A Little Quandary… Ethics and the Elephants of Asia

Ana and I left the other tourists traveling on the slow boat down the Mekong River with their jaws agape when we nimbly jumped off the boat’s thin, rickety ramp onto a giant sand dune with just a small smattering of thatch-roofed houses sunk into the hillside several hundred meters beyond. The boat reached Tha Suang, a tiny blip of a town, and we were the sole tourists venturing into the more rural Sainyabuli province in Laos. Our target end-destination? Hongsa, a town I visited on my round the world trip three years ago.

Tha Suang, Laos

Welcome to Tha Suang, a small and dusty town on the Mekong River in Laos.

There were so many reasons for the trip back to this small town: the friendly face of an expat guesthouse owner in Hongsa, the chance for Ana to see the slow pace of life in rural Laos, and to ride an Asian elephant. You see, while I have my doubts about the ethics of the elephant tourism industry in Southeast Asia, my 11 year-old niece was very keen on the experience. One of her dreams at the moment, is to work in animal conservation and one day reverse the gradual extinction of endangered animals. This school year, conservation has been a strong focus and we talked it over, discussed a lot of the issues about the current treatment of elephants around the world, including the elephant logging industry, and she decided she wanted an up close ride and elephant trekking experience in Laos, where they still use elephants for logging.

feeding an elephant bananas

Ana is amazed by the elephants swift removal of the banana from her hand in Hongsa, Laos.

Three years ago, I rode an elephant in Hongsa as well — there’s a lure and a romance to riding an elephant through the green jungle and living-out some elephant meets Tarzan fantasies. The quandary part of this comes down to the where . . .

After reading up on my options three years ago, I picked Hongsa because I could rent a logging elephant for the day and give him a break from long hard days of hauling trees, rather than risk over-working a tourist-camp elephant. And perhaps by convincing myself that a day eating through the jungle with me was easier than his logging duties could appease my guilt and indecision to be honest. Even looking pack, however, I think it’s a very complicated topic because I have gone so far as to tentatively endorse riding elephants in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, where that activity is among the only actions that have saved the elephant in that part of the world.

elephant eating bamboo

The elephant snacks on bamboo in Laos.

With that in mind, Ana and I ventured off the more well-worn backpacking route through Laos to the same rural town I last visited in early 2009 so she could learn more about the elephant logging industry in Laos, meet an elephant in person, and make her own decisions about elephant tourism.

The wooden bell around the bull elephant’s neck thudded with a cheery ring as the mahout directed him toward the loading platform — Ana gasped when the elephant’s broad shadow blocked out the sun and dwarfed her petite figure. The elephant’s dull, grey skin was wrinkled like that of an old man celebrating his long-awaited 102nd birthday; we both tentatively patted his coarse, hairy stomach as Ana buzzed with nervous excitement, passing the bundle of bananas from hand-to-hand.

A huge bull elephant munching on trees at the Jumbo Guesthouse in Hongsa, Laos. An huge Asian elephant in Laos. Jungles, rivers and rice paddies on a rural elephant trek in Laos.

She is fascinated by these animals and carefully studied his small expressive eyes, his sneaky trunk (the bananas she she was still holding in her hand had the elephant probing her hands and pockets with enthusiasm), and the thick chain wrapped around his ankle.

I’ll spare a full description of her experience (I walked along beside the elephant), and instead point you to her post and thoughts about the elephants we met, but I will note it was a beautiful trek through what I consider one of the prettier regions in Laos (but who am I kidding, the entire country is photogenic). Deep brown waters flooded many of the rice paddies, enveloping the weak green stalks, and at points on the trek we heard the tinkling lilt of grainy music drifting out from the wooden houses on stilts.

rice paddies in laos

The rice paddies and wide open fields of rural Laos, outside of Hongsa.

And after an hour perched behind the mahout, jilting from side to side and watching the world pass by from 10 feet above the ground, we stopped for lunch and she informed me of her theory — if she stopped riding him, maybe the mahout would stop poking him with the sharp metal hook, and instead let him eat more of the bamboo and plants lining the red mud paths. She told me that though she liked the idea of riding an elephant, she now decided watching him walk around and do his “elephant” thing was better all around for the elephant and for her.

I agreed and at this point figure the day was a success — she fulfilled her dream to ride an elephant, either way we gave a logging elephant an easier day, and Ana learned for herself (instead of me prattling at length about my own beliefs) about some tough ethical dilemmas facing the elephant tourism industry in Asia.

