Elephant vacations

If you’re a traveler who loves elephants, you’ve no doubt thought about a trip to Southeast Asia. The region features plenty of parks and areas where you can spend time with them, and in some places elephant trekking camps proliferate along the roadside. So the problem is not finding the elephants – it’s finding places that treat them well.

Before I get started: I know, I know. It’s exhausting to encounter an unfamiliar issue and find a list of “rules” you’re supposed to follow just to do it right. But the principle here is an important one. The people who run the best elephant facilities have not only devoted their lives to caring for elephants, they’re trying to encourage a cultural shift that will improve the lives of elephants.

My advice is to go someplace you can see elephants being elephants. It’s plenty entertaining, believe me- there’s nothing like watching babies playing with each other or interacting with their mothers and aunts. Elephants have fascinating and complicated social lives, and if you see them in a natural environment, their emotional bonds are unmistakable. It’s very moving, especially since many elephants now living in these venues have been rescued from difficult, painful lives.

Where can you go to do that? The short answer is that the internet will help you do your research and ask questions. For a long answer, here’s what I’ve learned and read.

In 2011 I spent a week at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. Volunteers do a lot of work around the park and it can be grueling, but it’s satisfying as well. If a week of hanging around and periodically shoveling elephant poop sounds like too much for you, they offer day trips and other short packages. You’ll still get to feed and help bathe an elephant and watch them enjoy themselves. In the years since my visit, ENP has started partnering with nearby camps to help them change over to a more humane business model. That’s brought about new offerings like “Pamper a Pachyderm” and “Sunrise with Paychderms.” Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary also gets rave reviews online. Lonely Planet also has a list of parks and camps that let their elephants be elephants.

In contrast I’d avoid any venue that has elephants performing, painting, giving rides, or that offers “mahout” training. The reasons are twofold: the elephants are put through horrific abuse to make them complaint, as they’re traumatized through isolation, violence, and sleep deprivation until they’re too frightened to disobey humans. And while I am sure some trekking camps and similar places treat their elephants relatively well on a day to day basis, others don’t. It’s hard to know which is which, and elephants shouldn’t be forced to live a working life. Circus footlights can blind them, bullhooks can leave terrible sores, walking on roads can wear out their joints, and carrying tourists can damage their spines.

This may be a lot to keep in mind, but the good news is that it’s 100% possible for you to spend time with elephants in a way that’s fun for you, good for the elephants, and encourages better treatment of these wonderful animals in the future. Elephants may never forget, but you definitely won’t.

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