The truth about riding elephants and why I will never ride an elephant again

Spending times with elephants is an amazing experience and many people actually have elephant riding on their bucket list. Sitting on the back of this majestic animal and letting it carry you through the jungle might sound really exciting at first but once you do it something just doesn’t feel right. I’m ashamed to say it but I was one of those people that put elephant riding on the top of their bucket list. However, ever since I did this, I’ve had this overwhelming sense that something isn’t right. In the years following this trip, I researched and learned a lot about elephant riding and wildlife tourism in general. I learned the truth about riding elephants.

I learned about the abuse these animals endure and the conditions they live in. After that, I am ashamed to say I contributed to it, unknowingly or not. Still debating whether or not you should ride an elephant?

Here are more reasons you should skip the trek and head to a sanctuary that doesn’t have rides or circuses. That’s why I am writing this article: because I know that there are many people like me that consider these tours because they aren’t aware of the harm their actions are causing. Here are some reasons not to…

1. A life spent in captivityelephant sanctuaries

There are approximately 50,000 Asian elephants and IUCN Red List lists them as “endangered”. Elephants are used for tourist rides or safaris in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The WAP (World Animal Protection) came out with a report titled “Wildlife on a Tightrope“ in which the living conditions of captive elephants in Thailand were documented. The report includes 118 venues in which were a “home” to more than 1,600 elephants. Most of them offered elephant rides or other kinds of attractions.

Also check out: List of things you shouldn’t do when traveling to Thailand.

This report stated that more than half of those elephants live in terrible conditions bound by “extreme restraints”. Many of them weren’t allowed to socialize with other elephants and some of them didn’t even receive veterinary care. These elephants were separated from their mothers when they were only a few months old. Various methods were used to break their spirits and get them to “behave” and perform. One of them is…

2. The crush processbaby elephant truth about riding elephants

Riding an elephant may seem like a fun and harmless, innocent activity but that can’t be further away from the truth. Elephants are wild animals that are not supposed to be ridden by humans. Always remember that they allow you to get on top of them because they have been subjected to cruelty at every turn.

National Geographic aired the first documentary about the so-called Crush process in 2002. In the video, you could see men who terrorize a wild baby elephant in a cage for days in order to crush his spirit and prepare him for a life in the tourism industry.

Another brutal way in which elephants are forced into captivity is the pit trap method, where a herd is corralled into a corridor where a pit has been dug. If this is not enough to convince you to skip the elephant riding activities, hold on- there’s more.

3. The elephants’ healthcaptive elephant truth about riding elephants

The elephant spines can’t support the weight of people and carrying us around on their backs all day can lead to permanent spinal injuries. This would have a similar effect of wearing a 50-pound backpack for nine hours a day, every day. Imagine the long-term damage that might come from that. Doesn’t sound really good, does it?

Additionally, the implications from carrying a howdah chair on their backs to make you feel more comfortable are even worse. This chair rubs on their back and causes blisters that can very easily cause an infection, especially when performing longer treks.

4. Their social interactiontruth about riding elephants

Just like humans, elephants are living creatures. They like to socialize with their own kind and have families and friends. Unfortunately, they cannot have any of that in most tourist venue. They spend most of their lives chained and without interacting with other elephants.

5. The living conditions

This point partially overlaps with all of the four previous points but it doesn’t end there. I’ve seen treks in which baby elephants are chained to their mother and must keep pace with the adult elephant, which is obviously difficult and they will get tired sooner or later. This is when the guide or mahout will prod the baby elephant with a bullhook to make it keep moving. This bullhook is something the elephant will remember for the rest of his life and something that will have the power to immediately strike fear in them.

So, Why Are People Still Riding Them?truth about riding elephants

I think for most people it’s simply the lack of awareness that causes them to indulge in these activities. If they would see the videos or read more about this topic, I think most of them would decide to cross elephant riding off their bucket lists. Even if we leave the bullhooks and electric prods aside, there are still many good reasons to skip this activity and find a more humane way to interact with elephants.

This problem, however, is still far from simple, as there are some places that actually take good cares of elephants. However, if they offer elephant rides or similar activities, they probably are not. As with many other things in life, knowledge is power. So now you know, what can you do about?

Firstly, be careful about the so-called ‘sanctuaries’truth about riding elephants

Many of these so-called sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers are nothing more than a mask. They abuse and exploit the elephants for profit like many other tourist venues. The problem here is that most travelers think that by supporting these businesses, their actions are ethical. They assume that the trek is nothing harmful and that the elephants aren’t subjected to any brutality.

But they are.

If you’re doing anything that involves riding an elephant, watching them perform or do some other tricks, you’re certainly not doing the elephants a favor.

Secondly, sign a petition

Additionally, you can sign the World Animal Protections’ pledge against cruelty and abuse on wild animals used for entertainment. Your signature can help make a difference.

But what about the locals and their livelihood?truth about riding elephants

The biggest argument the traditional wildlife tourism industry has is probably the paradigm that boycotting these activities could worsen the livelihood of traditional communities who rely on their elephants as a source of income, leading towards social and economic problems.

Personally, I don’t see this happening.

In my opinion, the locals could still earn a living by operating in a responsible and ethical way. There will always be responsible tourists who want to see and interact with elephants even if they aren’t allowed to ride them. Additionally, many more travelers aware of this issue would support these businesses, allowing them to generate even more revenues.

How to recognize an elephant-friendly sanctuary?

  1. You know you’re experiencing an ethical elephant encounter when elephants don’t participate in any entertainment activities. There are no rides, no activities or shows.
  2. The venue has a transparent record
  3. No captive breeding takes place because it is not always successful and can sometimes even lead to physical injuries. Additionally, it takes attention away from rescuing and taking care of the elephants.
  4. There’s no commercial trade of elephants taking place. The ethical venues acquire their elephants either via donations, confiscations or as part of an alternative livelihood initiative.
  5. The elephants should have social interaction in natural groupings and should be able to move freely.
  6. Appropriate and accurate education is provided and venues provide an appropriate education for their visitors in order to raise awareness of animal welfare concerns.

Finally, remember that just like in economics 101, the demand creates the supply. In this case, the demand for animal entertainment creates the supply. As long as people (you) are interested in this, these poor animals will be used and abused for profit.
Related: myth-busting: no one really gets paid to travel the world.

truth about riding elephants

truth about riding elephants

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35 thoughts on “The truth about riding elephants and why I will never ride an elephant again”

  1. Thanks for this article. It reminds me of the recent ban on calèches in Montréal. It’s sad to see them go, because they carry an air of culture and a sense of the exotic. But there really is no excuse for mistreating animals like that.

    Reply
    • Indeed, David. There’s absolutely no excuse for that but unfortunately, it happens around the world. That’s why I wrote this article: to generate awareness about this issue.

      Reply
  2. I once rode an elephant and when looking into its eyes could sense it’s sadness. The trek they took us on led up into the mountains and I became aware of how unfair and difficult for the elephant it was. That was my first and last elephant ride.

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  3. I’m so happy that you wrote about it. I have been planning to write this for a long time. A lot of sanctuatires in India offer the experience of bathing elephants which I used to think is cool, but then I saw that they put chains on the animals, chains that must weigh as much as a small person- how can we call that protection? I never enterred these sanctuaries but they are listed as the top attractions in those areas on tripadvisor

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment, Sinjana. There are a few real sanctuaries but in no case they allow elephant riding. Most of them fit the description you wrote, unfortunately.

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  4. Thank you for this great article.
    However, with a bit of research there are places to visit where the elephants are well kept and obviously happy.
    To demonstrate the point I would like to share an extract from the new book ‘Turning Left Around the World’ – Please don’t respond with ‘he’s only trying to sell a book’. Read it, learn, then decide:

    “Our next trip was to meet the elephants of Thailand, but the venue had to be selected very carefully. Despite them being protected and their use allegedly highly regulated many are still torn from their jungle homes and forced to perform in shows or carry four people on treks in those awful wooden cradles they strap across the elephants back. And of course, it wasn’t long ago when they were being treated appallingly by the logging companies who used them to haul mostly illegal timber.

    Ignoring the many leaflets and posters of happy tourists and sad elephants offering treks, our research found an eco sanctuary about an hour out of Phuket. Run and owned by a small family, where Lia the Mum is clearly the boss, it is an open 20 acre tropical forest which is as close to the natural home as possible for the five elephants in her protection. Her elephants have either been rescued as orphans or saved from further beatings in the name of entertainment or business. They cannot be returned to the wild, so as Lia said ‘someone has to look after them, so that’s what I do’.

    One thirty year old elephant, the most friendly of the lot who we really took a liking to, was given a 50/50 chance of survival by the vet when Lia rescued her from a tourist show. Apparently, she had been hit so many times her skull had fractured, Lia nursed her for six months spending all her savings on drugs and medical fees. She is now a fit, healthy and beautiful animal and has a relationship with Lia similar to that of the soppiest dog and it’s equally soppy master. Oddly, it is petrified of dogs, spiders and snakes so Lia built her a shelter for the evenings and the wet season.

    The elephants are never chained, tethered or shackled so are free to roam the natural beauty of the forest or wash, bathe and play in the large muddy pond. Remarkably they also love people, especially if those people have bananas or sugar beet with them. That was us.

    What a glorious afternoon we spent as a family with Lia and her two families. There was no structure to it, no performance or tricks, we wandered around, the elephants wandered around and Lia stood in the middle of it all with the widest brightest beaming smile that lit up her whole face.

    We fed the elephants, petted them and enjoyed their company, as they did ours I believe. When they had their fill of fruit they simply wandered off across a bamboo bridge to the pond for a soak and a play in the muddy soup. But first a good hose down they seemed to love and joined in spraying themselves and us with their trunks. Once in the pond they waited patiently for us to join them, brush in hand to give their broad backs and vast shoulders a good old scrubbing. I’m not sure who enjoyed it the most, the elephants or us but it is a memory we will treasure and I hope, like it is said of them, never forget.

    ‘You ride elephant, yes?’ asked Lia.
    ‘We agreed not to do that,’ advised Charlotte, ‘we said it was cruel.’
    She was right of course, so I explained our views to Lia. She gave us one of her special beaming smiles and an infectious giggle.
    ‘How much you weigh?’ she asked me.
    ‘Around 12 stone.’ I said. At this the giggle turned into a near hysterical laugh.
    ‘Elephant weigh three tonnes! You think you hurt her?’she screamed. ‘Look, no cradle, no chain, no rope, no stick. If they don’t like, they go.’ Fair enough.

    I was first up, so to speak, and first down, having fallen off the elephant’s bended knee. Elliot went next and did a pretty good impression of Mowgli with his legs tucked behind her ears as she plodded around seemingly enjoying the game immensely. They were joined by Charlotte on an elephant she seemed to have created an attachment to. And, there I was watching the children parade bareback on elephants in a Thai jungle and loving every second, it almost moved me to tears. Soppy old sod.

    Reply
    • Hello David and thank you for your comment. There are indeed places where elephants are kept in good conditions but in no way would they allow elephant rides. A “sanctuary” that allows elephant rides or any other form of entertainment cannot be called ethical and elephant-friendly.

      Maybe they did save the elephants, maybe they just say they did to gain points with tourists that seem concerned about the issue.

      BUT

      if they keep using them for the same purpose that brought so much of pain and suffering in their life (in this case riding), even if it’s without a cradle or a chair, is still unethical.

      The elephants have been forcefully thought to take tourists for rides and of course that ‘if they don’t like it they won’t go’ because they still have memories of what might happen if they attempt such a thing.

      Elephants aren’t made for riding and yes even if you’re 30 times lighter than them this can cause back problems. Just go to the wild and try to jump on a wild elephant and see whether they will accept that.

      Elephants don’t have a smooth, round spinal disk. Instead, they have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine. These bony protrusions and the tissue that protects them are vulnerable and no matter how big elephants are, weight and pressure can hurt them and defending such a ‘sanctuary’ is also unethical.

      Reply
  5. I also made the same mistake when I rode an elephant years ago in Thailand. Once I saw them playing football and also painting, I had to ask myself; this is not natural! It’s a cruel process they go through, and I will never do it again.

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  6. This is so sad! I’ve never ridden an elephant (nor is it on my bucket list). Your post is a good reminder that somethings are done for tourism or as tourists that we wouldn’t otherwise tolerate. Keep opening our eyes to this issue.

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  7. A very useful and informative article. I had no clue that the sanctuaries were also just masks. It just pains me to see some of those pictures. Thanks for sharing this. Have flipped into my Ethical Tourism board on Flipboard.

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  8. I’m glad more and more people who travel have woken up to this problem. It’s great that you brought up the fact, that not all sanctuaries are honest. That is truly sad. I have read so many stories where people justify riding the elephants by being a helper at the sanctuary. We should all try to make a difference while exploring the world and also help the locals understand that there is other ways to live.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment, Paula. It indeed is sad but I hope this article will enlighten at least some people that aren’t aware of it.

      Reply
  9. If only the locals have other means of livelihood, then maybe they will finally let go of the use of elephants and other animals. This is also should be the works of their government and not only by the private sector. It should go hand-in-hand.

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  10. So sad to know that more than half the elephants live in terrible conditions. I don’t think I could do what you’ve done! I take my hat off to you for taking time to write and share this hard-hitting post.

    Reply
  11. A great article and hopefully more and more people realized about elephants cruelty. I once saw a feature about elephants in tv and it broke my heart. I don’t even like seeing elephants in the zoo though I’m not a person against zoo. It’s just they don’t belong there. They need a big land to roam around.

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  12. Great article. Eventually it all comes down to our (travelers) judgement and responsibility and not about elephants only. The travel industry uses many questionable tactics.

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  13. We visited an elephant sanctuary in thailand and it was just beautiful. The elephants just chilled, came and went as they wished, no-one pushed them around of forced them to come with us or anything. It made it even more magical because then you’re experience elephants as they should be!

    Reply
    • Indeed, there are several real sanctuaries that provide comfortable living conditions for the animals. Unfortunately, not too many

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  14. It is true that most of the times these elephants are subjected to inhuman conditions just for ignorant humans. It’s a hard reality that still many of us are oblivious to.

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  15. I am so so glad that you put this out. It is so important that tourists recognize this and stop indulging in this activity. Hopefully that will stop the so called sanctuaries from promoting them.

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  16. This is a very hot topic recently, and I am happy that you wrote about it as well as many other bloggers. People need to stop using elephans for business as well as all the other animals

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  17. It’s great that you have written about this. More and more people in this world are now realizing about the unethical treatment of animals. It is just a cruel practice, the more the number of people who boycott these places, the sooner these places will run out of business.

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  18. This is so sad! I wish I would’ve know about the cruelty before riding one in Thailand. I will always read up on any animal encounters moving forward!

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  19. A great point it did. Very few travellers have seen this side of the coin. I once rode an elephant in Munnar, Kerala. In many national parks in India, elephants are used for safari. In temples, they are kept standing on burning bitumen roads to earn money from the worshippers. The cruelty shown to the animal is really heartbreaking. Nice that you have raised the point.

    Reply

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