It’s worth pointing out that the bulk of my issues with elephant tourism stem from the way elephants we domesticate elephants, but not necessarily the domestication in general. The level of cruelty needed to force elephants into submission is not like breaking a horse; it takes beatings, days of abuse, inciting pure fear in the animal, and a whole host of other actions I did not share with Ana, but are startling in their level of pure brutality.

chain on elephants leg, Hongsa, Laos.

The chain around our elephants leg, Hongsa, Laos.

You see, that’s the issue here, because the domestication of elephants is nothing new to the world; in fact, for thousands of years (well into the BC era) humanity has revered the elegance of the elephant. We used the ancient art of storytelling to weave this giant beast into the myths of gods and goddesses, into legends speaking of ultimate power and wisdom. Indian mythology is ripe with elephant imagery, each story bestowing ever the more power, grace, and awe on these animals. Images of Indra, King of the Gods, draw power from the idea of this God mastering and controlling Ayravata, his elephant steed. While Ganesha, a deity know as the “Remover of Obstacles,” has an elephant head and is arguably the most popular and recognizable of the many Hindu gods.

Ganesha, a popular and prominent Hindu God

Ganesha, a popular and prominent Hindu God

Humans have waged war with elephants for centuries, their brute strength and intimidating figures were likely the deciding factor determining the outcome of many skirmishes and battles throughout history. An issue cropping up now, though, lies within globalization, tourism, and the world’s connectivity. Our growth means massive habitat loss for the Asian elephant, more demand for their productivity in questionable trades (such as the elephant logging industry which is illegal in Thailand, but still legal in Laos, Myanmar, and other areas of Asia), abuse, and a novelty factor in tourism that has put this beautiful animal on the world’s growing list of endangered animals.

eating elephant

An elephant munches on trees and bushes outside of Hongsa, Laos.

These are the elements I see within the elephant tourism industry — a lot of gray areas. And there is so much more I haven’t mentioned; the animals often sustain skin injuries from the chairs needed to haul tourists—their curved spines cannot easily support the weight — and, they need a lot of time throughout the day to eat enough food to sustain their enormous bodies (there is often not enough time to both eat and fulfill tourism duties).

Former logging elephants will often have broken backs or  malformed legs from the dangers of the job. And it’s these very same elephants, the former logging elephants that are now forced to earn their feed by spending hours upon hours hauling tourists. Numbers are dwindling because owners often cannot afford to allow the mothers the time and light load needed to gestate for 22 months, and when they are born, the baby elephants are destined for the tourism industry as well.

A baby boy elephant and his mom A frisky two small boy elephant in Hongsa, Loas.

This is the first side of the coin, later this month Ana and I will visit the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. The Nature Park is a conservation center allowing full elephant-tourist interactions but without the riding aspect. We’ll learn more about these beautiful animals and Ana is excited to see some of the current conservationists working to preserve the Asian elephant’s place in future generations.

Through other travelers I greatly respect, they have told me this park is one of the best spots for ethical elephant tourism in Thailand, so Ana and I will report back with more information soon.

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60 Responses to A Little Quandary… Ethics and the Elephants of Asia

  1. Susana January 25, 2012 at 2:17 am #

    As always, really enjoyed your insights Shannon!  We’re currently in Laos and have resisted the many elephant riding tours advertised for the same reservations that you have.  We didn’t ride an elephant when we visited India a few years back either for the same reasons. 

    We’re headed over to Thailand and will be visiting the Elephant Nature Park to see these wonderful creatures.

    • Anonymous February 11, 2012 at 3:28 am #

      Hi Susana! I saw that you made it to the Elephant Nature Park and I am so glad you had a wonderful experience there and were able to feel good about your interactions with the elephants :) Thanks for sharing your views on the subject and if you’re still in Chiang Mai we should try to cross paths!

  2. Jen January 21, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    Hi Shannon! I just found your blog and have enjoyed reading of your wonderful adventures! I connected immediately with this post, as I share many of your beliefs about elephant treatment in the tourism industry. I visited the ENP for several days 3 years ago, and it remains one of the most incredible, magical, eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had. Visiting the park opened a floodgate of emotions for me- it was such a peculiar combination of heart-wrenching sadness and uplifting hope for the future. ENP is truly an incredible organization, and by sharing your experiences with your readers, you will increase awareness, and contribute to making much needed changes in SE Asia’s tourism industry- good for you! I hope your time there was absolutely amazing! Best of luck with all your future travels! =) Jen

    • Anonymous February 11, 2012 at 3:22 am #

      Thanks for sharing your experience at the ENP Jen, it really was a wonderful visit, and seeing the sick and injured elephants really took their plight to a new level of understanding…to see first hands the affects of the abuse caused by elephant tourism and logging. My niece and I went to the ENP last month and I hope to share their story once again so more people can support their efforts! Cheers and happy travels :)

  3. Anonymous January 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your own experience at the ENP Tina, I went there with my niece a week ago actually and we had an amazing time, I think she really understood now why logging with elephants is now illegal in Thailand and the harm that is coming out of the elephant tourism industry.

