Thailand is famous for its elephants but sadly their number has dwindled alarmingly during the last 100 years. Tourists can still get to spend time with these creatures if they visit places like Phuket. Those individuals who have ‘trekking through the jungle on the back of an elephant’ on their bucket list will be able to make this dream come true while staying on the island.
Elephants in Thailand
At the beginning of the twentieth century there were at least 100,000 wild elephants in Thailand, but this number has fallen to less than 4,000 and only about a third of these still live in the wild. Thailand was once famous around the world for its elephant population, but they are at real risk of disappearing completely. They are now considered an endangered species, but there is some action (although many would complain not enough) being taken to protect to protect this wonderful animal. The elephants found in Thailand are a subspecies of the Indian Elephant – although they are generally smaller than the typical Indian Elephant. The average life expectancy for these animals is 65 years of age.
History of Elephants in Phuket
Elephants are not native to Phuket but were brought here from Northern Thailand in order to be used by the logging industry that once generated great wealth in the area. These animals were left on the island even after they were no longer required by the logging industry (logging was banned in 1989). They are not needed for transportation and brute strength these days, and so the only job left for them is to entertain tourists or take part in cultural shows. Many of the families, who had traditionally trained elephants (usually going back generations), gave up on this type of work while others just train these animals to perform as entertainers.
Ethics of Elephant Rides and Entertainment
There is a great deal of debate as to the ethics of allowing elephants to continue as a source of entertainment for tourists. These animals probably could easily adapt back to the wild, but the problem is finding a place to send them. The great forests of Thailand have been decimated and there is not enough habitat to sustain them – these giant animals can require as much as 40 liters of water and 150 kg of food per day. There are many who would argue that taking tourists on rides is much easier work than what they were involved in with the logging industry – there is also the argument that if elephant riding is unethical than what about horse riding? This is a sensitive subject and tourists need to decide where they stand on the issue. Of course it is the concern of everyone that these animals are treating with respect and care but sadly there is evidence that this does not always happen in Phuket.
Elephant Trekking in Phuket
If people wish to go elephant trekking in Phuket there are a number of options for this including:
- Camp Chang Kalim is located near to Patong Beach and they offer 30 minute, 45 minute, and one hour elephant treks in the nearby mountains. This tour provides plenty of scenic views of the each below.
- Siam Safari Nature Tours offer a 45 minute trek for 1,590 THB (1,490 THB during the low season) for adults and 1,100 THB (1,040 in the low season) for children – prices correct as of early 2013. This company also offers elephant tours in Khao Sok National Park in nearby Surat Thani.
- Phuket Easy Tour offers a number of different packages ranging from 1,200 THB to 1,600 THB (as of early 2013) and they each include a 30 minute elephant ride.
- Gembria Tour Phuket. They offer a number of different packages that include other activities and the elephant ride is of 30 minutes duration.
Some Things to Consider with Elephant Trekking
Here are a few things worth considering if choosing elephant trekking in Phuket:
- Most of these treks only involve 30 minutes on the back of an elephant. While this might not sound like a lot, it can actually feel like a lot and any longer than this might become a bit uncomfortable and maybe even boring.
- These tours will sometimes use the words jungle and trekking a bit liberally. It is important to check first before handing over money because sometimes the jungle tour might just be a walk along a cement path.
- The package tours can include things like an elephant show, jungle exploration on foot, and meeting baby elephants. There is often also usually a talk about the history of the elephant in Phuket, and the importance this animal plays in Thai culture.
- It is recommended that tourists avoid any operations where the elephants appear to be treated cruelly. This would include things like chaining them up and leaving them in the hot sun all day or using a metal hook to control the elephant (this is actually illegal but it still goes on).
Elephant Street Begging
It is becoming less common to see elephants on the streets of Phuket as there is a national clampdown on this activity. It still does happen though, and there are people who will go begging with elephants in order to pick up some easy cash. The way this usually works is that they will sell food to foreigners who will then be able to give it to the elephant. The reason for why this activity is frowned upon is that it is not good to have the elephants in these built up areas, There is also the risk that if the elephant becomes angered it could go on the rampage – even a small elephant could do a great deal of damage and possibly even kill people. It is therefore recommended that tourists do not give money to these elephant street begging gangs. In Bangkok they even have a 10,000 THB fine for tourists who feed these animals.
Elephants and Safety
Elephants are generally placid animals, and they are usually safe to be around, but they can be dangerous and their size and strength means that they can easily kill anything in their path. A sad example of this occurred in nearby Surat Thani when one tourist died and three more were injured when the elephants they were riding on went on the rampage – on average 500 people die each year because of elephant rage. It is important to keep things in perspective though, and riding on an elephant in Thailand involves much lower risk than riding on a motorbike on the local roads – or even traveling by bus.