Stop Riding Elephants: The Hidden Truth to Elephant Tourism

Vacationing in Asia has become THE place to visit, especially to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. And why not? These countries have a plethora of activities and culture offering a unique experience for every type of traveler at a better value than most other places in the world. Whatever it may cost for you to fly there, once you’re there, its the best bang for a buck. I personally know a few dozen friends or “FB friends” who have visited these countries in the last year alone. The fellow backpackers whom I crossed paths with claimed the Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia trifecta was equivalent to their Eat, Love, Pray experience. Although I only got to do Thailand for 3 weeks, I can say it had all that in it for me.

A friend and I just visited Thailand in Nov 2016, and we are both elephant lovers – I mean all things Elephants! So planning a trip to Thailand and spending time with elephants was one in the same for us – visiting and volunteering at an elephant sanctuary was a top priority. The only thing I didn’t realize was how many rescue parks there are in Thailand, and most of them are all in and around the city of Chiang Mai.

The more I researched these parks and rescue sanctuaries, I was appalled to read about the horrendous crime subjected upon elephants in Asia, which is what resulted in the need for these rescue facilities in the first place.

Most of us are oblivious to the cruel, treacherous life these working elephants endure, I myself included. I have ridden elephants in India once or twice when I was younger and didn’t think twice about the effects riding had on the elephant. The reality is that riding causes physical pain and damage to the elephant.

It seems odd, right? Elephants are considered the largest land mammals and a symbol of strength. So why would climbing onto their backs and riding them be even remotely painful for them? How can a 150-pound person make an effect on a 3-ton animal? Well, their backs are weak, not built like a horse’s back – most of their strength is in their trunk, which is used to gather and eat food. Their arch-shaped, jagged spine is not conducive for a  howdah or seat to be positioned right in the center of their spine. With the number of hours they are put to work every day with an uncomfortable, heavy howdah on their back and the weight of multiple tourists, permanent physical damage is inflicted in the form of nerve damage and chronic inflammation. The ropes used to secure the carrier on properly for tourists are tied too tightly and cause chaffing (imagine rug burn on the belly and legs, OUCH). Properly trained mahouts will always sit on the back of the neck.  

This creates a cyclical response of elephants reacting to the pain causing their handlers(i.e. mahouts) to inflict more pain by utilizing sharp tools, such as the bullhook, beating tactics, and/or starving them to enforce control and keep them submissive.

Elephants are naturally wild animals, so regardless of whether they were born in captivity or poached from the wild, they must be “broken” and submissive to humans before allowing tourists to ride them, and to “guarantee” their safety, they must be broken all the way. On average, anywhere from 100-250 baby elephants are poached from the wild, and an additional 200-300 are killed in the process (usually the mothers and caregivers to those baby elephants). 

Sooooo, how do mahouts train them?

Training starts at an infant age for many elephants, and through a process called “phajaan”. Brace yourself, because every article in my research describing this disgusting, torturous treatment has made me cry or tense up with anger. The literal translation of “phajaan” means to crush the spirit of an elephant. In other words, separate the will to live from its body making it possible for mahouts to control the elephant for its own personal benefit and financial gain, little of which is passed on for the proper care of the elephant.

When the baby elephants are captured, they are dragged into a “crush cage” with their legs stretched apart from each other and tied to the cage. They are then repeatedly beaten, stabbed, and burned, along with deprivation of food and water. Sharp, pointed bullhooks are used to stab their heads, skin, and pull on their ears until bleeding. I have seen firsthand holes in elephants’ ears from constant stabbing and pulling. In between the physical pain subjected upon them, the mahouts routinely yelled down to them until the elephants feel completely unloved and alone. This torture can last anywhere from days to weeks until their mahouts achieve submission. Those same mahouts will then pretend to be their saviors, providing food, water, and freedom from the cage. I could have included photos of this brutal torture, but couldn’t force those images upon you.

