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Elephant trekking in Krabi

A Krabi elephant camp
Ride, feed and learn about Thailand’s amazing elephants

The elephant is seen as a symbol of the nation and a talisman for the Thai people. With their wrinkly grey skin and swaying trunk, they are a fascinating combination of brute force, gentleness and remarkable intelligence and agility that inspires both respect and affection.

In an ideal world elephant trekking would not exist. But, with elephants fast disappearing from the wild in Thailand, and “sanctuaries” often charging astronomical prices, we do recognise that one of the most affordable places to see these fascinating animals up close remains in a trekking camp. Carrying tourists means the elephants are able to earn their keep, while living as freely as is possible. Elephants are very costly to feed (each one consuming 200-300kg of food per day) and, as there are limited places in the sanctuaries and no longer any space in the wild, the alternatives for these gentle giants – begging, illegal logging, or inactivity in a zoo – are far worse than being cared for in a camp.

There are only a few elephant camps in Krabi – such establishments must in theory follow strict guidelines as set by the National Livestock Department regarding the provision of adequate food, water and shade for their animals, as well as proper health care. Trekking tours – usually 30 – 45 mins ride on the elephant, optionally combined with another sightseeing activity – are bookable below, or through any local agent.

If you don’t wish to ride or do a tour, you can also visit most camps directly just to observe and photograph the elephants: in this case you would normally be expected to purchase some food for them – usually bananas or pineapples. This will also give you an opportunity to interact with and hand feed the ever-hungry pachyderms, at least for a few minutes. There are no elephant “sanctuaries” in Krabi that can offer longer non-riding experiences; the majority of these are concentrated in the north around Chiang Mai. There is also a highly recommended working elephant village that takes volontourists called Elephantstay in Ayuthaya.

Note for nature lovers: many elephant camps are located in rubber plantations, which are fairly dull in terms of scenery; for more exciting treks, choose camps near caves, waterfalls or in “real” jungle, rather than rubber plantations.

Concern about animal cruelty to elephants in Krabi
All mahouts must carry the hook – but good ones will use it rarely
Further notes for animal lovers: there is a lot of talk on Trip Advisor and other review sites about mistreatment of elephants in Thailand and animal cruelty. This is unfortunately true in some camps in Krabi and elsewhere in Thailand, particularly with inexperienced owners and mahouts. You will occasionally see elephants with wounds, or purple marks on their heads where ointment has been applied after a jab with the hook has pierced their skin, either by accident or through deliberate force: if overworked, the elephants will resist. So this is a pretty sure sign of mistreatment.

The scale and scope of the mistreatment has however been somewhat exaggerated by the propaganda machines of many sanctuaries and animal rights groups, often in order to justify their high fees or collect more donations. Indeed the whole concept of what constitutes “mistreatment” has become subject to interpretation, overlooking established methods of handling elephants in captivity and relying instead on emotion and cultural values.

The fact is that all camps have an interest in the wellbeing of their elephants, even if solely financial (though it is rarely just that, as the elephant has a special place in Thai culture), so serious and long-term mistreatment would be counter-productive. And it is often the case that standard practices such as chaining elephants by one leg to stop them wandering off – they are never kept in enclosures – or carrying a bullhook to control them in emergencies (we are not condoning overuse) are cited as examples of “mistreatment” by westerners.

In addition, the “facts” circulating on social media about elephants’ alleged spinal injuries from carrying tourists and the way they should be managed in captivity have been discredited by several experts in elephant welfare, such as Dan Koehl of the International Elephant Foundation. The issues are too complex to go into here, but those who are interested in a differing viewpoint can Google his name, or visit the excellent website: http://www.elephantstay.com/Facts-about-elephants.html (there is a PDF download on elephant riding).

These are the main reasons we continue to offer elephant trekking as an activity, together with the serious and very real bigger picture view of where these elephants and their mahouts would end up without this income. Trekking is currently the “least worst” option for the vast majority of Thai elephants and we feel that operators should be supported and educated, not vilified and boycotted.

So, if you are still considering a trek, you should know that in all camps, regardless of experience, mahouts do carry a takaw (a sharp hook) while riding the elephants; while the animals can usually be controlled by voice and bare feet, this is taken as a precautionary measure for the safety of the passengers. Better camps, with happy, well-trained animals will use it rarely, to give a quick (non-piercing) jab behind the ear or a tap on the head, in cases where the elephant is not responding and needs to be controlled quickly (if it decided to walk under low-hanging branches, or saw or heard something that made it want to charge, for example). Again, in an ideal world this would not be necessary. But, if you wish to sit safely on the back of a 4-ton elephant, you must accept there needs to be a way of controlling it in emergency situations.

We try as far as possible to monitor the trekking camps we work with. They have been in operation in Krabi for more than a decade and where the owners come from “elephant families” that have worked with the animals for generations.

However, if at all in doubt, or if you disagree with the standard practices we have outlined above, we would strongly recommend you do not book an elephant trekking tour, as it may cause you distress.

MAKE IT HAPPEN!

Want to add an elephant trek to your itinerary? The available tours (including many combo tours which include an elephant trek) are listed below; click on the links to see full itinerary and make an instant booking.

Last updated: February 17, 2017