Since ancient times, elephants were used by humans for a number of purposes – whether that was to carry heavy loads or to participate in wars. Riding them was also a common enough practice, and it is one that has persisted for many years. In recent years, however this has come increasingly under fire, especially in countries which had a well-known reputation for elephant riding, such as Thailand.
For starters, elephant riding has always been one of the popular attractions of Thailand for many years, and it brought in significant revenue for the country’s tourist industry. With the details of how exactly these elephants were treated, acquired in the first place, though, the perspective most tourists (and even locals) had about the practice quickly changed. The sad reality these beautiful animals was far darker than what anyone could have possibly imagined: the torture they underwent was not limited to physical pain, but it also extended to crushing psychological fear and distress.
The popularity of elephant riding meant that these animals had a high value on the black market: poaching was (and still is – despite the banning of these practices and the creation of elephant village Pattaya and other parts of the country in their place) the most common way to acquire elephants. They were often taken away from their mothers at a young age, and then tortured into submission through truly horrible methods that included inflicting physical pain with weapons and starvation.
Once the elephant was fully moulded into submission, the mahouts (the elephant trainers) had complete control over them, but often still used pointed objects to prod them into specific activities. This is an important point – even if when you go elephant riding, you notice nothing unusual (or perhaps, even see the mahouts being kind to these animals), you should be sceptical. After all, untrained and untamed elephants would hardly let a human onto their back without a struggle!
Of course, that does not mean you are out of options if you want to see the elephants of Thailand. There are plenty of places where you have fun, but ethical activities, with them. As was mentioned above, in recent years, sanctuaries have been established, where you can do things like elephant mud bath, feed them or even play with them. These sanctuaries usually have rescued the elephants, or are an effort to conserve them (because Asian elephants are an endangered species).
Thus, as long as you make sure that the place you will visit is not cruelly treating its elephants, and is instead making an effort to reconcile humane practices and tourism, you can definitely enjoy the sight of these wonderful creatures and have fun with them