Elephants are part of the quintessential Thailand vacation experience. Tourism is one of the major economic factors for Thailand and the elephant is a very important player in this tourism industry. Although the Asian elephant is native to Thailand, the population of captive Asian elephants actually outnumbers the population of wild elephants almost three to one. This makes the dream of seeing an elephant in its natural habitat somewhat unattainable to the average tourist. Unfortunately, many are perfectly content seeing a captive elephant.
The majority of these captive elephants are not treated with the respect an animal, especially one that plays such a central role in all aspects of Thai art and culture, should be. On the contrary, they are treated in a manner that most could never imagine.
Elephant trekking continues to rise in popularity, safari parks and other tourist destinations promote shows featuring elephants performing unnatural behaviors. Even just having a captive elephant for a photo opportunity is sure to draw a crowd, thus drawing in money. What people don’t realize, however, is the conditions these animals have to endure so tourists can have that ride or take that Instagram selfie.
One of the worst examples of cruelty can be found at the Namuang Safari Park located in Ko Samui, Thailand. This tourist destination, or rather, tourist trap, is a featured stop on several cruise lines. It is one of the first results that comes up when you search for “elephants in Thailand” online. The website looks fun and exciting, illustrating scenic backdrops to seemingly happy elephants and people all around. It truly seems like a fun and exciting place to stop on a Thai vacation. In reality, though, this is all a terrible facade. It is a place fueled by cruel practices, horrible conditions, and human greed.
Safari Park Attractions
When you visit the Namuang Safari Park or its website, you are presented with many different choices of fun, family-friendly adventures you can experience during your visit there. Aside from a cable car tour, ATV rentals, and an action-packed 4×4 tour, there are plenty of opportunities to encounter your favorite Asian animals.
Is visiting an elephant on your list of must-do’s while in Thailand? Not to fret, the Namuang Safari Park offers visitors elephant trekking rides. These rides take place on a “scenic,” man-made, dirt path. The elephant trainer controls this poor animal with either a bull hook or a wooden board with a nail stuck in it. If the elephant decides to misbehave, they are instantly corrected with a painful stab from one of these tools.
“Our poor elephant was stabbed in the head with a pickaxe just for disobeying the commands of his ‘master’ (presumably the animal was trying to escape),” writes Lee H. in his review of the safari park on Trip Advisor.
This visitor is referring to an example of the traditional training method known as “phaajaan,” Thai for breaking the elephant’s spirit. As babies, elephants are taken away from their mothers and forced to live in small, confined cages. They are then then consistently abused with bull hooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails. To truly break their spirits, they are even sometimes starved and deprived of water and sleep. All of this results in an elephant who is submissive to her human handlers. This type of “training” is used for elephants destined for trekking as well as elephants used in shows.
If riding an elephant doesn’t appeal to you, the park also offers elephant shows. These shows allow visitors to witness how smart and well-trained the park animals are. In addition to being dragged by an elephant, you can watch elephants kicking around a soccer ball. Be warned though, if the animals in the shows don’t immediately do what they are supposed to, things can quickly takes a violent turn.
Wild Animal Selfies
Like many tourist destinations in Thailand, Namuang Safari Park offers the chance for photo opportunities with exotic animals. This safari park specifically boasts a tiger and a leopard that you can get up close and personal with. Most animals used as props for these types of photo opportunities, however, have been poached from the wild. Considering both wild leopard and tiger populations are gravely in danger, this should not be taken lightly.
You may think how amazing it is the tiger you are posing with isn’t trying to hurt you. According to Right Tourism, it is likely that these animals are heavily drugged. Most mammals used for these photo opportunities are not only sedated, but have their claws and canine teeth removed. Animals used for photo props are also trained to obey their masters by way of pain and fear.
Like many other tourist attractions, Namuang Safari Park allows tourists to interact with tiger cubs. They have photos of tourists happily holding a tiger cub for the coveted photo opportunity. What tourists don’t know, however, is that these tiger cubs, have already endured a lifetime of torture. Many of these animals are not only poached from the wild, but removed from their mothers prematurely. Sometimes whole families of animals will be murdered to just gain access to the one baby. These babies are then trained using operant conditioning where they are deprived of food and only fed when tourists pay to feed them. This keeps them interested in tourists and desperate for the bottle in hand, the bottle that may contain drugs to keep them calm.
Zoo and Gift Shop
Namuang’s zoo portion has several large cats on display in tiny enclosures as well. Elephants are kept here, chained to the ground. If you want to contribute to the illegal wildlife trade while visiting, you are, once again, in luck. Stalls behind the animal enclosures sell different trinkets, some may even contain ivory. The safari park not only supports the cruelty to the elephants and animals living there, but the poaching and murder of elephants outside their control.
How You Can Help
If you visit an country like Thailand, you may want to experience the Asian elephant. Visiting and giving money to the Namuang Safari Park or other similar institutions will only contribute to the cruelty and suffering of the animals they hold captive. Although places like this may seem innocent enough from the outside or on their websites, it is important to do your research before purchasing a ticket and planning your trip. Many of the reviews you read on the Namuang Safari Park mention how much they wished they had read the reviews before visiting such a horrible place.
Do Your Research!
If you or a friend are visiting Thailand, it may be tempting to go for an elephant trekking expedition or to visit a place where you can get up close and personal with a tiger, but understanding the innate cruelty behind these tourist traps will quickly deter you from making these types of travel plans. If you want to experience the Asian elephant in one of its native countries, there are ways to do so without cruelty. The Elephant Nature Park, for example, located in northern Thailand, is a rescue and rehabilitation center where elephants are allowed to live their lives similar to that of a wild elephant, free from cruelty.
Share What You’ve Learned!
Though it may take more time to plan, making educated travel decisions can help the plight of wildlife in countries like Thailand. Sharing the truth behind places like the Namuang Safari Park with friends and family can help stop people from supporting animal cruelty like that seen in such a horrible tourist trap. You have the power to help the cause of the elephants, tigers, and other animals that fall victim to this cruelty.
Now that you have learned the truth, it is your job to help inform others! You can sign this petition to help end the cruelty to elephants for tourism in Thailand. Share what you’ve learned and post a review on the TripAdvisor page for Namuang Safari Park,with a link to this article.
If there are no tourists supporting this cruelty, this type of park would cease to exist.
In-text image source: Namuang Safari Park
Lead image source: Dhammika Heenpella/Flickr