When Sam and I were planning our trip to Thailand, one of my “bucket list” items for our trip was to hang out with some elephants. But then in my research I just came across article after article about how elephant tourism is awful. Then I stumbled upon an article about “ethical” elephant encounters in Thailand and read that Phang Nga Elephant Park was in the Top 5. “Brilliant!” I thought. That was the area that we were going to be in. Phang Nga Elephant Park is family owned, so I reached out to Jake, the director and co-owner to get his take on the park and ethical elephant tourism in Thailand.
One of the elephants at the park is one that Jake grew up with. I asked him what it was like to grow up around elephants and he vary candidly admitted that he used to be scared of them. And after my afternoon at the park, I can completely see why. They are beautiful and gentle, for the most part, yes, but they are also giants who could easily hurt a human.
Jake raised a point with me that I hadn’t necessarily considered. There are 2500-3000 domesticated elephants in Thailand and around 3700 elephants in the wild in Thailand. Now once you have a domesticated elephant, you can’t rehabilitate it to release it into the wild. It’s too used to human affection and attention and it will seek it out, the elephant won’t really know how to fend for itself, and is at risk of eating poisoned crops and getting very ill or dying. Taking an elephant baby away from its mother is cruel. So a baby elephant born into domestication will stay there with its mother. Logically, the number of domesticated elephants won’t really decrease for that reason. Having an elephant is really expensive and there has to be a way to support them. That’s where elephant tourism like at Phang Nga Elephant Park comes in. The fact of the matter is that if no one supported elephant tourism, these elephants would have no one to look after them.
They rescue elephants. They offer to take care of elephants for people who can’t necessarily afford to anymore. (The the previous owner is invited to still visit their elephant whenever they want.) They don’t train elephants at the park, but since they are mostly all rescued, they tend to have training already. And after the end of using elephants for logging in Thailand, there’s a fair few elephants who need help.
Phang Nga’s particular power seems to be in the fact that education is so important to them. They want to educate visitors on elephants, show them how lovable elephants can be, illustrate the special relationships between mahouts and their elephants, and show foreign companies that there’s a danger in boycotting elephant tourism. (It was mentioned that several major travel companies have dropped elephant sites from any tour options.) But at Phang Nga Elephant Park, education doesn’t stop with visitors. They seem committed to helping their mahouts have the most positive relationship possible with their elephants. (And the bonds between the individual elephants and their mahouts just seem incredible.) Jake didn’t shy away from admitting that he’d fired a mahout for hitting an elephant in the past, but he stressed the importance of giving people chances, and educating them.
In full disclosure, I saw mahouts carrying ankus, but I never saw a single one using it. After a lot of research, I’ve come to the opinion that there’s a big difference between using an ankus rarely but appropriately to ensure the safety of the elephant, the mahout and other humans and mis-using it. And again, that all comes down to education.
One of the most eye-opening things to come out of this day with Jake was how many grey areas that “ethical” can have. In retrospect, I feel remarkably ashamed and imperialistic that I went into a country assuming X historical action about elephants was bad and Y was bad also. Because, really, I had no basis for that besides some articles written on the internet (99% of which are by Westerners, like myself). In a way, I think that a blanket boycott of elephant tourism shows a huge lack of respect for cultural traditions. Jake really hammered the point home that “ethical” elephant tourism is kind of a make-believe term because it’s different for everyone. But to the Phang Nga Elephant Park elephant tourism is all about looking after elephants, treating them like family, and helping strengthen human and elephant bonds. And that the best way to stop the negative reputation of elephant tourism is to make everything as clear and transparent as possible.
Jake’s next big project is opening a “retirement” home for elephants and I can honestly wish them all the best and whole-heartedly recommend Phang Nga Elephant Park to people who are traveling in the area. It might be a pricier tour out of all your other options, but your money is going to an excellent cause. No matter what your take on ethical elephant tourism may be, it would be impossible to argue that Jake and his team could love their elephants any more than they already do.
Here’s a big “Thank you!” to Jake and his team for having me along for the morning; not only for answering all my questions but for doing so with willingness, openness and honesty.
Phang Nga Elephant Park is located at: 49/1 Moo 3 Tambon Thung Kha Ngok, Muang Phang Nga, Phang Nga, 82000. However, you must book in with them in advance as there is a limited capacity for guests, and transfers to and from the park are included in your ticket.
My time with Phang Nga Elephant Park’s elephants was magical. I’ll never forget my time there and I can whole-heartedly recommend them.
What’s your experience with elephants? Would it be a bucket list activity to get to interact with them?