    Too bad you’ve already left CM, but safe onward travels! :)

  4. sara @ orlando taxi January 18, 2012 at 7:55 am #

    Nice post, you have new experience on riding elephant, good to see different pictures thanks for sharing this

  5. Tina January 18, 2012 at 6:23 am #

    I visited the Elephant Nature Park last week and I love it! It was an amazing, emotional, wonderful experience. I hope you picked an overnight as the morning walk is fabulous.  I am glad to read you are going! I miss it already (and I miss Thailand already too).

    If you want to know how wild Asian elephants are domesticated, google “Pajaang”.  

    Rides and shows, in my opinion, are to be boycotted.  Anyone who wants to go on an elephant trek or visit a show should learn about the cruel ways in which they are trained for various activities, is here: http://www.elemotion.org/elephant-tourism/

    I have been reading various posts on your blog and I am enjoying it a lot!  I miss Chiang Mai!!!!  I will definitely bookmark the blog. :-)

  6. Anonymous January 18, 2012 at 3:46 am #

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  7. Angela Brown January 5, 2012 at 2:33 am #

    Riding on  elephant is really a good experience. It is also a very friendly animal in India.

  8. vishnu kumar December 30, 2011 at 7:07 am #

    Interesting read…however i would recommend you to visit India sometime if you want to be engaged into rituals where elephants are worshiped…

    • Anonymous January 1, 2012 at 6:00 am #

      I agree whole heartedly, the elephants in India are spectacular, I actually made it to the Elephant Festival in Jaipur during Holi a few years ago and it was very neat to see the way elephants have been integrated into modern India :)

  9. Anji December 29, 2011 at 11:06 am #

    I love looking at elephants, they always seem to be smiling! In India I had a beautiful encounter with an elephant in a temple where he patted my head! Since then, I’ve always loved them more! :)

    • Anonymous December 29, 2011 at 11:29 am #

      India is such a magical country, and that encounter sounds wonderful! They are so smart and intelligent, I am happy to hear you had a
      positive experience with them! :)

  10. Florida Keys Beach December 27, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Nice pictures, it might definitely been a different experience riding an elephant for you. Thanks.

  11. Kezia Gusmawan December 27, 2011 at 6:08 am #

    Very nice article, Shannon! It’s my dream to ride an elephant as well.. I hear there are elephants in Thailand as well? Which one do you think is better? Thanks :)

    • Anonymous December 27, 2011 at 11:34 pm #

      There are elephants in both countries, yes, and you can ride them in either Laos or Thailand, though as I noted, there are some ethical concerns related to the elephant tourism. If you do ride them, you’ll want to be sure they are treating the animals right. I’d say it’s easier to find these better places in Thailand (another traveler mentioned http://www.changthai.com as a good option for riding without doing harm).

  12. Rebecca December 27, 2011 at 4:17 am #

    Highly recommend Elephant Nature Park – I think your niece will really enjoy it, although it’s a different experience. Enjoy! :-)

    • Anonymous December 27, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

      We actually did the ENP yesterday, and it was really wonderful, they have such a beautiful place out there for the elephants and it was interesting to see just how vastly different the elephants are treated.  :)

  13. Becky GlobalGrasshopper December 24, 2011 at 6:53 am #

    Thanks for highlighting this issue. When I was trekking in Chiang Mai I saw the elephants our group was about to ride being viciously whipped by their handler (who thought we weren’t looking) most of us refused to ride them after this and I think the handlers got the message.

    For anyone who wants to have close interaction with the Asian elephants I would definitely recommend the Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Thailand. It was started by a UK traveller after she fell in love with a injured baby elephant. The founder Kathryn now dedicates her life to rescuing elephants from mistreatment from all over Thailand and they’re the happiest elephants you’ll ever see.

    • Anonymous December 27, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

      Wow, that’s really tough to see that, but wonderful that your group stood together and refused to ride once you saw how they treated the elephants. Just yesterday my niece and I went to the Elephant Nature Park, and it was so heartening to see the good work being done to promote education and save these injured animals. I haven’t yet done Boon Lott’s Sanctuary, but it sounds like a wonderful place as well, thanks for sharing Becky :)

  14. Claire December 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    I think the lesson she learned that day sums up exactly why you two ventured out on this trip in the first place!

