Elephant riding in Thailand

Why you should remove elephant riding from your bucket list

There is a great deal of attraction in riding an elephant. After all, what could be better than riding on top of the largest mammal on Earth as it slowly meanders through the rice fields and jungle… so appealing in fact that when I travelled through Thailand in 2003 I thoughtlessly included elephant riding in my trekking trip from Chiang Mai.

But behind this thrilling adventure are the dark secrets that have led to animal welfare activists condemning elephant riding. Many tourist attractions, especially in Thailand, have now been banned from offering elephant rides for a number of different reasons.

While elephant rides are on many people’s travel bucket list, it’s time to consider other forms of elephant interaction. Here’s why you should avoid elephant rides altogether if you want to travel ethically.

Why are people still riding elephants today?

Lack of awareness is a common issue. If everyone were to see a video of an elephant being beaten with bullhooks or whips, they wouldn’t even consider riding an elephant. At the same time, elephant riding is a significant offering in Thailand’s tourism industry and elephant riding camps work hard to attract tourists to try out their services.

Elephant riding in Thailand

Over the years, people have become increasingly aware of how harmful elephant riding can be. With the help of responsible tourists, others are seeking more humane ways of experiencing these amazing creatures up-close and personal.

How elephants are trained for riding

Elephants undergo a brutal training routine before humans can safely ride on their backs. Phajaan (also called elephant crushing) is a widely accepted training method in Thai culture, where the animals are subjected to physical harm by being abused with bullhooks, whips, and even bamboo sticks with spiked nails. The animals are deprived of sleep and are kept in a small cage to crush their spirit and become submissive to the orders of the mahouts (elephant trainers).

It’s a common practice in Thailand and almost all elephants you see in circuses, street shows, and elephant riding camps have experienced this brutality. The young elephants are taken away from the mothers and the adults around the baby elephants are killed. Considering that elephants live in tight matriarchal groups, isolating a baby elephant from the herd is enough to break their spirit.

Elephant health

Aside from the physical abuse, the health of the elephants is also negatively affected. Despite being large creatures, the spine of these animals cannot fully support the weight of a human being. The problems are further exacerbated by attaching a chair (howdah) to their backs. This
leads to significant spinal injuries, especially in older elephants with weakened bone structures.

Blisters and scars can also form due to the strapped chair rubbing on the animal’s back. In addition, the elephant’s feet are subjected to wear and tear after long hours of trekking that can lead to foot injuries and infections.

Rice fields of northern Thailand

What to do if you don’t want to ride elephants

If a tour guide offers you an elephant ride, politely refuse. It’s best to avoid supporting harmful tourism activities that jeopardise the health of Asia’s captive elephant population. Also, be wary of supposed “elephant sanctuaries” that claim to be a safe haven for elephants and yet implement unethical tourism practices. Elephant sanctuaries should not be offering elephant rides and the animals should be free to roam in a semi-wildlife-like environment without being constrained to a cage.

Depending on where you’re travelling, there are plenty of other tourist activities that you can participate in that don’t involve elephant riding. For example, you can join volunteer programmes where you can prepare food for the elephants. Elephant Nature Park is a popular rescue centre in Thailand where you can actively participate in their volunteering programmes and get to bathe and feed the elephants.

Before going to an elephant sanctuary or rescue centre, make sure to do your research first. Find out the living conditions of the elephants and ask for feedback regarding their services. Guides such as Trunk Travel can also provide helpful advice. Most reputable elephant sanctuaries will be more than willing to address your concerns and prove that they operate in an
ethical manner.

Comparing then vs. now

Thankfully, more and more tourists are being informed about the horrific truth behind elephant riding and national parks around the world have taken swift action. For example, Yon Don Park in Vietnam has stopped offering elephant rides and encourages travellers to seek ethical
alternatives instead. In 2016, TripAdvisor stopped promoting operators that offer elephant rides and other related activities in an effort to encourage responsible tourism. Even Instagram showed their support by removing hashtags related to unethical wildlife activities.

Thanks to these efforts, the number of operators offering elephant rides has been significantly reduced. But the fight isn’t over, as there are plenty of elephant riding camps scattered across the globe that are enforcing phajaan on elephants and offering travellers elephant rides. As responsible tourists, we should help spread the word about elephant riding and hopefully, everyone will consider removing elephant riding from their bucket list and find safer interactions with these majestic creatures.

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  1. I still think I want to ride an elephant even once in my lifetime and I hope not all elephant owners treat their animals harshly for money purposes

    • It’s a difficult question isn’t it?! As I said, I did ride an elephant years ago but actually I didn’t find it a rewarding experience, partly because I felt uneasy as to how the elephants were treated. Looking back, the other things I did in northern Thailand like rafting and staying in local villages were much more fun. Every person can decide for themselves.

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