Challenging Lessons in Riding Elephants

Written by
Kristina Liburd

Challenging Lessons in Riding Elephants

Written by
Kristina Liburd

Challenging Lessons in Riding Elephants

Written by
Kristina Liburd


When I had the opportunity to travel to Asia during my second year of law school, I pounced it. I am a devoted fan of Japan and anime and have been since the age of 13. While others would look at me with confusion when my younger brother and I would belt out tunes in pretty solid Japanese, it was something I rolled my eyes at. My joy, not yours.

#LetMeLiveMyLife 

So when I had the chance to study abroad in law school in Tokyo, I did everything in my power to make it happen. And it did. January 2009, I touched down in Narita airport and my Asian adventure would begin. As I found a crew within my classmates, we planned to travel together into the greater parts of Asia.

Arriving in Thailand

Being in Japan provided me a greater springboard to all of the Asian countries I had ever had any interest in. With my travel buddy Mercedes, we planned out two weeks country-hopping: a few days in Singapore, ten days in Thailand and a few days in Hong Kong before returning to Tokyo.

Heading to Thailand was pretty new to me. I didn’t really know too much about what to do there and was essentially led by Mercedes. I was game - I just wanted to see and do things, no matter what they were. We found a really great hotel 100 ft away from Karon Beach - (Sugar Marina Resort - formerly Sugar Palm Karon Beach) and we got really comfortable really quick. 

Mama of Karon Beach - the chef!

Also side note: Street food is an absolute must if you are in Thailand. I can assure you that you can get a gourmet class meal right there on the street for a few dollars. Maybe even better than those restaurants with Michelin stars (yes, I said it!). 

Thai Street Food

When Mercedes suggested that we head out and see oxen and elephants, I was down. We’ve had such a great time so far, what could go wrong?

The day started off okay - we arrived at the campsite where we got into a cart that was pushed around by an ox (can’t really think why). Then we headed with the group to another part of the camp where we would get to ride elephants. This was supposed to be the highlight of the trip. We got on a sweet female elephant with our guide. We walked through a river and through a well-worn path. I was even able to get right behind the elephant’s head and ride behind her ears. I whispered sweet nothings to Sweet One as she led Mercedes and myself through the woods of Phuket. 

Riding an ox led cart
Riding an ox-led cart
Riding elephants

Then it got ugly. Sweet One didn’t want to move any further. And her handler was getting upset that we were beginning to lag behind. So he took a large looking bat with 2-inch spokes tied to it and began to hit Sweet One on her hind legs. Mercedes began to panic and said she did not feel comfortable with this. I told the handler that it wasn’t a big deal and that we were not in a hurry. Before we could get into an argument, Sweet One began to move and met back with her herd. 

I know. There isn’t much I can say without sounding like an apologist for the mistreatment of elephants. Which I am not. Any mistreatment of animals I refute it and rebuke it. Large tour operators like STA Travel and Intrepid Travel have responded in just eliminating trekking and elephant shows from their itineraries. But with the surge of Chinese tourists in Thailand, the demand for elephant trekking has grown in the last few years. In essence, though, we are all in a catch-22. 

“People are coming in on package tours, and they’re looking for the cheapest-possible experience,” says John Roberts, co-chair of the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) and the director of Elephants and Conservation Activities for the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF). “This is provided for them by exploitative camps that let people ride the elephants for 10-to-12 hours straight, with no rest during the day and no forest time at night. The situation is horrific, and yet these camps are growing massively. At the same time, people who do care about animal welfare are avoiding elephant riding altogether because they’ve been told it’s a bad idea. So camps that were doing good things, like allowing elephants to give rides just three or four hours a day and spending the rest of the time up in a forest, are going out of business. They can’t make enough money to keep their elephants, so they send them to the bad trekking camps a kilometer away.”

Essentially boycotting elephant trekking isn’t a great idea because it means that the good ones, the ones that treat elephants with care and respect don’t get the funds they need to survive. Which only gives the bad ones a better chance at exploiting. And if you care about animals, then this completely defeats the purpose.

“If you look at the wider picture of trying to look after 3,800 elephants, we need some form of mass tourism, and that’s going to be riding in the saddle. So the best thing [we can do] is try to help the camps that are offering that do it in a way that doesn’t harm the elephants.”

Back in 2009, none of this information was available to me. But I am glad that awareness has grown at least in the West. Or at least starting to.

Bottom line - Do not boycott elephant trekking entirely.

Find the good ones - ones that have been approved by the Thai government (Ministry of Tourism in particular) and pummel the camp with many questions about their practices: Where do the elephants spend their time? Do they have a forest to hang out? Do they have social interaction with other elephants? What’s the camp’s policy on providing food, shelter, and exercise? Do they use weapons or hooks on their elephants? How do they handle them? How do they handle emergencies if an elephant gets spooked?

Make sure to get more than adequate answers or you could be putting yourself and the elephant at risk for harm. I believe we were lucky that day. Sweet One could have reacted violently after been harmed by her handler. If we had asked questions before, we would have avoided the camp entirely. 

“Asking a lot of questions creates more work for the casual traveler, but, in the end, it’s important to get answers,” Roberts says. “Look deeply at what you’re doing and ensure that you’re finding a place that is, to the best of their ability, looking after the elephants well.”


(Interview excerpts from Is It Ever Okay to Ride Elephants While on Vacation? It’s Complicated...)















(Interview excerpts from Is It Ever Okay to Ride Elephants While on Vacation? It’s Complicated...)