The other day, I stumbled upon an article online that criticized people who participate in elephant tourism when visiting Thailand, specifically targeting those who chose to ride them. It is commonly known that elephant welfare is a global issue. They have no natural habitat and are illegally traded and sold. In Northern Thailand specifically, the elephant population has declined from roughly 100,000 to 45,000 in the last century (Kontogeorgopoulos, 2009). This is primarily because of habitat loss in Thai forests.

Elephant tourism is usually negatively portrayed because of these factors, however, it is not always harmful to the animals. While in Thailand in the beginning of the semester our professor, Professor Kontogeorgopoulos, who specializes in tourism in Thailand, discussed with us the trade-offs of elephant tourism. While there are many instances of elephants being mistreated by the companies that market their services, there are a number of elephant camps that treat the elephants with great care. In doing so, the elephants are given economic value that they would not have otherwise. In his article The Role of Tourism in Elephant Welfare in Northern Thailand, Konto discusses the multitude of factors that play a role in the treatment of elephants. By being informed about these issues, one can knowledgeably choose to only support and visit camps that minimize harmful training techniques, only allow bare back riding and allow elephants to pursue their natural behaviors.

The takeaway from Konto’s article is that riding elephants in Thailand and visiting camps are not always harmful activities; they can support the only remaining sustainable and healthy lifestyle for the species. The welfare of elephants within elephant camps depends on tourism because of the revenue it creates. Elephants are incredibly costly due to the large quantities of food they consume and the costs of veterinary bills.

If you are interested in the tradeoffs of Elephant Tourism, please read this article by Professor Kontogeorgopoulos, who is by far more articulate and more knowledgeable about this issue than I ever will be: The Role of Tourism Welfare in Northern Thailand, Professor Nick Kontogeorgopoulos.

And here are some pictures of our PacRim group riding elephants (bareback and only for one hour) in Chiang Mai: