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What is Elephant Trekking?

By Danielle DeLee
Updated May 23, 2024
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Many people are intrigued by the elephant, an exotic and increasingly rare creature. The public’s fascination with elephants has made elephant trekking a popular tourist activity in places that once had wild elephants and even some places where elephants never walked before. Elephant trekking trips take guests on a tour through the forest to a destination — on elephants. The activity combines traditional sightseeing with the excitement of an elephant ride.

Elephant trekking is especially popular on the island of Phuket in Thailand. Originally, elephants lived in northern Thailand, but they were brought to Phuket because of the high volume of tourism there. The island has about a dozen elephant trekking camps. They have more than 150 elephants, and the government has banned the import of elephants to the island to prevent overpopulation. Most elephants used in elephant trekking are female because they are gentler than males.

It is increasingly difficult for Asian elephants to exist in the wild because their habitats are dwindling due to human activities like logging and agriculture. Some illegal loggers capture wild elephants and use them to haul timber. They can carry only about 600 pounds (about 272 kg), but the loggers force them to bear more weight and work them to the point of exhaustion. The ones that remain free may still be in peril: elephants naturally forage for forest products, so they search for food in the developed lands that have supplanted their forests. Some have been poisoned by pineapple farmers, who see the elephants as pests that destroy crops.

Responsible elephant trekking businesses use their profits to support their elephants, creating a safe home for animals that are in danger in the wild. They keep elephants in comfortable environments with plenty of food, allowing them to graze in their free hours just as they would in the wild. The elephants stay away from the dangers of capture and poison, and they can develop relationships with their handlers.

There are, however, some operations that mistreat their elephants. The use of a metal hook to control the animals, though abhorred by animal activists, is legal in some places where elephant trekking is popular, like Thailand. Some elephant handlers ignore elephants’ natural behaviors, keeping them away from the forest cover they naturally seek and forcing them to work for long hours. In Phuket, the government has tried to curb these practices by introducing regulations and mandatory health checks for the elephants. Prospective tourists can demonstrate their respect for the animals they long to see by researching elephant trekking companies in the area they wish to visit and choosing a company that treats its animals well.

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