The truth about elephant tourism in Asia

written by
Gavin Thomas

updated 25.03.2020

Elephants are born free, but are everywhere in chains – and it’s tourism which is increasingly to blame. Riding an elephant used to be on every visitor’s list of must-do activities during a visit to Asia, although growing awareness of elephant rights – and, increasingly, wrongs – means that over the past five years almost all major tourist companies have stopped offering trips featuring elephant rides or other pachyderm-related attractions and activities deemed cruel. Here’s why.

The crushing truth

We love elephants. Perhaps it's because they’re a lot like us – intelligent, sociable and emotional, as anyone who has read about the way that herds protect their young and mourn their dead will recognise.

Paradoxically, it’s the reverence and affection travellers feel for these majestic animals that leads to the enduring success of many elephant attractions, and the abuses they perpetuate.

The idea of “domesticated” elephants working in harmony with their human handlers (mahouts) may sound idyllic, but the reality is anything but. Young elephants, whether born wild or in captivity, have to be made fit for human use through a process sometimes describes as “elephant crushing”, involving the systematic breaking of the elephant’s mind, body and spirit.

Babies are taken from their mothers (traumatic enough in itself for both child and parent), after which their “training” may include being confined in tiny pens, systematically beaten with bullhooks or nail-studded sticks, starved, deprived of sleep. Once these hugely powerful animals have been terrified into doing their owner’s bidding, they are considered safe to interact with tourists.


Taking them for a ride

Putting a heavy and unwieldy howdah (elephant seat) on an animal’s back is uncomfortable in itself, even before you’ve loaded it up with tourists.

Howdahs also need to be secured using ropes around the elephant’s stomach and tail, which can cause open sores, abscesses and other lasting physical damage including spinal injuries and deformities.

Elephants are supremely strong creatures, but they are not indestructible. An adult elephant can carry around 150kg for a limited period, although many elephants carry far heavier loads including mahout, howdah and as many as four adults for rides lasting an hour or longer.

Long treks in extreme heat can also lead to dehydration and exhaustion, while many elephants used for riding also wear chains around their feet, which further adds to their discomfort.

The stress is bad enough for a fully-grown elephant – adults have been known to simply collapse and die beneath their burdens – but baby elephants as young as four have been seen carrying tourists.


Tricks of the trade

Elephants are amongst the most intelligent creatures on the planet and can be taught to do all sorts of things – to play football, spin hoops, ride tricycles, stand on their heads or even paint pictures.

Don’t be misled into thinking this is a natural expression of their playfulness or creativity when in fact they’re simply party tricks they have been forced to learn at the end of a bullhook, or suffer the consequences. Do elephants paint or perform headstands in the wild? Exactly.

Elephants (particularly baby elephants) are also often used as cute begging props in tourist towns and on beaches, although they’re no better off. Being fed pieces of sugarcane and pineapple by foreign visitors doesn’t replace a natural diet of grass and leaves and ready access to fresh water.

Exhaust fumes, hot concrete, collisions with traffic and the constant stress of being in an unfamiliar environment surrounded by crowds of people and loud music (not to mention the sedatives they may have been dosed with) leads to a fifty percent reduction in life expectancy. Baby elephants used for begging are often dead by the age of five.


Human and economic realities

In an ideal world, all captive elephants would be released back into the wild and no one would ever ride one again. Sadly, this is never going to happen. In many countries there’s simply nowhere to release them to, while some captive elephants would not be equipped to survive in the wild.

The alternatives to elephant tourism are often worse than the cure. Elephants not used in tourism might end up being used for illegal logging – a fate far worse, away from the public eye or any kind of veterinary help (as well as being regularly dosed with amphetamines in order to make them work harder).

Returning elephants to the wild would also put many at serious risk of poaching.


Does ethical elephant tourism exist?

The bottom line is that using elephants for tourism is often the best option currently available – which is why it’s vitally important that it is done in the best way possible.

Recent years have seen the emergence of a new, and far more rewarding, sort of elephant tourism. “Walking with elephants”, as it’s often described, involves simply seeing elephants in their natural environment, tracking them as they wander through the forest feeding and observing them from a close but respectable distance.

Some places also offer the chance to feed and bathe with the elephants (although it’s sometimes claimed that this too is constricting and insensitive) or to ride them bareback, in traditional mahout fashion.

Not surprisingly, a fair few places are now jumping on the ethical bandwagon without necessarily practising what they preach. The websites of the Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation (EARS) and Save Elephant Foundation have lists of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia, while the Elemotion and EleAid websites also have lots of useful background information.

Where can I see elephants responsibly?

Thailand has emerged at the forefront of ethical elephant tourism, with reputable sanctuaries including the pioneering Elephant Nature Park and Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (both near Chiang Mai), the Surin Project in the northeast of the country, and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (near Sukhothai).

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia there is the Elephant Valley Project at Sen Monorom in northeastern Cambodia, and the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury Province in Laos.

Ethical elephant tourism in South Asia is considerably less well developed. In Sri Lanka, the fledgling Elephant Freedom Project near Kandy and the Elephant Conservation and Care Cente in Mathura are currently leading the way.


How do I know if what I’m seeing really is ethical?

Elephants, like humans, need stimulation, social interaction (with other elephants rather than tourists, that is) and time to themselves to behave naturally. Like humans, they should be protected from overwork and not be forced to march around for more than four hours a day.

Check for signs of cruelty: Bullhooks are used to guide and control elephants. Properly used by a skilled and sensitive mahout, the bullhook causes no harm; unfortunately, excessive use of bullhooks (or other implements) by heavy handed or inexperienced mahouts is widespread, resulting in wounds to head and flesh. Howdahs should always be removed when not in use.

Are they being fed? Elephants in the wild forage for up to twenty hours daily so there should be an ample supply of fodder and water.

Are they being shaded and kept clean? Elephants suffer in the heat too, and dislike standing in their own faeces. Food should be kept off the floor, so it doesn’t get mixed up with dirt and urine. Dung from healthy elephants should be large, round and solid – as in humans, diarrhoea is an indicator of sickness.

Are they healthy? Healthy elephants flap their ears and swish their tail almost constantly. An immobile elephant is most likely a sick elephant. Equally, swaying constantly from side to side and swinging legs (a behaviour never seen in the wild) indicates that an elephant is stressed and/or bored from having been chained up too long – particularly if the chain is excessively short and constricting.

Top image © Suriya99/Shutterstock

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