Elephant industry in Thailand

With this blog I would like to share a message about the elephant industry in Thailand and the rest of Asia. My educational adventure at the Project Journey to Freedom of Elephant Nature Park has been an emotional one where I have learned the good and the bad stuff. I feel a desperate need to spread the word.

Please don’t ever participate in activities that require elephants to be outside their natural environment. Elephants aren’t born performers. They can’t naturally paint, do circus tricks or carry heavy loads on their backs. They don’t like to bath 6 times per day or walk in the jungle while carrying your carriage. Even though it may seem that these elephants are having fun, this is never the case. They suffer from it and mostly end up injured.

How do elephants end up doing tricks for our entertainment? It is mostly the baby elephants that will be captured in the wild. They obviously don’t roam around by themselves so other family members will be killed in the process. This is the first horrific experience they have to go through. Next the Phajaan ceremony is performed to make the elephant submissive to humans. The elephant will be tied up deep in the jungle. Days or weeks on end it will be tortured with sharp objects until it is fearful of humans. It will be starved of food and deprived of water. Unable to move, all alone, scared and with pain. This is the ugly truth. Finally the elephants mahout (caretaker) will come and be the one that gives him food to build up a trust relationship. Another mental game.

Now that the elephant is so afraid of humans that it will do whatever it takes to not be tortured again it can begin to learn tricks. This process as you can imagine is painful. Doing circus tricks, painting, riding a bike. All for the pleasure of paying people.

An elephant in its natural habitat would eat 20 hours a day and sleep the other 4 hours. In the jungle an elephant can maintain a healthy and varied diet. They are not tied up and are able to walk around freely. In the tourist industry an elephant often has to work 8-10 hours per day. When the elephant is working it can’t eat. And when the elephant does get a chance to eat it is mostly sweet stuff like banana and watermelon. Not getting the nutrients they actually need is a problem. A lot of elephants coming from the circus are blind. Babies are born with brain damage when the mother has to work while being pregnant.

It might come as a surprise but elephants don’t have very strong backs. For logging and trekking they have to carry heavy loads and this usually leaves them injured. Probably 100% of the teak wood coming from Asia is transported by elephants. 80% of the sales go to Europe. You may not have been aware of this when you bought that teak coffee table..

Elephant bathing has become more popular since people have been posting pictures on their social media with them bathing an elephant. I have learned that elephants do not enjoy water really. But for the pleasure of the payer it has become a common activity to go bathing with elephants. Easily six times per day. Elephants are much more into mud as it protects their skin form the sun and from parasites. Excessive cleaning by daily bathing is harmful.

There is a movement to abandon rides, shows and tricks and put elephant welfare as the top priority. The first sanctuary for rescued elephants in Thailand is Elephant Nature Park, located park in the Mae Taeng valley, 60km from Chiang Mai. Lek Chailert is the founder of this sanctuary. The elephants have been rescued from logging camps and tourist attractions. During the day they can walk around freely, they form family groups and are taken care of. Sadly enough many of the elephants here have serious injuries of their gruesome past. There are many (partially) blind elephants, hip dislocations, broken ankles and more. I’ve seen it all. Many of these elephants can no longer survive in the wild. This sanctuary gives the elephants a bit of their former live back as they can pick up some of their natural behavior. In a herd you can see that elderly elephants take care of disabled or blind members. They are no longer chained up but will still have a mahout that takes care of them.

And it is not only rescued elephants. Lek Chailert will help any animal that is in need of help. Next to the 73 elephants there are 80 water buffalos that have been rescued from going to the slaughter-house, 600 dogs rescued from occasions like the flooding in Bangkok 6 years ago and recently from a puppy mill. 200 cats and a few horses and pigs. She will never turn a blind eye to an animal in need. There work over 300 people and volunteers at ENP. With the money given to the park as entrance fee the families of workers are supported with housing and school for the kids. There is fair trade with local farmers. There are week volunteer programs at the park to help with the dogs or elephants or like I did at the remote location where some elephants can live an even more free life.

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Another view of the park

The water buffaloes enjoying the pool

Animals are living closely together

There are more sanctuaries like ENP and if you want to see how ‘good’ they are check if the elephants can walk around freely, connect with each other and form social groups. There should be no riding or bathing and plenty of food and water.

How can you help:

  • Stop giving your money to elephant attractions. Don’t support this industry.
  • Don’t go on elephant trekkings where you sit on their backs with heavy carriages
  • Don’t go taking pictures of a tied up (baby) elephant on display
  • Don’t buy teak wood from Asia at all
  • Don’t ever buy any elephant products like ivory and skin
  • Support foundations that are there to help the elephants
  • Don’t buy strawberries in Asia
  • Help with the transport of adopted dogs when you have a flight from Bangkok to anywhere in the world. You can check with ENP if they for instance need anyone flying to the Netherlands (normally only direct flights). You don’t have to do much more than showing up 3 hours before the flight.


Flight volunteers needed!

As cool as it may seem, don’t make it a bucket list item to ride on the back of an elephant. Please know about their history.

Let’s all just be part of the generation of change.

4 thoughts on “Elephant industry in Thailand”

  1. Jeetje, indrukwekkend!
    Het is altijd zo’n ver van mijn bedshow……
    Ik kan me voorstellen dat het emotioneel voor je moet zijn geweest het van zo dichtbij te ervaren.

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  2. I am here now at ENP and my son is doing Journey to Freedom. It is a life changing experience and already am planning my next trip back. That is if I go back at all😀🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘

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