanctuary or camp? If you’re not satisfied with the answer it may be wise to take your money elsewhere.

Why Horizon Guides?

Impartial guidebooks

Impartial guidebooks

Our travel guides are written by the leading experts in their destinations. We never take payment for positive coverage so you can count on us for impartial travel advice.

Expert itineraries

Expert itineraries

Suggested itineraries and routes to help you scratch beneath the surface, avoid the tourist traps, and plan an authentic, responsible and enjoyable journey.

Specialist advice

Specialist advice

Get friendly, expert travel advice and custom itineraries from some of the world’s best tour operators, with no spam, pressure or commitment to book.