Why we said NO to riding elephants (and why you should too)

Most people would agree that elephants are some of the most majestic, graceful, intelligent, and revered animals on the planet.

Then why is it that these beautiful creatures are tortured and abused, in many cases for the sake of tourism?

Why should I say no to elephant riding?

You’ve probably met many people who have ridden elephants while on holiday in countries like Thailand. It certainly seems like a fantastic way to spend a day, lumbering through the forest on the back of a magnificent animal. But I wonder if you (and them) know the history of the elephants that are ridden by tourists. We didn’t – like many other first-time travellers to that part of the world. Originally, we were keen to ride elephants in Thailand on our first trip there in 2009. Thankfully we did some research before our trip, because we decided then that we would never ride an elephant.

elephant_nature_park-17

We hope that this post will raise awareness about the issues surrounding elephant riding in Southeast Asia, as we believe many travellers are unaware of the abuse that they may unknowingly be supporting by riding these beautiful animals. If you choose to ride an elephant, of course that is up to you, but we hope that you make an educated decision.

The mistreatment of elephants

Elephants are not domestic animals, they are wild. So in order for humans to work with them and for tourists to ride them, they are taught to obey their owner. This happens when they are very young, and is known as the ‘crush’ or Phajaan – the crushing of the elephants’ spirit. The baby elephants are often captured from the wild (where, in Southeast Asia, only a few thousand elephants remain) and separated from their mothers. They are trapped in a small cage or tied to wooden stakes, beaten and poked with sharp sticks and bullhooks, starved, and deprived of sleep (this awful photo will bring tears to your eyes) . This is carried out so that they will forever be submissive and afraid of their owners. Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals, and they do not forget.

In addition, if this was not bad enough already, a person riding an elephant puts intense pressure on their spine, as well as harming their skin. Elephants are not built to hold multiple people and an uncomfortable chair on their back all day, every day. Imagine carrying around a huge, poorly fitting hiking pack day after day! You would probably be feeling pretty awful and may have some lasting damage.

Read this article from just last week about an elephant that died of exhaustion in Vietnam – it collapsed with tourists on its back.

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

These discoveries we made while planning our trip completely put us off riding elephants in Thailand. However, we still wanted to interact with these amazing animals without getting on their backs and supporting this terrible practice. But where could we go? Fortunately we came across Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. ENP is a reserve that is home to many elephants that have been rescued from tourism companies, as well as from logging and other industrial operations.

Phew. We were elated that we would get to see elephants in a happy setting! After doing a bit more research we booked a day trip there during our time in Chiang Mai, which involved round-trip transfers from our hotel.

During our day at Elephant Nature Park, we learned about the individual elephants living there, as well as how they had come to be at the park. We remember one heartbreaking story of a female elephant that had been rescued a few years previously. She had given birth to a baby that had died, and would not work because she was in mourning. Her owner became angry and so he poked the elephant’s eyes out as punishment, which made her blind. Fortunately, she was rescued by Lek, Elephant Nature Park’s founder, and she now lives happily at the park. It was lovely to see another elephant, her buddy, leading her around with her trunk holding the buddy’s tail as a guide.

This was just one of the sad stories that we heard during the day, along with a graphic video which showed the awful conditions some of these elephants had been rescued from. Unfortunately, many elephants outside the park remain in these terrible conditions today.

In contrast, the elephants at Elephant Nature Park looked happy – as far as we could tell, anyway (we aren’t elephant mind-readers!). There were a couple of tiny babies that shyly peeked out from behind their mothers, and a cheeky young elephant that kept chasing some of the volunteers around a table.

Elephant Nature Park

Part of the Elephant Nature Park experience, because you don’t ride them, is to interact with the elephants in different ways. We got to feed the elephants twice, where we had huge buckets of pumpkins and cabbages, and we held the vegetables out for the hairy, muscular trunk to wrap around and take the food to the elephant’s mouth.

Feeding the elephants

Feeding the elephants

Our favourite activity of the day was bathing the elephants, which we also got to do twice. Getting into the water and standing right next to these huge animals, scrubbing them with a brush, and tossing buckets of water at them, was an experience that we will remember for life. We had the biggest grins on our faces for the rest of the day, if not the rest of our trip!

The day trip also includes a delicious lunch at the park, where you can look over the elephants roaming around the grounds. You can also volunteer at the park for multiple days or weeks – unfortunately we didn’t have time to volunteer on this particular trip, but we hope to return some day!