    • Anonymous December 23, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

      Thanks Claire! Agreed, it really circles around one of the core reasons we’re out here traveling right now. Have a wonderful holiday! :)

  15. Austin Lehman Adventures December 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    I love that you are working to educate your niece first hand while letting her form her own opinions.  I think it is important to realize there is a fine balance that can be found.  Hopefully one day the cruelty will be stories of the past.  Beautiful photos and story telling. 

    • Anonymous December 23, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

      Thanks for weighing in :) it’s tricky to weigh between education, but I do think we got it right this time…I keep telling her she might be one of the changemakers in the future helping stop the cruelty to elephants in the coming years! Cheers and happy holidays :)

  16. Candy December 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm #

    I have been following you and Anna’s travels and it nearly brings tears to my eyes that you are able to share this with her. I hope one day to be able to share my love of travel and new cultures with my own Grand-daughter (she is only 8 months now).

    I’ve also been able to share some of my traveling with my own children. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to share the experience with those you love.

    Keeep posting and I’ll keep reading!

    • Anonymous December 13, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

      Thank you Candy, it really has been amazing to share this experience with her, and show her so many new things (and see it all through her eyes). I wish you the best of luck on your upcoming travels, and in traveling with your grand-daughter when she is older; the travel experience is so incredible for young ones in opening their minds and hearts. Thank you for reading along and sharing your own experience! :)

  17. Anonymous December 13, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    Ethical and elephant tourism are two things that can’t fit together, kind of like green and travel. As long as tourists contribute to the demand, elephants will continue to be abused so to create a supply. We can’t be satisfied knowing that there are wild elephants, they are too hard to see, too difficult to photograph. Unless we can learn to leave these animals alone, we will assist in their extinction in the wild.

    • Anonymous December 13, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

      You make some valid points, and while I tend to agree with you, the loss of habitat plays nearly as large a roll in the reason so many animals are endangered, and that has less to do with tourism than it does population expansion and the consumption of natural resources. Since there *is* a demand for animal tourism, doing it in the most ethical fashion is better than complete subjugation…no easy answer, it’s true. :-/

  18. S Jones85 December 12, 2011 at 5:38 am #

    Ana, you have had such a great experience! Elephants are really great friendly animals!

  19. Anonymous December 12, 2011 at 1:01 am #

    Thank you for weighing in on this Susan, I had never heard of the place in Lampang, but I am always on the look out for neat experiences near here. I had a look at the site, and it looks like they have some really neat programs in place. So glad you had a wonderful experience and I am looking forward to investigating this company more! :)

  20. Tob December 11, 2011 at 6:07 am #

    Very beautiful Pictures. Lovely blog

  21. Nomadic Samuel December 9, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    What a great experience for Ana!  I truly wish elephants were treated better throughout SE Asia but unfortunately that’s certainly not the case.

    • Anonymous December 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

      It really is tough to see the plight of the elephant over here, particularly in places like Laos, where there are not even in the most basic protections in place. :-/

  22. Angela Brown December 9, 2011 at 7:15 am #

    This is really a high quality blog and the photos are really superb.

  23. Justin Watt December 8, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    First off, I have to say: A Little Adrift Jr, too cute!!! Secondly I’m glad to hear you both will be going up to Elephant Nature Park. For anyone who’s interested in hearing and seeing a little bit about my week there (shortly after I met Shannon in Chiang Mai), check out My Elephant Week.

    • Anonymous December 11, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

      Thank you for adding in that link Justin, I just had a re-read of your post and am even more enthused to go experience the park and see the work they are doing. Hope you and Stephanie are well!  :)

  24. Marc G. December 8, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    Wow, I never would have though of that, interesting post. 

  25. Diana Edelman December 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    Shannon, I spent a week volunteering at ENP. It is an eye-opening experience and I think it will change your attitude towards riding them entirely. I know it did for me. :) I’m glad you mentioned the training process in addition to talking about your ride with them. I can’t wait for you to go to the park. It is SO amazing!!!! :)

    • Anonymous December 12, 2011 at 12:10 am #

      Thanks for weighing in Diana, I was thinking specifically of your recent posts and work at the ENP when I wrote some of this post. Can’t wait to see the work they are doing and learn more about the entire industry. :)

  26. Monica December 8, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post! Insightful as always and the pictures are stunning. I’ll be processing this one for a bit.

    • Anonymous December 11, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

      Thank you Monica, it’s a tough call when you’re here, and deciding how to weigh “wants” with what’s perhaps more right on the global level. Hope you are well! :)

  27. Lori December 8, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    Very thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing.

