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Responsible Ways To Meet Elephants in Southeast Asia

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For animal lovers, the promise of interactions with elephants is a big draw in Southeast Asia — but it’s important to make sure these pachyderm encounters happen in a socially responsible way. For this month’s installment of “Giving Tuesday,” our series highlighting travel-themed charitable giving, TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino provides some background on problems facing Asian elephants and shares attractions in Southeast Asia where you can have a special, ethical travel experience you’ll never forget. 

If you want to interact with elephants, do it in a ethical way. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
If you want to interact with elephants, do it in a ethical way. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Ethical tourism benefits (or at minimum, doesn’t negatively effect) the environment, wildlife and people at your chosen destination. When I briefly touched on the importance of ethical tourism in my recent post, 12 Tips For Your First Trip to Southeast Asia, I received a whirlwind of responses, nudging me to elaborate further on how we can be ethical tourists when traveling in this region — especially in regards to one of its most endangered species, the Asian elephant.

The Major Problems Facing Asian Elephants

Many tourists who would love to interact with Asian elephants are unaware that these gentle giants face a number of plights, including:

Habitat loss. Asia is the most densely populated continent in the world and, due to deforestation and urban expansion, Asian elephants have lost most of their natural roaming space. Deforestation prompts starving elephants to wander in search of the roughly 400 hundred pounds of trees and plants they need to eat daily in order to survive — and brings them into unwanted contact with farmers, who may choose to protect their crops with either poison or gunfire.

Capture. Diminishing forest cover leaves elephants vulnerable to capture by people who don’t have their best interests at heart. Historically, young elephants have been prized by laborers seeking to domesticate them and help with deforestation and construction efforts, as well as those who profit from circus-style attractions. In some cases, older female elephants who try to protect their young are killed in the process. At present, 30% of Asia’s remaining elephants are now in captivity, and it’s estimated that there are only about 40,000 elephants left on the entire continent of Asia.

Illegal logging work. Despite the fact that India, Vietnam and Myanmar have banned the capture of elephants and Thailand has banned logging, elephants continue to be captured and put to work logging in these countries. This timber work is back-breaking for elephants and puts them in the terrible position of assisting in the destruction of their own natural habitat, as well as putting them in danger of stepping on post-war landmines, falling off cliffs and other perils. Some pachyderms even die from exhaustion due to excessive overwork.

Elephant painting isn't as cool as it seems: elephants are cruelly trained to create these artistic shows. Photo courtesy of EARS.
Elephant painting isn’t as cool as it seems: elephants are cruelly trained to create these artistic shows. Photo courtesy of EARS.

Mistreatment for tourism. The ban on logging in some of the Southeast Asian countries was a good idea in theory, but it also created a whole set of new issues for elephants. For example, the 1989 ban in Thailand put thousands of elephants (and mahouts, their trainers) out of work. In order to earn their elephants pricey keep (remember those hundreds of pounds of food they need per day), many mahouts have turned to tourism.

Many of these elephants end up in city centers, forced to live in small spaces, suffering from lack of contact with other elephants and are cruelly mistreated. Some are forced to perform dangerous tricks, wear painful chairs to tote tourists and are stabbed or poked with knives and bull hooks if they don’t behave as their trainers would like. Many are also drugged in order to stay calm and not react to flashing lights or crowds during shows.

Especially controversial is phajaan (“the crush”), the horrific Indian and Southeast Asian practice of domesticating pachyderms so they’ll allow humans to ride them or teaching them to perform tricks like appearing to paint pictures with brushes held in their trunks. The frightening process of phajaan begins with dragging a baby elephant away from its mother, brutally beating the animal, depriving it of sleep and food and locking it in a cage for days on end until it loses the will to live. At this point, the baby elephant’s mahouts begin to feed and train it, and the animal becomes a domesticated creature in order to survive. A documentary called An Elephant Never Forgets explains more about the mistreatment of elephants in Southeast Asia, but be warned that it shows disturbing footage of animal abuse.

Don't visit places that offer elephant rides on chairs. Elephant spines weren't designed to carry the weight of the chair, plus people. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Don’t visit places that offer elephant rides on chairs — elephant spines weren’t designed to carry the weight of the chair. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

How Do You Know If The Elephants Are Being Mistreated At Your Chosen Attraction or Not?

Don’t participate in attractions where elephants are painting, dancing or where there are chairs placed on elephants’ backs. In order to be domesticated and taught to perform these tricks, the elephants have suffered an immense amout of abusive training.

If you notice the elephant has bloody wounds on their head, armpits, inside their ears or mouth or anywhere else, the elephant is most likely being abused with a bull hook or knife. If you can see the elephants’ ribs or bones, this is a sign they are not eating enough, and if their toenails and end of their trunk are not moist, this can be a sign of dehydration. Finally, a sign of stress for an elephant is when they rock back and forth  from side to side continually, sometimes with their whole bodies, including their legs — a surefire sign the animal is unhappy, bored and/or stressed. Happy, healthy elephants move about almost constantly, swaying their tails and flapping their ears.

How Can You Interact With Elephants In A Responsible Way?

Support organizations that rescue elephants from illegal logging camps and abusive tourist attractions/elephants shows, and are committed to caring for them in an eco-friendly manner. Many of these centers offer visits and volunteering opportunities where you can bathe, feed and walk with an elephant.

Reading reviews on TripAdvisor before you reserve any tours can help you choose socially responsible, eco-friendly organizations, but here are more tips to consider when choosing and researching an organization to volunteer with or visit. Also be sure to visit the site for EARSAsia, the Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation, which lists organizations in Southeast Asia that treat elephants ethically, and where you can either volunteer, visit or send donations.

Bathe elephants in a waterfall at eco-friendly elephant rescue center Mondulkiri
Bathe elephants in a waterfall at an eco-friendly elephant rescue center in Cambodia called Mondulkiri Project.

Socially Responsible, Eco-Friendly Elephant Attractions

Here are some examples of Southeast Asian places that protect, rescue and care for elephants — and where you can visit:

Elephant Nature Park, Thailand. This elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand also has projects in Myanmar and Cambodia. Opportunities include day visits, as well as seven-day volunteer projects. Visits start at 2,500 THB per day (about $70). If you can’t manage to make it to Southeast Asia to pay them a visit, you can check out some of their other volunteer opportunities, such as donating, sharing their social media posts or even writing an article for a local newspaper or blog.

Mondulkiri Project, Cambodia. This sanctuary does not allow visitors to ride the elephants, but offers treks where you walk alongside your elephants through the jungle and bathe them in a waterfall. They also work on forest conservation, ensuring that the few wild elephants that are left will still have space to roam. Visits start at $50 per day.

The Surin Project, Thailand. A project aimed at improving the living conditions of elephants and providing sustainable income for their mahouts in their East Thailand community. You can volunteer for week-long periods (one-eight weeks), and the cost is about $350 per week.

Do a good deed for elephants and yourself by using the right credit card when booking eco-friendly attractions or donating to pro-elephant organizations.
When booking visits or donating to pro-elephant organizations, be sure to use the right credit card(s). Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Maximize Your Spend on Elephants

When booking visits to these eco-friendly attractions, keep in mind that credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Capital One Venture Rewards don’t charge foreign transaction fees (see this post for suggestions of others). Or, if booked with the Citi ThankYou Premier while you’re still Stateside, you’ll earn 3x points per dollar on this travel-category spend.

To make the most of your charitable donations to elephants and other worthy causes, consider putting your transaction on the  Citi Double Cash or the FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa Signature, which always offers triple points on charitable donations, assuming the organization is properly categorized.

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