The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) is in Lampang, Thailand, about an hour and a half drive from Chiang Mai. The TECC is the only government owned and operated elephant camp in Thailand. It offers a variety of activities from month long elephant caring and training schools, to one, two or three-day homestay programs, to single day visits. We spent an enjoyable day with my parents at the center.
Is it ethical to visit elephant camps?
Before I go any further, let me address the elephant in the room. (Ha ha. A little attempt at humor here.) What I am referring to is the question on whether it is ethical to visit elephant camps, watch elephant shows, or even ride elephants. A quick search of the internet will reveal countless articles on how tourists should not visit elephant camps and that the elephants in these camps are treated badly and forcing them to perform or have people ride on them is extremely cruel.
I am not going to turn this into a long discussion or argument. We chose to visit the center. I can understand people not wanting to visit an elephant center just as I can understand the viewpoint of people who don’t believe in eating meat, eggs, cheese or other animal products. Some do not believe in using animals in any way shape or form such as having them as pets, observing them in zoos, riding on them – such as horses, camels, etc. , or using them as beasts of burden – such as using oxen to plow fields, pack mules to carry goods, etc. I am not a vegetarian. I use leather products and I don’t have a problem with people owning pets, riding horses or farmers using water buffalo or oxen to plow their fields. I do believe that animals should not be treated cruelly. My research showed that the government run Thai Elephant Conservation Center was run with a high regard to conservation, research and elephant health.
While not hard to get to, the TECC is not heavily advertised or commercialized. Walking around in Chiang Mai you see many advertisements for elephant camps. I am not sure how many elephant camps there are, but one website breaks down the “Twenty Best Chiang Mai Elephant Camps,” so there must be quite a few. Many of the camps offer full-day, multi-event packages where you get picked up at your hotel and visit an elephant camp, go river rafting, ride an ox cart, go zip-lining and go on a jeep safari all on the same day. I could not find any packages to the TECC including transportation, so we booked our own van for the better part of the day. We hired a 9-passenger van plus driver for around 7 hours for a total of $57 USD. Quite a great price, I thought, for door to door service and waiting time. The ride took roughly an hour and a half from our Airbnb in Chiang Mai.
The day’s events
The cost of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center is very reasonable, I think it is one of the lowest priced elephant camps in the area. Admission to the center is 200 baht per person (about $5.70 USD) plus 25 baht ($0.71 USD) for the shuttle bus from the welcome center to the actual training area.
We arrived at about 9:15AM. We wanted to make sure that we could observe the morning elephant bathing at 9:40AM. With plenty of time, we decided to get a few coffees at the restaurant just up the street. Little did we know that this would give us an excellent vantage point to see the elephants and mahout trainees (mahout is the term for a person that trains and looks after an elephant) on their way down to morning bath time.
During bathing time the mahout trainees and instructors take their elephants into the lake. Younger elephants join them. The elephants seem to enjoy the water and use their trunks to spray themselves and others with water. During this time, there are staff that explain what is happening and are available to answer questions.
After bathing, we watched a demonstration in the arena. Elephants have been used in Thailand for thousands of years as fighting animals in times of war, for transportation and for logging. They have also been long used in ceremonies important to the Thai people and the Thai Royal Family. The show gave some examples of how they were used in logging to transport logs. They also showed their incredible agility and painted pictures. I am still not sure how they trained them to do that, but it is pretty interesting to watch.
Before and after the show, you can purchase small baskets of food to feed the elephants. The dexterity of their trunks is amazing. It was also interesting to observe how some of them have become picky eaters. In your basket of food, you get corn cobs, bananas and sugar cane. Often times, if you give them a piece of sugar cane, they will take it and drop it on the ground, preferring the bananas and corn. Once the bananas and corn are all gone, they may return to the sugar cane. This is another indication that they are well fed.
Then we went on a half-hour ride. I know, this is especially the part that freaks some people out and is regarded by some as cruel, but I don’t see this as any different than riding a horse. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center addresses this on their web site and points out that people have been riding elephants in Thailand for thousands of years and a few rides a day is very light duty compared to what they are capable of and have done in the past. http://www.thailandelephant.org/en/rides.html
In my opinion, the price for the ride is very inexpensive, 500 baht per elephant ($14.26 USD). Two people can ride at a time so it works out to a little over $7 each for a half hour ride. The ride takes you through the bathing pond and around some trails. It is a very unique experience.
After a great, reasonably priced lunch we walked up to the elephant dung paper making shop. Elephants eat an incredible amount of food per day. Asian elephants in the wild eat about 300 pounds (145 kg) of food per day. A lot of this are grasses and other fibrous plants. This makes their dung great for making paper. We could see some paper drying on racks, but didn’t get to see the actual processing. Don’t worry, it doesn’t smell.
The day was very enjoyable and educational. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center offers a relaxed, non-commercial environment to observe and learn about elephants. I am glad we chose this option versus the many other camps that were available.