  28. The Travel Hack December 8, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    I’m still unsure how I feel about elephant tourism, or any kind of animal tourism. I’ve visited some wonderful elephant sanctuaries and others that brought tears to my eyes. They’re beautiful animals and it’s easy to see why tourists want to ride them, I just hope the standards continue to rise. 

    • Anonymous December 11, 2011 at 11:49 pm #

      I couldn’t agree more; I was so on the fence about the experience, but I am looking forward to the elephant sanctuary and learning more about the efforts in this region to continue raising the standards. Thanks for weighing in!

  29. Kevin Revolinski December 8, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    This is a very important subject, Shannon. Elephants are such amazing creatures. Nice work! And what an awesome experience for Ana! 

    • Anonymous December 12, 2011 at 12:08 am #

      Thanks Kevin! The experience generated a lot of conversation for us to discuss some issues we only theorized about up until now, so it was great. :) 

  30. Turtle December 8, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    What a great post. It’s not a simple topic and there are definitely lots of layers to the way elephants are treated in South East Asia. I reckon you’ve given people a lot to think about…

    • Anonymous December 12, 2011 at 12:05 am #

      Thank you Turtle, there really is no simple answer to the quandary, because elephant tourism is not going anywhere any time soon.. thanks for weighing in on this! :)

  31. Kjell December 8, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    It’s a pretty story you got there.I love the way you care for the elephants. They are amazing creatures.

  32. Jodi E. December 8, 2011 at 11:10 am #

    Thoughtful post on a very complicated topic, and I look forward to reading the redux when you head to Mae Tang. Ana’s face when the elephant grabbed the banana is beyond wonderful – that’s a frame-worthy one for sure!

    • Anonymous December 12, 2011 at 12:16 am #

      I do love that photo too, hehe! She was like “why did you post that one?!” My answer: “Because it’s epic!”  :)  Can’t wait to see the Nature Park experience :)

  33. Andi Perullo December 8, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    This post NEEDED to be written and I hope that many people will read it.  It breaks my heart how elephants are treated all around the world.

    • Anonymous December 11, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

      I couldn’t agree more Andi; it is so sad to see how much we have done to contribute to their endangerment and yet tourism is still going strong, with little awareness being raised..

  34. Anonymous December 8, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    I enjoyed reading this very thoughtful piece, Shannon.  It goes light years beyond the typical “Gee I rode an elephant in Asia” posts that are blind to the plight of these amazing creatures…
     See y’all soon!

    • Anonymous December 11, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

      Thanks J; it was fodder for some good conversations with Ana too, so she could suss out her own opinions and that sort of thing. See you guys soon! :)

  35. Jonathan Baillie Strong December 8, 2011 at 8:43 am #

    Interesting subject and a commendable decision to go via for the non-touristic site, which wouldn’t have occurred to me.. have to confess that I’ll be staying at the Elephant Safari Park Lodge in Bali for a few nights, where they have the elephants chauffeur guests around, the rooms are decorated by elephant-painted art, and they run 4 shows daily.. at least I hope they treat them well..

    • Anonymous December 11, 2011 at 11:53 pm #

      There is always a really tough decision to make, but hopefully when you get there you can ask questions and make sure they are treating the elephants well; good luck on the trip and your holiday. :)

  36. Erin December 8, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    Looks like an amazing experience and place. I’m glad you managed to find a way to fulfill Ana’s dream without contributing to the darker side of elephant tourism.

    • Anonymous December 11, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

      Thanks Erin, it’s one of those tricky balances, and one I’m still not sure we got exactly right, but I am ultimately glad for the experience we had :)

  37. Susan December 8, 2011 at 8:20 am #

    Hi Shannon! Thanks for your wonderful post on Laos and my favorite animals – elephants. I just wanted to suggest that you and your niece visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Center while you are in Chiang Mai (www.changthai.com). It is located in Lampang, about 90 minutes away by bus, and it is a wonderful place. It is run by a wonderful man named Supat, and they take in any elephant that needs a home. I, too, was concerned about riding elephants while in Thailand, and I wanted to make sure I only supported places that treated elephants well. I heard about this place through a coworker, and my few days there was one of the most magical experiences of my life. I participated in one of the mahout training courses, during which I was paired with an elephant and mahout. I learned to ride the elephants with nothing, just as the mahouts do. You also get to bathe the elephants, which is awesome. Even better, there is an elephant nursery! The love and affection that was shown for the elephants there was obvious, and I can’t recommend it enough. I think you guys would really enjoy it!