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Should I ride an elephant?

Posted: Feb 26, 2013

Elephant trekkingAn elephant ride is a popular tourist activity, especially inThailand, Cambodia 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. However, 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. Photograph - Right-tourism     

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.

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 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’.

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


  1. Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation
  2. Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you? 
  3. The ethical elephant experience  
  4. Elephant trekking 

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