Should you ride an elephant?

Should you ride an elephant?

An elephant ride is a popular tourist activity, especially in Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal and other parts of Asia. It is also becoming popular in some regions of Africa. The appeal of such treks is clear – the elephant is the largest land mammal, it’s intelligent, social and emotional. In many ways it is the equivalent experience to swimming with dolphins. Like dolphins elephants are wild animals and need to be treated with dignity and respect. Trekking elephants are often mistreated and harshly trained and many people now believe that tourist elephant trekking should be avoided.

Some countries refer to captive elephants as domestic elephants; however elephants have never been truly domesticated. They are still wild animals and it is difficult to provide appropriate conditions for them in captivity. Elephants, unlike many other species, die younger in captivity than in the wild. Early death is a well-recognised indicator of poor health and biological stress.

The tradition of using elephants in industry has mostly ended, mainly due to irresponsible over-logging. The collapse of the industry created huge problems for the mahouts who had to find a way to pay for the care and upkeep of their elephants, which can consume up to 200 kilograms of food a day. Mahouts had to find other ways to support their huge charges, which is why many began begging in the streets or turned to tourism via trekking, rides or entertainment.

To make a wild animal such as an elephant compliant and able to be controlled by humans they are often deprived of food and sleep, they are subject to regular beatings using the ankus or billhook, and physical restraint such as chaining and shackling.

Training an elephant is torture

According to right tourism, the training that’s required to make them safe around people is often akin to torture, as demonstrated by the traditional Thai “phajaan” or “crush,” where young animals spirits are systematically broken through torture and social isolation. As young elephants, they are torn from their mothers and entrapped in a small confine, then ritualistically abused with bull hooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails, as well as starved, deprived of sleep and worse, to crush their spirits and become submissive to humans.

Despite their size elephants are not designed for carrying people on their back which can often lead to permanent spinal injuries. However it is not just the weight on their spines – the chair or Howdah attached to their backs also rubs on their back, causing blisters that can get infected. If you do ride on an elephant you should ride on its neck (behind the ears) not on the trekking chair of Howdah.

The appeal of elephants is that they are a lot like humans – they socialise, have families and friends, feel pain, sadness, happiness, grief etc… It’s exactly for these reasons that their care is so important. When they are at trekking camps they are often not with other elephants and some end up living solitary lives. Elephants need stimulation, enrichment and the freedom to behave naturally, which they cannot get if they are forced to cart people around all day with a heavy load. They need a gentle, minimal amount of exercise per day for their physical and mental health.

Unnatural social grouping, lack of space and stimulation can lead to a host of issues ranging from skin and foot ailments, increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, arthritis and circulatory problems. It can also lead to stereotypic behaviours. Outside ‘tourist visiting hours’, many elephants display behaviours such as repetitive swaying from side to side and pacing, which is a sure sign they are distressed.

In many places the local people don’t even make much money from elephant riding as often the money goes to businesses that make the arrangements such as the hotels, travel agents and guides, rather than to the person who owns and cares for the elephant.

The Asian elephant is now an endangered species

The Asian elephant is now an endangered species with an estimated population of less than 30,000 left in the wild. Tourism could play an important role in their conservation. The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation state that ‘responsible elephant tourism can help to save the elephants throughout Asia but only if camps maintain the highest level of elephant care, food requirements, hygiene and environmental enrichment’.

Whilst it is clear that the process of training elephants (Phajaan) is cruel and barbaric and must be stopped there are a couple of issues which complicate an outright ban – firstly we need to make sure that the alternatives to trekking are not more harmful to the elephants and secondly there are examples where elephant trekking is helping conserve even more endangered animals such as tigers and rhinos.

In many parts of Asia, the alternatives to elephant trekking are normally either:

  • A return to the wild, to face a very real and (in some parts of Asia) inevitable risk of being poached for ivory, ‘medicinal’ preparations, skin or meat, illegal export to countries for zoo captivity, or a struggle for survival in a habitat increasingly encroached on by humans.
  • Physical toil for organisations or individuals engaged in the (often illegal) logging industry, where:
    • The treatment of elephants is closed to public scrutiny (including tourist feedback)
    • Reproductive opportunities are usually limited
    • Overwork, mistreatment, and (sometimes) resultant death occurs
    • There is poor or no access to a vet and the medical equipment necessary to treat elephant ailments and injuries

So whilst the ideal is that Asian elephants return to and live safely in the wild the reality is often that this would possibly result in extinction in many regions of developing Asia. So whilst everyone agrees that we should be working to a point when captive elephants can be returned to the wild and live free from fear of harm or death brought on by mankind; some believe that responsible elephant tourism is a practical compromise solution until it becomes safe for elephants to return to their natural environments.

In Thailand for example there is both responsible and irresponsible examples of tourism involving elephants. In parts of northern Thailand, there are multiple elephant sanctuaries which allow for elephant viewing, bathing and feeding in an open-range environment, which is mostly responsible elephant tourism. In the same parts of northern Thailand there are also elephant camps which offer elephant treks to tourists without or with far fewer opportunities for ‘softer’ interaction with elephants, which we do not regard as responsible – because there are viable nearby alternatives which far better consider elephant welfare.

The situation in south Laos (which borders Thailand) is different as the existence options for elephants are more limited. The south of Laos is less developed than most areas of Thailand and poaching is a sad reality. In this part of Asia there are some elephant treks offered to tourists, which might might provide a better existence until the alternatives can be improved.

Equally there are examples, such as the Chitwan National Park in Nepal where elephant rides are being used as a positive force for conservation. The park and its buffer zone protect some of the last remaining Bengal tigers and Indian rhinoceroses, as well as wild elephants and leopards. Elephant safaris are one of the most popular – and safe – ways to discover these exceptionally rare species in Chitwan, and revenue from these safaris contributes greatly to the upkeep of the park and surrounding area, and the protection of its wildlife.

Ethical Elephant engagement

Ethical travellers should take some time and find our about the options before taking part in elephant tourism – all good tour operators will have a policy on elephant tourism and if they do offer treks should be able to justify the options they offer. If there is justification for elephant treks you should make sure that treks are for a short duration and there are rest breaks between rides. That elephant treks should only be for part of the year and then only in the mornings; in the afternoons the elephants should be able to roam in an expansive wetland area, free to play, eat, drink, rest and socialise. That the elephants do not carry too much weight of for too long. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Captive Elephant Working Group suggest the following trekking guidelines:

  • A single adult human of average weight (approximately 80-90 kilos for males and 65-75 kilos for females) plus a lightweight howdah (elephant chair), as well as a mahout trainer sitting on the neck – a ride of up to about one hour
  • Two adult humans of average weight plus a lightweight howdah (as well as a mahout trainer on the neck) – a ride of up to about 45 minutes
  • More than the above weights – please do not ride for any duration, as elephant will experience discomfort early on in the trek

There are a number of responsible and ethical elephant sanctuaries that will allow contact with these majestic animals and the animal welfare charity right-tourism state that if you do want to interact with elephants then:

  • Only visit sanctuaries that provide lifelong care for rescued and abused elephants
  • Do not participate in elephant ride trekking
  • Do not visit elephant camps or ‘sanctuaries’ where the animals are made to perform or give rides
  • Read-up about elephant tourism, referring to useful websites such as those below.
  • Understand how to identify the signs of healthy, and unhealthy elephants
  • Read-up about particular elephant tourist activities before taking your holiday, then direct your business to activities which do their best to promote elephant welfare.
  • Ask questions of mahouts and elephant custodians which show you are interested in the welfare and working conditions of the elephants you see. Again, be part of a positive change solution!
  • Do not purchase anything made from ivory or any other product causing the unnecessary harming or killing of elephants.
  • Give us feedback about your own elephant tourism experience, which Tourism Concern can use to lobby tour operators offering tourism activities involving elephants.


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