This is a popular activity for tourists particularly in Thailand’s tourist hot spots. Trekking can be booked though tour operators as part of a holiday, through a hotel or visitors can simply pop into the camps. A chair in strapped to the Elephants back and the tourists then sit in the chair and take a ride that can be 5 minutes in length up to an hour or more. Some treks are just in a circle in a camp and some are through jungle. Most people don’t know that Elephants backs are not designed to carry weights like this and many Elephants end up with deformed and broken backs as a result of years of long hours spent carrying tourists around.
Elephants as young as 8 years old are now expected to work as trekking Elephants carrying the weight of humans on their undeveloped backs. Babies are tied to their mothers when they are less than one year old and have to struggle to keep up with Mum as she works. Mortality rates are high in the babies as Mothers under this stress can stop producing milk.
Conditions and equipment varies greatly from camp to camp. Some camps remove the chairs between tourists and give the Elephants a break; others leave the chairs on and leave the Elephants in the hot sun with little access to water. The chairs can rub on the Elephants skin if not fitted properly or left on too long causing pressure sores.
It is often very difficult for tourists to determine if a camp is adequately taking care of its Elephants and indeed Mahouts. Do ask questions, ask to walk with the Elephant rather than riding, and ask to just spend time with them showering or feeding. Don’t be fooled by smart uniforms and neatly manicured gardens these are not indicators of better care for the Elephants. Trekking camps are currently where most Mahouts and their Elephants work and to insist on an outright ban would be irresponsible and lead to thousands of Mahouts out of work and back begging on the streets with their Elephants. Instead; for now we can work towards a kinder model for the camps, putting the Elephants wellbeing at the centre of all activities, discouraging tricks and shows. Tourists can lead the way in changing Elephant tourism, what they demand will be available to them and if that is just simply wanting to spend time with Elephants and learning about them, showering and feeding them, getting to know them and walking with them rather than riding on them then that is what will be on offer.
Elephants are controlled in the camps with hooks and nails; remember to look out for holes, cuts and scratches particularly on their heads and ears, blood or lots of purple medicine used to treat wounds. Do the Elephants look tired or thin are they constantly swaying back and forth on their chains, how long are the chains, are all their feet chained rather than just one foot, are they chained by the neck ??
It’s worth considering your own safety, many accidents and even deaths have occurred during trekking experiences.
If something feels wrong or you are concerned about the Elephants do let someone know.