We hope that this article has shed some light on the issues surrounding elephant riding in Southeast Asia, and that you may now think twice about riding elephants. We hope that you visit the wonderful Elephant Nature Park on your next trip to Thailand instead. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below – we want to get a discussion going and keep raising awareness!

Related articles

Thailand Elephants has a directory of the more ethical elephant camps in Thailand. If you’re heading to Thailand and want to interact with elephants in a positive environment, check out where you can go on their site!

World Nomads blog post

Expert Vagabond article

Intrepid Travel blog

. . .

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Have you been elephant riding? Were you aware of the issues surrounding the industry?

36 comments

  1. Hi Guys,

    Amen to that. I’ve heard so much about Lek but haven’t been up to the park, even though I’ve lived in Chiang Mai for many months. I will get there soon enough though. Most do stuff tourist wise with little or no thought to the animals being used, or abused, in the process and it depresses me that folks are this ignorant. Posts like yours need to be read and digested so people can make informed, educated decisions before riding elephants. 9 out of 10 would never ride again if they read how these creatures are treated.

    I recall seeing an elephant riding farm/tourist trap in Koh Lanta. Horrible, horrible conditions, it broke my heart each time I rode by. The thing is, people here are driven by greed in some cases and abject poverty in other cases and do not think about the animals they’re abusing. If tourists thought with their wallets instead of being mindless, they’d put the abusers out of business, and into some biz where perhaps, they could abuse cars for transport, etc….either way, fab post guys. Thanks for spreading the word!

    Tweeting from Bali.

    Ryan

    • Petra
      Author

      Thanks Ryan! You should definitely head to ENP next time you’re in Chiang Mai – it’s a fantastic place to visit. I agree that most people wouldn’t ride elephants if they knew how they were treated – it’s just that there’s not much widespread information about the abuse. Here’s hoping this post will inform some people! The farm in Koh Lanta sounds awful, so sad to see animals in that situation 🙁

  2. We love Elephant Nature Park too! So glad that we made the decision not to ride elephants while we were in Thailand. You got some great photos of the experience!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this guys, we completely agree with you and we want to spread the word as much as possible to raise awareness about this very important matter.Thanks again! 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing this touching story. I know I won’t be elephant riding now and I would love to visit the elephant nature park one day it looks amazing!

    • Petra
      Author

      Thanks Natalie, so glad we have shared this important issue with you. Elephant Nature Park is truly special, hope you get to go there one day!

  5. So happy to see a post like this. I am tired of seeing so many tourist riding elephants in their photos. It makes me sad because I know how they are being mistreated. Thanks for bringing awareness to the issue. Love your blog by the way!

    http://www.mintnotion.com

    • Petra
      Author

      Really appreciate your comment Eden. I am too! It’s great to see so many people agreeing with our stance on this important issue – keep spreading the word! 🙂

  6. Fantastic write up about a movement that is raw and real (and it involves a lot of hard work too!)
    My husband and I had visited the park last winter and it sure was an eye opener! We had experienced both worlds during that trip- one that involved the elephant ride during the tour in Chiang Mai and then the visit to ENP.
    These gentle giants are even trained to ask for tips following a ride and can tell the difference between currency notes!
    ENP has definitely changed the way we feel about elephant rides, and we hope that many more organizations such as these will begin to sprout and spread the awareness.

    On a separate note, their trunks are quite ticklish! 😀

    • Petra
      Author

      Oh Judy, that’s so sad to hear about the elephants being taught to ask for tips 🙁 Glad you visited ENP too so you could get a perspective on both ‘sides’ of the industry.

  7. Wonderful post guys, it’s so great seeing more and more awareness being raised about this terrible practice. We visited ENP last year and it was lovely seeing the elephants so happy, a stark contrast to the ones seen hauling tourists on their backs. We tried to talk to tourists as much as we could when we were in SE Asia to deter them from riding, it’s surprising how little people really know about it.

    • Petra
      Author

      Glad to hear you enjoyed ENP Fabio! You can really tell when they’re happy, right? And good on you for talking to other tourists too, I’m sure they appreciated it!

  8. I’ve never been to Thailand or any other country where elephant riding is possible, but I think nonetheless that this is a very important and informative article. People should start to think more about the impact their of traveling and what’s behind an “exotic” tourist attraction. Posts like this can help to achieve that. Thanks!

    • Petra
      Author

      Thanks Rouven, really appreciate your comment. We just want to help to raise awareness on issues like this that often aren’t made very public due to the need for tourism-related incomes/jobs in developing countries.

