The Truth About Elephant Trekking

Few experiences can compare with meeting one of the world’s largest vegetarians. Up to ten feet tall at the shoulder, Elephas maximus, better known as the Asian elephant, is the very definition of a gentle giant, happy to accept a spiny pineapple or a bunch of ripe bananas from an awestruck two-legged visitor. According to biologists, perhaps as many as 100,000 members of this species occupied Southeast Asia in the early 1900s, but in the century since, these animals have seen their range steadily shrink as logging, slash and burn agriculture, and a growing human population encroach on the tropical and subtropical forests pachyderms depend on for survival. Poaching and habitat fragmentation further threaten the small numbers that exist in the wild in Thailand today, now largely limited to national parks such as Khao Yai and Khao Cha Mao, as well as isolated tracts of land along the Cambodian, Laotian, and Myanmar borders.

While their numbers in the wild have decreased, their popularity as a tourist attraction has only grown, due in part to the government ban on logging that effectively put many domesticated elephants out of work. At present, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) lists nearly four dozen tour operators that offer short rides or longer treks. Clearly elephants are big business. But what kind of business exactly? These highly social animals require lots of fresh water and about 330 pounds
(150 kg) of food per day, not to mention quite a bit of space. So how are they trained and cared for? A phrase on the TAT website offers a telling if disappointing clue: “the treatment of Thai elephants varies from elephant camp to elephant camp, some using more humane methods to look after their elephants than others.”

According to Timothy Gorski, director of the documentary How I Became an Elephant, the boom in elephant tourism began in the 1980s and has risen with "the so-called ‘eco-tourism’ phenomenon. Elephant treks are being marketed as eco-friendly conservation tours.” Problematically though, the definition of eco-tourism often differs from company to company, and training methods—rarely witnessed but captured in Gorski’s documentary—are often cruel. The pajaan, a practice that involves caging a young elephant and depriving it of food, sleep, and even contact with its mother, is one such method. In addition, some say that health and safety regulations are minimal and inadequately enforced. As a result, Catherine Bodry, co-author of the last edition of Lonely Planet Thailand, maintains that the long-term well being of elephants in Thailand is largely up to tourists and the general public. But if the future of the Asian elephant depends on public awareness and action, education must be a part of any trek. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that every camp provides.

“The Anantara Elephant Camp at the Golden Triangle, as well as Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai and Patara Elephant Farm among others, put a high emphasis on education,” explains Daniel Fraser, the co-founder and director of Smiling Albino, an adventure travel operator with a logo that happens to feature a happy white elephant. “I don't know if typical mid-range or backpacker-oriented tour companies have an advocacy policy.” Gorski sees the situation in a dimmer light, and doesn’t hesitate to suggest that education and conservation are rarely a part of the typical trekking experience. “Zero percent in most trekking camps,” he says matter-of-factly.

Instead of seeing the educational opportunity their elephants offer, most tour operators seem content to view them in a purely economic context: just another option to attract more paying customers. And yet despite the lack of information tourists typically receive about the endangered species they’ve come to ride, the vast majority of people who decide to take a trek end up with positive things to say afterwards. Take Ken Goldman of Jersey City, New Jersey. He’s had an elephant-eye view of the world twice now. And although he conceded that there was no education or discussion of conservation on either trek, he had little else to criticize. 

“We gathered in a waiting area for about 30 minutes before we were ready to go. During that time I observed the elephants relaxing in the river with their trainers. The elephants seemed very well cared for. The trainers also treated the elephants with respect and affection.” As memorable as his experience was though, Mr. Goldman returned home having learned little about his mount—its daily life, personality, personal history, or ecology. Nor did he receive any materials that encouraged him to deepen his understanding, volunteer his time, or donate money to conservation efforts in Thailand or elsewhere. If they are to survive as a species, Asian elephants need people to care.

Instead of paying to join a safari then, the best way to learn something about these compelling, complicated beasts is to spend time at a refuge or a wildlife sanctuary. Nationwide, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang is probably the best known organization dedicated to the Asian elephant, although tourists can still participate in rides and overnight treks. For those who wish to do more to support foundations working to protect the species and their environment, Brody encourages travelers to explore all available options. “In my opinion, the best operations are not the ones that offer treks, but rather a chance to interact with the elephants. The Wildlife Friends of Thailand Rescue Centre runs an elephant refuge where volunteers will be trained how to work with elephants rescued from, say, the streets of Bangkok. In Chiang Mai, the Elephant Nature Park gets great reviews. Again, there is no riding—visitors wash or just observe the elephants. If you really want a trek,” she continues, “the award-winning Ban Kwan Chang Elephant Camp on Ko Chang offers rides and treats their animals well.”

Some progress has been made to better the condition of the domesticated population, but much remains to be done to ensure the future of the Asian elephant. Action from the government will certainly help, but it won’t be enough on its own. Protecting these wonderful animals will also require work from private citizens. Education and responsible tourism remain the two best hopes for Elephas maximus, even though they too, face challenges. In 2007, the Elephant Conservation Network conducted a study to determine how to develop a viable conservation tourism initiative that would benefit local communities and forests as well as the elephants of Kanchanaburi. 

For all of the encouragement it offered, the study came to the conclusion that using tourism as a tool for development is easier than using it for conservation. Tourists themselves then, must demand more from tour operators. Make suggestions, reward responsible businesses, and most of all, ask questions. Because ultimately, the issue boils down to a very important one: What would Thailand be without its elephants?

*A version of this story originally appeared in Tropical Magazine.


  1. Interesting article - and topical for me given a recent visit to Maine, where I learned about Hope, Maine's newest resident...

    1. Is Maine's newest resident... an Asian elephant?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for this. Much less biased than most of the other reading I have found. So many writers either promote the riding as tourism or completely denounces the whole idea or trekking because of humane issues and cruelty towards the animals. It's tough to know which side to take, especially as I have such an interest and desire to interact with these majestic creatures. Sounds like you're view is a nice balance of both sides. Would love a list of places worth visiting and maybe some worth avoiding. Thanks!

  4. I did a twelve day Annapurna base camp trek with Independent trekking guide Sanjib Adhaikri . I would highly recommend to him , He seemed to know everybody en route so enabled us to meet some local toddlers who were adorable! Also all worries of huts being full were taken away. He is a based guide in Nepal, so far cheaper than Nepal trekking companies, but you get at more good service because he was on the flied with Us. The trek itself is absolutely stunning, particularly (Machupuchare,) Fishtell which is in view for most of the trek. I’ve done a lot of hiking and nothing has come close to this. We went at the end of May which worked out perfectly. We had good weather and missed the peak March. The accommodation was better than I expected, we had clean private rooms every night. , I made the effort to come all the way to Pokhara to meet us at the end of trip which was a lovely gesture.
    I am fully recommended to all visitors who are going to Nepal

  5. I've been to Patera Elephant Park. All I can do is say what I saw: The elephants appeared calm and well cared-for. I didn't see any sticks or hooks. And, as for education, I learned things about elephants that I didn't even know were knowable. It's one of the best experiences I've had traveling.

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