How To Not Crush Your Soul On An Elephant

Is riding an elephant high on your bucket list? Spoiler alert: Take it off. There are much better and guilt-free ways to have an elephant encounter when you travel.

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Full Show Script

  • [Less of Me]

  • EVO: If Phuket has a ubiquitous tourist attraction, it's elephant trekking. Billboards, in-hotel pamphlets, official-looking street signs... the message is clear. No trip to Phuket is complete without an elephant encounter.

  • SHE: Rides on the backs of these majestic giants are offered by tour operators large and small, typically with elephants on display right next to the road. And typically with several tour vans offloading eager participants, ready for a slow, plodding journey up the side of hill under elephant-power.

  • EVO: That's exactly what we found as we were scootering our way up to The Big Buddha statue (and yes, it's exactly what it sounds like). We stopped, took some pictures, even shot a video with the elephants ... and then felt kinda bad about it. We, unlike most people, are aware of the controversy surrounding elephant tourism.

  • SHE: But LIKE most people, we didn't know all that much about the problem. However, this was an opportunity for us to dig a little by asking questions. It seems the responsible thing to do, right?

  • [Sheila has questions]

  • SHE: ... And then she walked off to get yet another person. But I get it. I don't speak any Thai beyond "hello" and "thank you", so I was happy to wait patiently.

  • [Sheila has more questions.]

  • SHE: So... that wasn't a very big area. But it's on the side of the big hill, so maybe it was bigger than it looked. No one was offering me a chance to examine the enclosure (and seriously, I don't know what I should be looking for), so I decided to change questions.

  • [Working hours]

  • SHE: Wow. Eight hours? That seems like a lot. At another elephant trekking place down the road (like we said, there are lots of them in Phuket), I got some clarification on that:

  • [Hours and treks]

  • EVO: Let me do the math on that for you. Each trek up and down the hillside takes about an hour, including prep and slow transit time. That's 3-4 hours -- up to 10 hours -- the elephant is working. That doesn't sound too bad... except for two things. First, when the heavy humans in the uncomfortable chair are removed from the elephant's back, the animal is immediately chained to a tree, with less than a meter of space to roam. Second, elephants don't eat three meals a day, like those bipeds sitting in the heavy chairs. Elephants need to eat all the time, and they aren't allowed to stop and munch along the trek.

  • SHE: A full grown elephant needs to eat a more than 200 kilograms (almost 450 pounds) of food every day. That's more than 10 times what a cow eats. And when's the last time you saw a cow NOT eating?

  • EVO: It's not just a lack of food, long working hours, and tiny living conditions. Every single part of elephant trekking is abhorrent. So I'll make this plain and simple: there is no such thing as ethical elephant trekking. None.

  • [Bret disagrees]

  • EVO: That's Bret Love, co-founder of Green Travel Media. Bret's a much respected and often sought-out expert in responsible tourism practices.

  • [Bret brings the painful reality home]

  • EVO: Let that sink in for a moment. Anything where elephants "perform for" humans, wherever your find it (I'm looking at you circuses and fairs) is to be avoided.

  • SHE: But we're not leaving you on that downer of a note, because not all elephant experiences for travelers are bad. Here's Bret again:

  • [Bret suggests Elephant Nature Park]

  • EVO: Some elephant sanctuaries are working on the sticky problem of the estimated 3,000 "working" elephants currently in Thailand. Theses organization (like the Surin Project) teach mahouts -- owners of the elephants -- how to offer tourists new and valuable experiences to meet changing consumer behavior without causing additional and ongoing harm to their animals.

  • SHE: And seriously, wouldn't you rather help bathe an elephant in a rice paddy than watch one sadly splash around in a tiny plastic tub? Take elephant riding off of your bucket list. And check out the links to some of the Thailand elephant sanctuaries we've put in the show notes. (Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival foundation) There are only about 30,000 Asian elephants remaining in the world, so those in captivity represent a sizable fraction of the remaining genetic material if the species is to ever recover.

  • EVO: Thanks for indulging us in yet another serious show. I'm sure I'll do something really stupid next week so that Sheila can make fun of me. Cheers from Thailand!

  • SHE: Funding for our endless world tour is provided, oddly enough, by postcards.

  • EVO: Give us five bucks, and we'll send you a hand-written postcard from our travels abroad every single month. Get on the list at ShEvo.wtf/postcards.

  • SHE: And we save a ton of money by housesitting. It's free and beats living in hotels. Want super cool people like us looking after your pets and property while you're traveling? Visit ShEvo.wtf/stayforfree to register, either as a housesitter or a home owner. We do it, and we love it! Thanks for listening to this episode. I’m Sheila Dee.

  • EVO: And I am Evo Terra. Our theme music is "On the Ground" by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com. All other sounds, voices, and odd bits you hear were most likely created or captured by us. Visit ShEvo.wtf to get more goodness from us and to see where opportunity will take us next. Thanks for again for listening and tell a friend about us. Now would be good.


New episodes of the The Opportunistic Travelers Podcast are available every Tuesday. Of course, Tuesday can be a very different thing depending on where we are in the world. Cheers!