Of all the things that I was looking forward to experiencing in Thailand nothing was higher on my list than riding an elephant. Elephants have always fascinated me: they’re huge, gentle giants shrouded in ancient myths and steeped in historical tradition. Usually standing between 7-9 feet tall (2.2-2.7 meters) and weighing between 3-4.5 tons they’re massive especially when standing right next to them!
At the recommendation of a colleague we booked our trip with Patara Elephant Fam just outside of Chiang Mai. While elephants of ancient days would work in logging, elephants of today are usually on a different path: circuses, walking the streets as their mahout begs for money from tourists, or giving rides to tourists. Many organizations have sprouted up to care for elephants but as you might expect taking care of a multi-ton animal is prohibitively expensive. They eat up to 330lbs (150kg) per day plus any necessary medical care on top of that. The elephant population in Asia has dropped substantially the last few decades and these magnificent, gentle creatures are sadly considered to be vulnerable to extinction. Elephants are still routinely slaughtered en masse for their ivory tusks. Each year about 8% of the remaining 470k are poached and their greatest predator is unfortunately humans.
Patara is a really cool albeit a relatively expensive company (5800 baht or around $190 USD). They rescue elephants. It used to be the case that an elephant was always trained with a man and his son. An elephants lifespan is roughly equivalent to a humans (60-70 years). So this way the elephant can get to know both men and when the father retires the son takes over. But caring for an elephant is just like caring for a child: it’s a 24/7/365 kind of task. And unlike babysitters for kids or kennels for dogs it’s difficult to find someone else to care for an elephant. Which means that a mahout’s job is a 7 day/week gig. No late nights with friends because they have to work early in the morning. Thus many of the younger mahouts decided they would rather not own an elephant and thus these elephants need to be rescued.
Patara is the only elephant rescue center that always has a greater number of elephants than the number of tourists that come each day. This enables the elephants to have a break and not be constantly over worked. Plus the staff all really cares for the elephants; no abuse of any kind occurred. That may seem like it not even need to be said, but in talking with other tourists who attended other camps I heard that the staff would hit or punch elephants as they verbally abused it. I love a good deal, but I love the ethical treatment of animals much more.