  9. Elephant Village near Luang Prabang offers a similar situation to what you found. Elephants that have been saved from the logging industry and many years of cruel abuse. I did ride an elephant in 2010 alongside a mahout who seemed to love the graceful lady very much. She was blind too due to an infection but seemed well cared for and took great pleasure in taking a sugar can feast out of my hands. There should be an international register of the good ones so we can shun any that are not approved and licensed. Wilbur.

    • Petra
      Author

      Elephant Village sounds fantastic Wilbur! We hope to visit Luang Prabang one day so will put it on the list of things to do. I agree, a list of all the good places should be made!

  10. Thank you so much for writing this post. I unfortunately did ride an elephant in Laos years ago, before I was aware of the cruelty and suffering (I have since become aware of so many other ways that animals suffer at the hands of humans). The next time I return to the region I would love to have an experience like the one you had at the Elephant Nature Park.

    • Petra
      Author

      Thanks for your comment Wendy. That is exactly the reason why we wrote the post – for people who aren’t aware of the issues! Glad to hear you want to visit ENP – it is truly a wonderful experience.

  11. Guys…your article left me speechless. Riding an elephant was on my bucket list until 5 minutes ago. I had NO idea about all this. Now there is no way I’m doing it…they are such beautiful creatures. I hope to have the chance to bathe them in the park you mentioned 🙂
    Cheers

    • Petra
      Author

      Valeria, we are so glad that you read our article and have now changed your mind about elephant riding! That’s the whole reason we wrote it. Hope you get to visit ENP one day!

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  13. Totally agree with you here. I avoided the Bali Elephant park like the plague. It’s so sad how these animals get treated. When we were in the Gili islands there was a turtle ‘sanctuary’ that apparently was just turtles walking around in empty baths. They drag tourists into the whole ‘I need money to help protect these animals’ when really they are being abused. So sad. I love your blog by the way! Beautiful photos 🙂

    http://www.anitahendrieka.com

    • Petra
      Author

      Oh gosh, that turtle place sounds awful. I hate how people mistreat animals in order to get money 🙁 Thanks for stopping by Anita!

  14. Paul R

    Though your article does highlight a worthy issue, I take exception to some aspects of it. You have, very unfortunately, tarred all elephant keepers with the same brush.
    Elephants are an animal that lives in the wild, but they are also a domesticated animal, having been used by humans (just like horses, dogs, sheep etc) for over 4000 years (about as long as the camel, chicken and alpaca). And just the same as the majority of horses nowadays are not captured from the wild and then ‘broken in’ most elephants used in domestic capacities are from ‘domesticated’ parents, as they are much easier to train.
    Having worked with wild animal vets for some years I can assure you that it is undeniable that some animals are mistreated and abused, for entertainment, for sport or for cultural reasons. However, it is grossly unfair, and misleading, to suggest or imply that this applies to all animals in those situations as your article does. It is absolutely true that the worlds already massively dwindled asian elephant population would be much much smaller if it weren’t for the fact that these intelligent, adaptable, beautiful animals have been found to be useful and enjoyable company to humans.
    To suggest that these massive creatures capable of carrying 3 tons suffer ‘intense pressure on their spine’ due to the weight of a human is just plain foolish (an analogy would be to suggest that a horse suffers from the ‘intense pressure’ of carrying a large cat on its back.)
    Just because not all authors of articles fail to check their background facts properly, not all authors should be categorised as sensationalist or lazy.

    • Petra
      Author

      Thanks for your comment, Paul. It’s great to have some healthy debate on our blog because we totally understand that some people don’t share our opinion, and that’s fine. We aren’t trying to force anyone into thinking like we do. We’re just trying to educate people on an issue that we think is important to be aware of when travelling to SE Asia.

  15. Wonderful article. We’ve never been interested in interacting with exotic animals that have been used for touristic purposes. Our first encounter happened when were in Koh Samui and they were carrying eagles, monkeys, sloths and lizards around for people to take pictures with. Although I was excited to see such animals, I would never support it.

    The same thing for elephants, tigers, etc. They are indeed majestic and such beautiful creatures. I loved seeing them in the wild in Africa and if I had the chance, I would even touch one up close. It’s good to be educated about these things, which your article does.

    We’re headed to Chiang Mai and thinking of visiting this park for half a day.

  16. Sam and Veren

    Thanks so much for writing this!! It’s great to see more and more travel bloggers speaking out against cruelty like elephant riding. Little by little we can reduce animal suffering in this world!

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