How Covid is Ending Elephant Exploitation in Thailand

Covid is for bad for the wildlife exploitation business, but a win for the elephants!

A typical elephant riding camp, complete with bullhooks and stupid tourists. All photos by the author.

The first time I saw a working elephant in Thailand, I had just moved to Bangkok over a decade ago. I was walking through a popular, touristy, red light district in central Bangkok called Patpong. There were hundreds of loud, smelly cars and people everywhere.

I saw a baby elephant with an elephant handler, called a “mahout,” pushing a long, sharp bullhook against the baby elephant’s neck and pinching the baby elephant’s ear to force her to perform. The baby stood on her hind legs and started moving a hula hoop with her right leg while the mahout screamed directions at her and tightened his grip on her sensitive ear.

I ran away and started crying because I knew that this baby elephant had been ripped from their mother, beaten, and tortured to be “trained” to perform for humans. She was being tortured in front of me but I seemed to be the only one to see that because as soon as I moved away, a crowd of grinning tourists surrounded the baby elephants, taking selfies and giving money to her enslaver, thus continuing to fund her torture and enslavement.

I haven’t seen any elephants in the Bangkok streets for many years, but an estimated 4,000 captive elephants live in Thailand. Elephants are forced to perform stupid tricks and carry humans in inhumane “elephant rides” all over Thailand. Some are even forced to paint, dance, and play soccer.

Truck advertising an elephant camp that forces elephants to perform stupid tricks.

The good news is that Covid has put an end to this cruelty…for now.

Thailand is under lockdown again. Even though I’m annoyed that parks and beaches are closed but shopping malls are open, the positive thing is that zoos and other wildlife exploitation businesses are shut down and have been shut down for well over a year.

Businesses that have made millions of Thai baht a year exploiting Thailand’s wildlife are being forced to close and are barely scraping by. Many smaller and even large elephant-riding tourist traps are shut down for good.

Right until the virus shut down the planet, the elephant exploitation industry was big business in Thailand. Every tourist trap with enough space had enslaved elephants with a thousand-yard stare being tortured for cash.

A chained, working elephant with a thousand-yard stare.

Millions of tourists from all over the world have come to Thailand and lack the empathy and google searchability to see that elephant riding is cruel and continue to fund elephant torture and exploitation. The Thai government even gave subsidies to elephant slavery businesses.

But now that Covid has shut down these cruel businesses, this means that no new baby elephants will be stolen from their mother in the wild and beaten and tortured mercilessly to “train” them for human exploitation. No more elephants will be beaten with bullhooks, forced to take selfies, and perform humiliating tricks with the threat of pain.

A mahout “resting” a painful bullhook on an elephant’s head for no reason.

Unfortunately, the lockdown hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows for the already captive and exploited elephants of Thailand. Many are starving and some have been forced to make a long, dangerous trek back to Northern Thailand for a chance to get some government assistance. Elephant rescue organizations, which are helping captive elephants in Thailand, are running out of funds.

Those who support the continued enslavement of elephants say that this is why elephant exploitation should continue. Without tourists taking selfies with chained up elephants who are being pinched in their sensitive ears and prodded in the neck with sharp bullhooks, these animals would suffer even further. We must keep exploiting these animals! It’s better for them! And what about the poor humans who rely on elephant exploitation to survive?

So with that logic, we should still allow human child labor because the kids are making money for their families and will starve if they don’t work, and the poor owners of the child labor business need to make a living too. Are you cool with child labor well?

Human child labor and wildlife exploitation are comparable because both involve innocent, living beings being exploited and forced to work in harsh conditions against their will and have no means of defending themselves or saying “no.” Human children and wildlife cannot consent to work and should not be forced to under any circumstances because forcing them to work is abusive.

Thai elephants should have never been in captivity, to begin with. The practice of keeping captive elephants should have ended as soon as Thailand had cars and other vehicles to replace the need to ride elephants and use them for logging. (BTW, even though using elephants for logging was banned in the 80s, the practice continues.)

But ignorant tourists kept giving money to keep elephants enslaved and this cruel industry continues to exist.

The only thing funding this industry is tourism and now that tourism has been halted for who knows how long, this has stopped an exploitative and harmful practice that should have ended decades ago.

The transition from animal exploitation to animal liberation is not an easy one but it is necessary. Non-human animals do not exist for human entertainment and need to be left alone in the wild where they belong. The animals who are in captivity and cannot be released back into the wild should be kept in sanctuaries where they can live in peace without being forced to perform for humans. This includes not being touched, bathed, or near any humans that do not work at the sanctuary.

According to an elephant rescue organization called Elephant Nature Park, one elephant eats up to 300 kilograms of food a day and costs about $1,000 USD a month to care for.

That’s not a lot of money to save an endangered animal and keep them from being further exploited. It is a lot of money for the mahouts and local organizations caring for the elephants but not for the Thai government and international community that has spent over 62 billion USD a year visiting this country.

TAT, the tourism authority of Thailand have launched a campaign called the Thai Elephant Alliance Association to help care for captive elephants during COVID. This is helpful but is not enough to help all the captive elephants currently in danger of starvation. Also, if Thailand opens for tourism again, these elephants will be forced to work again. So measures must be take now to phase out elephant labor completely.

The only way to end elephant entertainment businesses for good is for tourists to stop funding elephant exploitation and start funding elephant conversation.

Those who have previously paid to take selfies, ride, and exploit these beautiful animals for their own entertainment should pay to feed them and keep them in a sanctuary where they will never be forced to entertain humans again.

Those of us who support animal liberation, and have the means, can donate a few bucks to help these elephants and share fundraising links on all social media. Awareness is key.

Covid has forced the world to change how we travel and if we can travel. With that comes humans becoming more conscious about what we are funding when we give money to a certain businesses. It includes avoiding wildlife exploitation as well as human exploitation when we travel.

We need to be conscious tourists and do our research. Just like we research a hotel or Air BNB to make sure there aren’t bedbugs, we need to research businesses we want to give money to.

With the knowledge of all humanity in our pocket, there is no excuse for ignorance anymore.

If tourism ever becomes a thing again, we cannot go back to the old ways of being irresponsible tourists. Just like we need to research how we can travel safely post-Covid, we need to research the different businesses we are funding with our tourist money and avoid doing further harm to the environment and living beings of any place we visit.

Non-human animals are not on this planet for our entertainment any more than a human child is. There is no excuse to continue funding animal exploitation.

There are alternative ways for locals to make money that do not involve animal abuse, but the Thai government and tourist community must work together to change this. There needs to be sustainable, ethical businesses that generate lots of revenue for locals and can finally liberate the majestic elephants of Thailand, and other captive and exploited wildlife. It’s time!

Chained elephant still wearing a heavy, metal saddle on her back. It’s time to liberate her!

If you want to help feed some rescued, Thai elephants, check out Elephant Nature Park. They even compiled a list of other ways to save elephants.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

Vegan, expat witch in Thailand. I write about life, death, animal rights, mental health, & spirituality. Tips are appreciated: