The Elephant In The Room: Why You Shouldn’t Go On An Elephant Trek In Thailand.

Why you shouldn't ride elephants in Thailand

Elephant trekking is a popular tourist activity in Thailand, one of the more popular ‘bucket list’ activities in the gap year industry in fact, but there are many reasons why you should scratch riding an elephant off that list immediately.

Trekking with or riding elephants obviously isn’t just limited to Thailand. Due to the popularity amongst tourists and the sheer amount of profit to be made it has become an extremely lucrative activity across Indonesia, India, Bali and many other countries, now more recently it has even started to be offered in parts of Africa due to the popularity in South East Asia.

But given how Thailand is one of the most popular destinations for gap year travellers and backpackers, the elephant trek industry has expanded exponentially over the last decade or so and continues to increase in popularity as the visitor numbers to the land of smiles keeps increasing. The fact is, trekking with elephants is hugely popular with travellers and tourists and the activity is a phenomenally misunderstood and often ignored problem, with many people not even realising what they are doing is wrong.

The truth is, elephant trekking harms the elephants and supports an industry that abuses and exploits these majestic animals.

I can understand peoples reasons for wanting to go on an elephant trek, I really can. In fact I used to be one of them!

When I first started backpacking over ten years ago I wasn’t as aware of as many issues as I am now, and there certainly wasn’t the same ammount of research, knowledge or awareness of the issues, never mind the access to information as there is today (the internet was still dial up, mobile phones were just becoming popular and there was no such thing as a travel blogger!) So when I hit Thailand for the first time I was really no different than any other first time backpacker, I was excited, euphoric and looking forward to seeing and experiencing as much as I could. And that included going on an elephant trek. I have always been a passionate animal and wildlife lover, so when the chance came to get up close to elephants and even ride on them, I took it.

To my eternal shame, I rode an elephant on a trek.

Signing up for an extended jungle trek to visit hill tribes and have – what I thought at the time – was a little bit of adventure, I sat on the back of this beautiful animal and let it carry me – and all my considerable weight – through the jungle.  I won’t go into specifics, but I learned a lot on that trip and it changed my perception on elephant trekking in a profound way. Ever since I climbed onto the elephants back, it just didn’t feel right, the things I saw, the feelings that were slowly simmering in the pit of my stomach. I still didn’t understand the full extent of the issues after that trek, but I was left with an overwhelming sense that something wasn’t right. Something was wrong.

Something had to be done.

In the decade since then I have gone on to learn all I can about the issue of elephant trekking and wildlife tourism in general. I learned of the abuse these majestic animals endure, I learned of the conditions they suffer in and I learned of the industry that harms and exploits these majestic animals in the name of profit. And it shames me to think I contributed to that, unknowingly or not.

Since that very first trip and as a result of my experience I have changed my own practices as much as I could, I have asked more questions, read the research, learned more, tried to engage in activities which were ethical and cared for the elephants – and other animals for that matter – and tried not to support businesses or parts of the tourism industry that would exploit or harm them.

I haven’t always got it right of course. There are so many grey areas within ethical tourism, so much green washing, so much obfuscation, that it can sometimes be hard to tell when you are actually supporting a true elephant sanctuary or one that just says it cares for the elephants. And I have on occasion got it wrong.

But the important thing is, despite my inauspicious start, on the whole I am now getting it right.

There is a lot of truth in the argument that tourists and travellers shouldn’t feel guilt about what they have done in the past, as long as that experience is used to inform and teach. I absolutely agree with that and don’t judge others who may have been on an elephant trek, provided that they are open to looking at the facts as they stand now and use them to make a fully informed ethical decision for the future. But no one can ever tell me I can’t feel guilt for how I contributed to that poor elephants treatment, however unwittingly or unintentionally. I do. I always will.

Elephants truly are magnificent animals in every sense of the word, and just like myself all those years ago many tourists and travellers actually have a genuine affection for them, they just want to get up close to them and often assume that the elephants are happy, content or are being well looked after and treated by being allowed to carry or entertain tourists in this way.

The problem is – just like I was on my first trip – they aren’t aware of the harm their actions and decisions are causing.

Apart from the physical harm to the elephant itself, what many people aren’t aware of is that by riding elephants or going on an elephant trek they are contributing to the harm and abuse that these elephants have to endure to support this popular and growing part of the tourism and gap year industries.

The problem is so many travellers and tourists simply aren’t aware of all the issues involved. Despite the fact that information now is far more easily accessible than it ever has been, despite the fact that there has been numerous studies and research, academic articles and campaigns to provide scientific weight and highlight these issues, there is still a complete lack of education and awareness on the problem.

Why you shouldn't ride elephants in Thailand

The truth about elephant training.

Many people don’t know that to be able to be ridden or perform for tourists, elephants have to go through rigorous and abusive training. This training is known as the Phajaan in Thailand, or more colloquially as ‘the crush’, because of the way it crushes the elephants spirit and forces them to be more pliable and submissive.

The elephants are forcibly taken away from their mothers when still very young – an act in and of itself that is obviously extremely distressing – and this is a trend that is increasing year on year, with a lot of evidence being gathered that the illegal elephant smuggling trade is booming in order to fulfil the demand by the tourist industry.

Once the young elephants have been taken, they are held in confined cages or pits which allows for no movement. Then they are tortured and beaten constantly for an extended period with bull hooks, bamboo stick and even cattle prods. They are starved, sleep deprived and mentally and physically tortured and abused.

Any elephant you see performing a show or carrying huge tourist filled saddles on its back has gone through this process. Just think about that the next time you think about going on an elephant trek.

If you don’t believe any of this at this point the information on the crush is freely available, although I warn you in advance the videos on you tube are sickening and extremely distressing.

Shouldn't ride elephants in Thailand

Trekking harms the elephants physically, psychologically and emotionally.

Despite the sheer size and seeming power of an elephant they are not indestructible, and giving treks to tourists and travellers can actually cause them a lot of physical harm.

Elephants spines were never built to take the weight of carrying people all day, especially when they are often forced to do it constantly, every single day with nowhere near enough time to rest or even eat, and despite their size riding an elephant can really hurt their backs, not to mention the fact that they are often forced to carry the heavy wooden saddles strapped to their backs, which can cause a variety of skin and tissue damage. Imagine if you were forced to carry heavy loads on your back all day every day.

This alone is bad enough, the simple fact that elephants are being forced to endure constant pain and hard physical labour should be enough to make you want to never think about riding an elephant again, but the damage done can also have much longer lasting and seriously negative effects on the elephants long term health. Quite simply, elephants can end up with permanent spinal injuries or even crippled from these activities.

This is not scaremongering for the sake of sensationalist campaigning, this is proven fact.

Unfortunately the damage goes far deeper than physical pain and injury however. The training methods they endure – the crush – leaves them psychologically scarred. It conditions elephants to fear pain when they see the bullhook, which is why they comply with their trainers. Their working conditions quite often leave them alone and separated from other elephants for long periods of time – sometimes even chained up – which for highly social animals like elephants can leave them completely isolated and depressed.

Elephant conservation and exploitation

What can be done to stop this?

This aspect of the travel and gap year industries only exists because there is profit in it. If tourists stop supporting it, it will stop. It is as simple as that.

The demand for elephant rides and treks still remains absolutely huge, with so many people remaining unaware of the harm and abuse they are supporting, and no real support or change will come from the tourism industry or the government of Thailand or any other country where elephant trekking is popular until the profit goes away.

Interacting with elephants in an ethical way.

Fortunately there are alternatives to elephant trekking to those travellers who still want to see and interact with these majestic animals in an ethical way. There are ways travellers can get up close to elephants without harming them or contributing and supporting the industry that does. There are truly genuine conservation efforts throughout Thailand that allow travellers and even limited volunteers to see and interact with elephants in a responsible and ethical way, in a way that doesn’t harm them and actually cares for their welfare.

The Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand is one such place. A true sanctuary where elephants are rescued and cared for with no tourist shows, no elephant treks or riding elephants and no type of interaction that doesn’t put the elephants welfare first.

You can still see elephants up close, feed them watch them play and interact with each other, walk alongside them and even help bathe them. But you certainly won’t be doing anything to harm them or support those businesses that do. Your money and your time will be going to a place that truly helps and cares for the elephants.

It is places like this that more travellers should support. It is about making the ethical choice the more economically viable one. It really is that simple.

Be careful of the green washed ‘sanctuaries’.

Unfortunately there are many so called ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘rehabilitation centres’ that are happy to use the conservation facade, but still abuse and exploit the elephants as much as anywhere else.

This is a huge problem across Thailand, and many other countries in fact. Many travellers who see the word sanctuary or rehab centre automatically assume that by supporting these businesses that their actions are ethical. They assume that any trek or activity must be okay, because of the positive connotations the monikers ‘sanctuary’ or ‘rehabilitation centre’ have. Many visitors to these so called conservation camps may even  assume they are helping the elephants.

They aren’t.

The fact of the matter is that if you are doing anything involving riding an elephant, watching them perform or do anything other than simply being with them, then it will be doing them harm.

Another problem with this is that a slightly murky grey area has emerged in the sense that whilst most of the camps that offer exploitative activities like this are simply out for profit and care little if anything about the elephants welfare, there are some that are actually genuinely trying to care for the animals but either through lack of awareness or a lack of education, get it wrong as they try to earn a living and make money.

Some businesses genuinely try to look after the elephants and do so to an extent, certainly more so than others, but still offer harmful elephant treks or other activities because that is what they have always done. This is where so much confusion comes in for tourists and travellers, who see animals that are to the untrained eye well looked after. They may not be subjected to bull hooks, and the elephants may be well fed and washed and seem happy, but they are still fundamentally mistreated in a variety of other ways.

This is why you hear of sanctuaries, rehab centres or conservation camps that still offer elephant trekking or still chain the elephants up when they aren’t ‘entertaining’ the tourists.

Whilst many businesses and tours that offer elephant treks are simply profit driven, there is hope that some of them at the very least can change their ways and still earn a living within the tourism industry but drop the activities that harm the elephants in their care. In many ways it is these businesses that with a little education, training and support can make a change to truly look after the elephants in their care.

One of the biggest arguments coming from the traditional wildlife tourism industry who are often against boycotting elephant treks in Thailand, is the paradigm that a boycott would lead to money and livelihoods being taken away from traditional communities who rely on their elephants as a source of income, leading to a host of other social and economic problems.

This simply isn’t the case.

My argument against that is that by operating in an ethical and responsible way they can still earn a living – perhaps even a better one – from the tourists and travellers who do want to see and interact with elephants, but truly want the option to do so in a way that will help and care for them. It is all about raising awareness, education and retraining the current ideology where elephants are seen as a means to earn money, and profit is more important than the animal’s welfare.

Unfortunately doing the right, ethical thing simply isn’t enough in many people’s eyes. They need to be shown doing the right thing can benefit them too.

Local communities can still earn a living – and the tourism industry still make a profit – by looking after their elephants and offering experiences to travellers that put an emphasis on caring for the elephants and treating them ethically and responsibly.  Harmful elephant treks and exploitative shows are not the only way to make a living from the elephant tourism sector.

Established travel and gap year companies like Intrepid or STA travel, and popular ethical elephant sanctuaries like the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai are already proving that moving toward an ethical, sustainable and responsible business model is not only just as profitable, but in the long term may prove to be even more so. By dropping the activities and tours that give travellers the chance to go on an elephant trek, and instead offering activities that are more ethically responsible, companies like this are leading the way in responsible tourism but still maintaining their core ethos of making money. It is all about increasing awareness and giving people an ethical choice. That way if those involved in the traditional elephant trekking industry in Thailand can see that it is not just in the elephants best interests to look after and care for them in a responsible way, but their own as well, then we may finally start to see some real change.

The choice is yours.

Many of the travellers and tourists who take part in elephant trekking activities aren’t aware of the damage they are doing when they support the industries that exploit and abuse elephants for profit, but as long as tourists keep supplying the industry with profit, the industry has no incentive to change.

But you can make a difference. You can make that change.

You can choose to not support the industry by not going on an elephant trek or not visiting any business that offers trekking with elephants as part of their activities. You can choose to instead support the parts of the industry that are getting it right, give your custom and support to the businesses that allow the elephants to live their lives in relative peace and comfort,  go to the camps, parks and sanctuaries that allow you to observe the elephants and assist with their upkeep and care, avoid the businesses that charge you for riding the elephants or force them to perform. Choose to support the ones that are genuinely caring for the animals and have their welfare at heart and starve the abusive and exploitative parts of the industry of profit.

I urge you, now that you know the facts behind the elephant tourism industry, do some more research, read up on it, there is so much information out there now. Increase your own awareness and spread the word. Change your own practices and urge others to do the same.

If everyone did that, then maybe one day soon abusive and exploitative elephant activities will no longer be part of any tourist itinerary.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

*Important note: This post was in no way sponsored by the Elephant Nature Park, and no incentives at all were given to mention it. I mentioned it simply as an example of a great facility that is getting it right when it comes to wildlife tourism. 

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Wildlife Tourism On Your Gap Year, The RIGHT Way.

Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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Posted in Responsible Travel
96 comments on “The Elephant In The Room: Why You Shouldn’t Go On An Elephant Trek In Thailand.
  1. JeanBean says:

    We choose not to go for an elephant trek. It shocked a lot of other Australians that I spoke to. They just didn’t believe us.

  2. I am going to Thailand for the first time this October and I am definitely not going on an elephant trek! It makes me really sad to see what people will do in the name of profit. I have seen horses abuse on some treks in Colombia. What also makes me sad is the ignorance that the tourist show. How difficult is to understand what kind of abuse it is for the animals? We just simply have to imagine what it would be like for ourselves to carry around such a heave load on our backs for the whole day. But you know what they say. Ignorance is bliss. Thank you for bringing it to light!

    • That’s just it though, it seems absolutely black and white once you are aware of the facts, but many tourists and travellers aren’t aware of the facts at all or they are misinformed by the greenwashing many companies use. So many people think they aren’t doing any harm by riding an elephant, taking a selfie with a tiger, manhandling baby sea turtles en masse or any number of the wildlife tourism options that are out there. Some even think they are actually helping or doing good! It is such a labyrinth of obfuscation, half truths and ignorance. I totally agree though that it is shocking what people will do in the name of profit or having a good time on their trip.

  3. I think, Michael, sometimes we need to do these things before we realize that it didn’t feel right. I had the same experience visiting the Karen tribe in Northern Thailand. I thought I was going to see an authentic tribe, but instead I found a village of Burmese refugees that was treated like a human zoo. We can’t change that we took the trip/rode the elephant, but when we learn how it works, we can share this knowledge with other travelers like you’re doing now. Thanks for a great post on an important subject!

    • I do agree with you, especially in the absence of mass information and awareness our own moral compass after experiencing something is all we can go on. Hopefully the more everyone spreads the word and raises awareness then the less future travellers will have to rely on that first hand experience to know how wrong it is.

    • Elena says:

      You are so right here! I´ve done some touristic things that I´m not proud of in my early years of travelling. But I didn´t know and I was young and excited…I´m not saying it is an excuse but we learn slowly slowly and the first step is to see it personally and then you know and spread the word to your friends and other travellers..

      • Exactly Elena, more and more people are waking up to the fact now that what used to be considered acceptable years ago shouldn’t be now. It takes time to make that change, but it is happening! Thank you for the comment.

  4. Until I read about it, I was an “ignorant tourist”. I’m happy now that I haven’t been to Thailand, yet. When I do go there (next year, fingers crossed!), I will be going to ENP to volunteer for a week. I will continue to raise my voice on this issue, and educate everyone I know about it. The elephants (and tigers, speaking of Thailand) need our voice and I will gladly be that voice.

    • I think everyone is at first, that’s why it is so important we do all raise our voices. The more awareness is out there, the more people will arrive at their destination armed with the facts. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Chris says:

    I too in my younger days have ridden an elephant but like you I too have learnt a lot more and would never ride an elephant again. Great post.

    • Thank you, I think there are a lot of us in the same boat Chris. At least awareness is being raised to the level were so many people are starting to question the activity now. Thank you for the comment.🙂

  6. bcre8v2 says:

    Thanks for raising some important issues, Michael. Definitely sharing.

  7. Thanks for bringing this and similar issues to light, Michael. I’m trying to be as informed as I can on these kinds of things, which is tricky because the wells are so, so deep. Would love to see more articles like this; you’re such a great voice for ethical travel.🙂

  8. Candida says:

    Hi! I’m just back from an incredible week from elephant nature park! And I love your article, definitely going to share it! I’m guilty myself for trekking on these wonderful animals. I didn’t expect the sheer brutality that elephants face until I spent a week in ENP. Education and awareness is very necessary! Thank you for this article🙂

  9. TheBohoChica says:

    I’m ashamed to say that I have gone on one of these in Thailand. At the time, I was not aware of how wrong it was. I realize now how terrible it is and to be honest, you can see that the elephants look stressed and tired.
    Although I can’t undo what I did in the past, I try my best to educate other travelers who ask for my advice on these tours. I think this is a great article which explores the subject in detail and I will be definitely sharing it with my readers.

  10. elsmahieu says:

    Thanks for the article! About time people stopped seeing animals as entertainment services!! A lot of people say: “I didn’t know that….”. There’s a difference between “not knowing” and “never have given it a thought!”

  11. Claudia says:

    I have never even considered an elephant trek. Never will. For the same reason I never enjoyed the circus. Seeing animals exploited is not fun. It is depressing. I will do whatever I can to stop this. First thing though – share it on my page.

  12. Chris says:

    I was trying to explain exactly this to some friends who are planning on going on a trip to Thailand soon. I am going to send a link to this post to them next time.

    Another thing I hate to see are the people who take a picture of themselves posing with a tiger. Its sad that a majestic beast has been reduced to such a (I imagine)drugged up state and people still want to take photos with it.

  13. Anne Klien says:

    Ive read so much about people being guilty of doing elephant trekking trail, whats the difference of the horse racing that is televise live on TV ( they used whip to the horse- its kind of abuse to isnt it )but it seems that this is acceptable. And same thing in the Zoo, animals should be in the wilderness.
    Animal cruelty is everywhere, being aware is a very important matter, but doing something to stop animal cruelty/abuse it makes a big difference.

    • Well it’s not so much that they are ‘guilty’ Anne, more uninformed and unaware. And yes there are a vast range of animal and wildlife abuses and exploitations, and I wish I could wave a magic wand and stop it all but I can’t. That is why we all have to take one fight at a time and raise awareness where we can.🙂

  14. Charlie says:

    Thanks for posting this article, Michael. I really loved the title, very engaging. I agree with everything you’ve written and certainly lack of awareness, education and misidentification is a big problem. I’ve recently spoken to another travel blogger who “knows elephant riding is wrong,” but believes that because he rode an elephant in what was presented as an “ethical elephant sanctuary” that it was okay.

    It saddens me that people still want to ride, clamber, touch and trek with these beautiful creatures rather than enjoy their magnificence as they go about their lives, or even in the wild for those fortunate enough to afford it.

    Good work and an informative read, as always.

    • Thanks Charlie, it really saddens me to hear that as it just shows that as much as awarenes has improved over the years, there is still a long way to go yet. I agree too that misidentification and greenwashing are huge parts of the problem. Not all ‘sanctuaries’ are truly ethical.

  15. donoghuemc says:

    Thanks for this article – I’ve had an elephant ride on my bucket list for the longest time; but you don’t realize how unethical it really can be. Thankyou for bringing our attention to this issue – it’s something which I’ll be sharing amongst my friends to hep raise awareness.

    • I’m glad to be of service.🙂 There are still many ways you can see and interact with elephants in an ethical way so you don’t have to completely take it off your bucket list, just amend the riding on them part and do your research to make sure you support a responsible organisation.

  16. brmsimmons says:

    I definitely understand the desire to interact with animals but it is extremely important to make sure the animal’s welfare comes first.

  17. Sarah says:

    Heartbreaking. Thanks for the education. I didn’t know much about this.

  18. I think it’s great you post an article like this. I’ve been reading a lot about this subject for the past few months. Unfortunately a lot of people still don’t know about this, so educating people with a post like this is an excellent idea. I hope everyone will spread the word and leave these gorgeous animals to their natural habits.

  19. revati says:

    As an Indian who has seen a lot of this in my own country as well as in Thailand, let me add my two pence. I don’t think this is an issue that has to do with Elephant Trekking so to speak. I think the mistreating of animals when they are abused for tourists and audiences is the issue. I know someone who has spent a considerable part of his life tracking and studying Elephants. They can withstand having someone ride them. There’s absolutely no harm when someone like a mahout knows just how to handle the body of an elephant rides one. Elephants used to be the carriages of kings and queens for centuries. They’re hardly, just not when hit, confined, drugged and tortured to ensure they “perform” for the audiences. That’s wrong on far too many levels. So I would say do your research, and find an Elephant Camp where you get to take care of these gentle giants and not the other way around. That’s what we did.

    • This issue is very much about elephant trekking but I do agree there are wider issues as well. And I’m afraid that there is a lot of scientific evidence that would prove you wrong on their ability to have someone ride them without harm. Just because they were historically beasts of burden for royalty, doesn’t make it right in this day and age.

  20. Karen Warren says:

    I must confess that I went on an elephant trek in Thailand a few years ago – it never occurred to me that there was any problem with it. But I wouldn’t do it now.

  21. Christina says:

    I had an elephant ride too in Laos and one in India but I don´t want to do it again. Recently I saw a documentary about how elephants are treated and it made me sad.
    Thanks for sharing this article. Hopefully many people will read your article and put an elephant ride, whether in Thailand, Laos, India or somewhere else off of their bucket list.

  22. Jameela Deen says:

    I didn’t know the facts but all kinds of animal show have always made me feel bad for them, that even includes some zoos. Animal are meant to live, not perform and people should never forget this simple truth. It is only selfishness that drive people to zoos and elephant trekking and shark-whale shows and such… so what if you don’t see it “once in your life” you won’t suffer from it but the animals will if you go. As for the educational excuse… my answer is: do you really need to know about everything? plus the educational part of such activities usually don’t go farther than taking a picture.
    Anyway more could be said on the subject, thank you for this post, i’ll be sharing it… hope it reaches more and more people to make this stop.

    • To be fair there are some zoos that do a lot of good work, but I know what you mean. I think the educational aspects are really important too, as the more people know the more aware of the issues they will be, but I totally agree that they should never be used as an excuse for exploiting animals. Thanks for sharing and for commenting🙂

  23. Elaine says:

    This is so informative Mike, I had no idea on many of the points you made. I haven’t done an elephant trek before as I was worried about how the elephants were treated, purely because they looked so sad and dejected. I was in Ayutthaya a few weeks ago and elephant rides were a staple around the temples and at the floating garden. It’s so sad to see beautiful animals treated in this way.

  24. marghenick says:

    This is an issue I have researched extensively while writing my article about temple elephants in India and let me tell you Mike, you’re spot on. I totally agree with you. This should become a must read for every wannabe Asia traveler.

  25. Veronika says:

    Quite a lengthy post, but about such an important topic that it’s worth to read to the last sentence. It’s a pity the animals can’t convey the way they are treated in.. I also rode an elephant once, in Cambodia.. the elephant looked reasonably satisfied and enjoyed some bananas they I got for him afterwards. Of course since that time the awareness has been raised in me as well and I wouldn’t do it again for sure. I’d love to see elephants in one of the real sanctuaries, those totally need to be supported..!
    Thanks for this educative post, it’s important that people learn what elephant trekking encompasses and can make better decisions!

  26. alliblair says:

    Thanks, Mike for this info. I was just wondering if you have extended your research into neighbouring countries such as Laos? I did a trek there and then had the opportunity to purchase food for her and interact with my beautiful elephant. It just breaks my heart because I did ride her for a little bit, and though she did look to be in really good condition and treated well by the handler, you just really cannot be sure. And it makes me so sad, because that was one of my favourite days of my whole trip to SE Asia.

    • Unfortunately Alli the facts are the same regardless of what country it is in. I chose to concentrate on Thailand for this article specifically because it is such a popular destination for first time backpackers and the elephant trekking industry is so huge there, but the fact is the article can be applied to any country where they run elephant trekking activities, from Bali to Africa and all across South East Asia. There is so much confusion amongst travellers – and understandably so – who feed and wash elephants that seem to be to all appearances well cared for and loved, but then still ride them and support businesses that do exploit them. I completely understand how you feel, it truly breaks my heart to know that I rode an elephant and contributed to her harm, even though at the time I thought I was helping her or showing her affection. It isn’t about blame or guilt though (even though I know I will never truly get rid of my own, at least from my perspective), it is about using the knowledge we have now to make a change, to make a difference. It is about what we do from now on to change not only our own practices, but to raise awareness as much as possible so others can make the right – fully informed – decisions too.

  27. I had my first elephant experiences in Cambodia since I was living there. I didn’t do the research before but chose not to go on an elephant trek and opted for a regular jungle trek on my own two feet for price alone. On my trek, I got to see some of the elephants that others were riding and I was heartbroken at how sad they looked. I did a lot of research and found one legitimate rehabilitation program in Mondulkiri but that was it. I appreciate you bringing awareness to the situation and I encourage everyone that I meet now, when they talk about it, to research their organization before they participate. I try not to be the traveler that ‘poo poo’s’ other’s ideas, I just gently encourage them to become knowledgeable and this would be a great resource for me to refer people to.

    • I know what you mean, it isn’t about blaming other travellers for their choices at all, I’ve made bad choices myself when I haven’t been aware of the facts, it is about raising awareness to the point that people can make an informed, ethical decision before they even make that choice. Thanks for commenting.

  28. Interesting article but nowhere near close to answering THE most important question. Let’s assume all Elephant-related-businesses are closed down for good in Thailand: What will happen to the Elephants? Would they be left off to the wild in an environment they are not used to (remember that these elephants were born in captivity, not captured)? Would NGO’s take care of them until they die of natural causes? Where will the money come from? What will happen to the thousands of Thais that will loose their livelihood? So many questions and 0 answers.

    It’s very easy to write and denounce things behind a computer without taking actions to actually provide a better life for the Elephants and to bring a coherent solution (no, banning elephant rides or boycotting Thailand is not a coherent solution).

    • If you had read the article Raphael as well as done some extra research on it I think you would have found the questions you posed are readily and robustly answered.

      Of course those elephants who have been abused and exploited would not be left to run wild, they would be left to their own devices in a managed park and looked after to varying degrees dependent on their individual needs, such as in the ENP. Some may require more looking after than others, some may even be able to be fully rehabilitated into the wild.

      And not every elephant was born in captivity, there is a LOT of evidence -if you did any reading on the subject – that shows that there is a huge illegal trade – alongside poaching – in snatching young elephants from the wild.

      And again, as the article mentioned, the money can come from truly ethical wildlife tourism. There is a huge opportunity for real profit that can be used to a ) pay for and support the care and protection of wildlife, b ) used to pay for the upkeep of facilities and grounds as well as buying protected land for the wildlife and c ) provide a good livelihood for the Thai’s (and anyone else) who rely on the tourism sector and the wildlife tourism industry but aren’t currently using ethical or responsible practices. There are many examples, just like the ENP in Chiang Mai that are proving that top be true. They are still far from the norm, but there is no reason why others can’t follow suit. In fact as the mood of the industry shifts, I think eventually those ‘thousands of Thai’s’ as you say who rely on exploiting elephants for the tourism industry will lose out as the money – and the profit – starts to swing to more responsible operators.

      To paraphrase yourself, so many questions, but PLENTY of answers.

      Boycotting unethical and irresponsible wildlife tourism IS a coherent solution when it is backed up by scientific and academic fact and research and genuine alternatives for all parties involved.

      I suggest Raphael you read heavily around the issues involved. If after that you still choose to support the unethical practices alongside the mass package tourists just so you can get a nice selfie on an elephant or a cheesy go pro pic with a tiger, then that is wholly down to your own moral judgement. But you will be part of the problem, not part of the solution that you seem to think can’t come from raising awareness.

  29. Thank you so much for raising concern on this topic. We worked and lived at Elephant Nature Park for 6 months and we also did under cover work at other camps as well. The fact is that people just have no idea what their money is going towards. The cruelty and injustice they are causing. We need to raise concern towards this topic and educate more people on it.

    Thank you.

  30. Mary says:

    Excellent, well-written and informative post on the truth behind elephant treks. Thank you for sharing this information as well as being honest about your own experience. We have also done things in the past, before we started our site, that we feel terrible about e.g. Dolphin Encounters. Now, we know to ask the tough questions before engaging with any tour or activity involving animals, We’re huge fans of the work going on at the Elephant Nature Park and believe that the programs they offer are better for both the elephants and the tourists.

    • Thank you so much Mary, I’m glad you liked it. I know exactly what you mean about being better for the elephants and the tourists. There are ways to run wildlife tourism activities were everyone benefits, most importantly the animals. It’s just a matter of awareness and education. Thank you for the comment.

  31. Melissa says:

    I think within the travel blogging community, this is becoming more well known. I find it completely disheartening when I see travel bloggers promoting posts of theirs where they did one of these treks. And I’m talking posts from years ago and they’re tweeting about it now.
    I just wanted to put that out there. Thanks for writing this.

    • I know what you mean Melissa, I think within the backpacker community – especially those of us who have been travelling for a while – awareness is definitely increasing, but there are still a vast number of tourists and independent travellers who simply aren’t aware of the issues. Thanks for the comment.

  32. John says:

    Excellent article. Have you thought of doing a smaller piece on the Elephant Nature Park? When we visit next year we will try to visit

    • Maybe at some point.🙂 And you definitely should visit. If you Google Diana Edelman of D Travels Round she has volunteered there and is a huge advocate for the place too, she has many great articles covering the park and elephant tourism in general.

  33. seriouslytravel says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said in your article. But I’m on the fence too about supporting the small tour guides. I think that if I stick to my convictions and don’t use their services then I’m not promoting the abuse of the animals. On the other hand if they don’t have enough people who participate then what happens to those elephants? I’m sure that their care givers aren’t going to feed and care for them at all and they can’t be put back in the wild, they’re too acclimated to human life. I don’t believe in captured, and caged animals for human entertainment at all, they should be admired in their natural habitats. But what does that mean for the ones who are already in captivity?

    Thanks for the great article and for helping spread awareness!

    • There are some elephants who are so acclimatised to humans or so injured that they can’t be returned to the wild I totally agree, but what they can do is be homed in true sanctuaries and left to their own devices – or cared for in a tiered system that gives them the care they need but promotes as much independence as possible – within a protected environment the way some NGOs and rehabilitation centres are starting to do. And those so called ‘care givers’ who wouldn’t feed or care for them if there is no profit in it shouldn’t have them anyway, they should be taken off them and homed in the correct facility where staff will take care of them. Continuing to support the abuse and exploitation of elephants because there is a chance that those who run these facilities now may abandon or harm them is not feasible or logical. Saying to these people that we will – as a collective whole – not support any organisation that promotes unethical activities, but WILL support and make profitable organisations that treat elephants ethically and responsibly, gives them a choice. It gives them the straightforward, black and white choice of which is more profitable, and which is not. Caring for the elephants in an ethical way is increasingly profitable as orgs such as the ENP are proving, and consumers are turning away from the parts of the industry that stick to unethical practices.

      Looking after and caring for elephants in an ethical and responsible way is obviously better for the elephants themselves, but it can be good for travellers and the travel industry and profitable for those who choose to use responsible methods too. Doing the right thing really is a win win all round. Thanks for commenting.🙂

      • You’re knowledge and passion for these elephants is inspiring. I never advocate captivity of wild animals but understand in certain circumstances it’s the only choice they have at any life at all.
        I will be going to Phuket next week and wanted to visit the “sanctuary” they have there but after your information I think I’ll pass. In my own way I feel by not paying to interact with them then I’m making some sort of difference. I’d like to believe, anyway…

      • Thank you so much. Captivity is sometimes relative, as you say sometimes it is essential to ensure care and survival, but it is HOW the animals are captive that makes the difference. For example are the animals in a vast, open sanctuary with limited tourist contact or are they chained up in unsuitable conditions and exploited for tourist pleasure? Two very different ends of the spectrum. And I think you are absolutely right, not supporting any exploitative business (whether that is elephant trekking or the tiger temple or ANYTHING that explouts animals) and not giving them money makes a HUGE difference. The more people do that, the less profitable it will be for those who exploit wildlife, and that is what will make the difference in the end. Thanks so much for commenting.🙂

  34. Thank you for this important post. As travellers we do have a responsibility to know what we are participating in. I learned a lot by reading this and will help spread the word and I will never ever ride an elephant.

  35. Paper Boats says:

    Michael, thanks for sharing this! Animals are routinely abused for the profits of unethical tourism. I’m from India and have travelled to many of its neighbouring countries to find similar irresponsible practices in use there.
    I’m glad you’re alerting many travellers who’re inadvertently complicit in the system. Will help spread the message. And love the work you do🙂

  36. Skye says:

    I had no idea! Stumbled this to help more people interested in travel see it and become informed.

  37. Lily Lau says:

    I’m so glad I keep reading this topic more and more in popular blogs, like yours! It’s so important that we learn how to treat our animal brothers and sisters, that we stop feeling like God ruling their fate and lives! Thanks, for real🙂

  38. Joe Louis says:

    I think it is great that you are promoting responsible tourism. It is especially important with regards to animal activities in Southeast Asia. Keep up the good work!

  39. Jon says:

    Hey Mike, I did an elephant trek a few years ago in Laos – Ban Khiet Ngong (which is actually recommended by Travelfish). It’s basically an “elephant village” (most families in the village had an elephant and they rotated which ones were used on any given day), where the animals obviously used to be used for logging etc. Things like this have a great impact on the environment and the local communities, and since the animals were already broken I guess the main concern is the damage it does while carrying people. Is there definitive research on this? The elephants at this place are rotated pretty regularly and didn’t seem overburdened, but is it a black and white, all riding is bad type of situation? I have also noticed you say good things about Singapore zoo in the past, yet they actually do short elephant rides as well. Are they doing something different on these rides which make them OK?

    • Hi Jon, yes there is definitive research of the harm done from veterinarians, elephant experts (both practical and academic), you name it. I would say yes, it is a black and white situation. In many cases a lot of damage is already done I agree, elephants are already ‘broken’ as you say, but does that give anyone the right to compound that harm and damage by continuing the abuse in the name of entertainment or profit? Surely when there are better – less invasive (for lack of a better word) – options available (and proven to be at the very least as profitable) we should take them?

      As I stated there are a few great parks in Thailand and across the region, and many, many bad ones who put profit above the animals welfare, but many are somewhere in between. Many of those do have the animals welfare at heart but aren’t quite ‘getting it right’ when it comes to best practices (It sounds like this Ban Khiet Ngong is in that category if they still offer rides, I can’t say with any authority though because I have never been there). Education is paramount here to show the numerous villages and local communities across Thailand that they can take care of their elephants and improve their welfare even more than they are already by not allowing bad practices like rides, but still make a profit from tourists.

      As for Singapore zoo, it is a great zoo, it has pushed boundaries with enclosures and does a lot of work for conservation efforts of numerous species. In that regard it is one of the best zoos in the world. However it is not perfect, and has crossed the line between animal welfare and tourism/business when it comes to the shows. This is a huge, huge shame and this is something I have written about in the past too. Animal rides, animal shows, are wrong, and they shouldn’t be doing it.

      As I said, practices that were normal in the past, such as animal rides and animal shows, are increasingly being proven to be bad practice both ethically and from a business perspective too as more and more tourists and travellers become aware of the issues) and I think there will be a point in the future where wildlife tourism can be a wholly positive force in animal welfare and conservation. It isn’t there yet by a long shot, but that is why increasing awareness with discussions such as these is so important.

  40. went to a danctuary run by a woman called ‘Lek’ in Chiang mai & learned about the training methods.

    Defo glad I went there but the sad thing is that too many tourists don’t care.

  41. Thanks for sharing! Insightful!

  42. Cheryl Weaver says:

    A brilliant and informative article. I had no idea what these beautiful creatures went through Thankfully you have opened my eyes to their torment before I’ve made a trip to Thailand and will under no circumstances partake in a trip where elephant trekking or shows are on offer.

    • Thanks Cheryl, neither did I when I first started travelling. I’m glad to have been of assistance and I really hope you have a great trip! There are ways to see elephants ethically, you just have to do your research.🙂

  43. Soon to be in Thailand says:

    I felt very sad reading your post mainly because elephants need their families. I don’t know the facts about riding the elephants but I was looking at Thailand tours and those sharp sticks I saw would not be something I would agree was OK I also didn’t like the look of the seats either, they looked heavy and I felt sorry for the elephant I saw in the video. Personally I think if a place cares for elephants they would be in family units no?

    • That is certainly a part of it yes, read my post called ‘Why you shouldn’t ride elephants in Thailand’ and it will tell you all the facts about those sticks, the seats and the numerous problems they cause, as well as the training method known as the crush. It’s heartbreaking.

  44. Jessica says:

    Excellent post, thank you so much. It is really heartbreaking what these poor animals have gone through just for tourists pleasure and it is nice to see people like yourself speaking out against it. Keep up the good work.

  45. Jo Herbert says:

    Oh my god, this is horrific I had no idea. I was really hoping to ride elephants on my trip to Thailand in a few months, I’m so glad now I read this in time.

  46. Alison says:

    This is such an important message and you are doing an amazing job at raising awareness.

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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