       Ehhhh, I change my mind. I want you to understand why I feel the rage I have.


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(Kanchana’s hind leg was broken during capture, wounds to the trunk, neck, and head)

Source: really insightful article 


Positive reinforcement, instead of negative reinforcement, training techniques are just as effective, but takes longer and is more expensive. Elephants are naturally social creatures who are forced to live alone without interaction of their kind. Being placing in isolation would make most of us lose the will to live. Unlike many animals, elephants also have an incredible memory and will never forget about the torture inflicted. This is why they would rather dance and put on an act then be beaten anymore. But is this how you really want to fulfill your desire of interacting with elephants?

So, honestly, we don’t think about what had to have happened years before we ever interact with these gorgeous creatures, but they and their families had to endure a lot and continue to until they are no longer useful to their owners. This happens all in the name of tourism, so indirectly, we are the ones inflicting this gruesome pain upon them.

Our minds tend to overlook/neglect seeing the signs of torture and pain. Have you ever wondered why an elephant would enjoy spending the entire day carry people on their backs for our entertainment, balance on one leg on top of a ball, or paint a picture? Or how can it be possible to get a tiger to stay calm one annoying tourist after another wanting to take selfies with it? DUH, the tiger is drugged with strong ass sedatives to make that possible for tourists. There are cases of animal cruelty for the purpose of tourism across the globe, so will save that for future articles.

Spreading this new found knowledge the life an Asian elephant endures is a cause that has become close to my heart and want to see gain traction. The main reason people who care don’t do anything is because they don’t know what they can do to help. So, the real question is what can we do to eliminate the inhumane treatment of elephants?

  1. Although it may seem from this article every elephant in Asia is treated poorly, that is not true. There are organizations formed for the sole purpose of rescuing elephants and treat them with humanity. When choosing a park or sanctuary to visit, do your homework. Choose one that strictly has a “no ride” policy, clearly states they do not train their elephants with bullhooks or whips or make them entertain through stupid activities (yes, I’m calling out every single animal-using circus). Also, just because an organization adds rescue to their name, does not mean they enforce the highest ethical standards used. Here is a list of a few organizations, from my research, adhering to humane treatment and are actively rescuing elephants from corrupt owners.

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary

The Surin Project

  1. Be the voice and educate your friends and family. With so many friends visiting Asia or considering a trip in the near future, there is no better piece of knowledge you can share with them. Spread the information through social media platforms, at social gatherings, or on your own personal blogs.
  1. Donate your time and/or money to organizations that are rescuing these elephants and giving them a better life. It is a very expensive mission to build a sanctuary due to the amount of land needed for free roaming of elephants, the cost of land, the cost to free the elephants from corrupt owners, and the daily care of elephants. Most of the elephants rescued need medical attention and around the clock care. Many of the organizations mentioned above have volunteering programs and give you the opportunity to live on the park grounds with the elephants. Before you know it, you will be an expert on Asian elephants.


When deciding on a park to visit, I chose a “no riding” elephant sanctuary. Our 2-day, overnight stay at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was the most memorable experience. Upon reaching the sanctuary, we had an easy, short hike to the camp and immediately given instructions on how to behave around the elephants. We all wore colorful, woven vests because the elephants associated the vests with friendly, trustful people. We had the thrill of hiding bananas and sugarcane and slowly feeding the elephants. They were super smart and attempted wrapping their trunks around our backs to sniff the goods. We took a break for lunch with a view of elephants relaxing by the water.

Who needs television, when you can have that view?

For bath time, we jumped in the mud puddles, threw wet mud on the elephants(mud acts as a shower gel), bathed them in the river 10 yards away (rather bathe with them), and then watch them throw dry mud right back on themselves. It seemed absurd since we just went through the entire process of bathing them, but dry dirt is an elephant’s version of sunscreen.

There are so many travelers educating themselves before trips on the activities they are choosing. Please do your part by participating in responsible tourism and sharing this knowledge with others.