I’ve always been a firm believer that experiences define a destination, so it was quite a contrast for me recently when I completed a student game-viewing trip to Sri Lanka and then did a scouting trip of elephant camps and parks in Northern Thailand for another school group.

Sri Lanka boasts over 5,000 wild elephants that freely roam across the island whereas Thailand has nearly as many in captivity… painfully hauling millions of tourists a year on their backs, standing in front of powerful stage lights (that can blind them) doing circus tricks for theme park shows and, more recently, letting tourists, feed, walk and bathe them at politically correct elephant ‘sanctuaries’ that forbid riding.

Of course, elephants have been pressed into service for centuries, long before the time Hannibal crossed the Alps. A boom in tropical forest logging in 20th century pushed many elephants into hard labor camps hauling logs in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Following Thailand’s total logging ban in 1989 these animals (and a lot more) were diverted to the Kingdom’s exploding tourism industry.

Anyone that truly understands the nature of the world’s largest land mammal will be the first to admit that there is no such thing as a domesticated or tame elephant… just captive ones. The only way to ‘break the spirit’ of a wild elephant is to capture it very young and beat it into submission with a mahout hook. It then believes that the smaller human has power over it, but this relationship is tenuous at best. There is probably no more dangerous profession in the world than being a mahout; even a person that has cared for a baby elephant from birth is forever at risk. A month rarely goes by in Thailand without news of a mahout or tourist being killed or seriously injured by an enraged animal being overly abused or a male elephant in musth … a periodic condition when testosterone levels can soar 60% making them aggressive and uncontrollable. To prevent the onset of this condition and keep the cash flow going for tourism, captive male elephants in Thailand are kept deliberately malnourished.

There is no question that the most humane and ethical treatment of captive elephants is at the plethora of elephant sanctuaries now springing up in Thailand’s north, but these same operators put forward an argument (based on market value more than science) against releasing these animals into the wild. “They would trample and eat farmer’s crops” is the excuse given by companies that are habituating elephants and conditioning them to do so by feeding them corn, pumpkins, cucumbers, pineapples, bananas, sugar cane and other commercial crops. But if raiding fields on the borders of parks is such an insurmountable problem how has a country like Sri Lanka with over 20 million people on an island only one eighth the size of Thailand learned to live compatibly with over 5,000 free roaming pachyderms wandering from one national park or wildlife sanctuary to another as water and grazing requirements dictate?

While electric fences are used in some parts of Sri Lanka to contain or direct the movement of elephants away from highways, the animals are never restricted to a single location. This free movement not only protects habitat from over grazing and keeps herds healthy and genetically rich through cross breeding, it allows tourists to view remarkable social behavior in a natural setting. Students on my recent trip were able to watch a mother elephant nursing her new calf just meters from our safari jeep. They also witnessed the elaborate ‘twinning’ of trunks elephants engage in when greeting one another after a long absence. The behavior was natural, in the wild and more thrilling for students to witness than any staged elephant show Thailand has to offer.

Even in poor parts of Africa, the much larger African elephants are deterred from farmer’s fields using a trick from nature. Beehives are hung along a single wire to safeguard farmlands from marauding elephants. When an elephant pushes against the wire it triggers an alarm signal in the hive and the elephant intruder has its sensitive trunk tip attacked by the bees. Once stung, an elephant never repeats the mistake. This technique is now proving very successful in Thailand as well.

Thailand has done an exemplary job protecting over 10.7% of the Kingdom in its natural state (compared with 11.9% in Sri Lanka), but elephant populations are dangerously low in many national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. As elephants are grazers and gregarious, they are perfectly suited to being released back into the wild and there is plenty of room in some of the Kingdom’s national parks to do so.

Hopefully, tourist revenues will one day be used to compensate owners for their elephants (currently valued at US$57,000-US$86,000 each) so that entire family units can be reintroduced into the wild. That would be a paradigm shift in Thailand tourism making it a destination with much more enlightened, humane and natural experiences.