So Travellers Have Stopped Riding Elephants, What Happens Next?

Elephant trekking, elephant riding, irresponsible tourism

Elephant trekking, elephant riding and other forms of exploitative elephant tourism is now rightly considered unethical and irresponsible. But what effect have a decade of boycotts and change had on the travel industry and what comes next for elephant tourism?

Almost a decade ago now I wrote about how travellers should stop riding elephants in a post that went – for me at the time – pretty viral. And it had an effect. A big one.

At the time elephant riding or elephant trekking was seen as a normal thing to do. It was still touted as a huge bucket list item for travellers and sold as packages by the gap year industry. Every hostel and tour agency in south east Asia seemed to have elephant trekking tours for sale and backpackers from all over the world gleefully signed up for them, eager to get an up close encounter with the animals they loved and for the most part still unaware of the harm they were doing.

This was still a time where travel blogging was relatively new. Facebook was still relevant and there was barely a fraction of the research and evidence on elephant abuse back then that has been published over the last ten years.

But then something magical happened. More and more travellers started talking about the issue, more travel bloggers began writing about it and my own campaign to end elephant riding as well as wildlife abuse in the tourism industry in general got traction. And it worked. The message went mainstream.

The growing platforms of social media provided a whole new form of activism that hit the elephant riding industry, especially in Thailand, like a ton of bricks. The message was loud and clear, it was time to end elephant riding in the tourism industry for good, and any operator that sold or advertised elephant trekking packages were hauled over the coals of public perception on social media and boycotted.

The Right Thing To Do.

At the time this was absolutely the right thing to do. It worked. It caused a huge paradigm shift not just amongst travellers themselves who now began to see elephant trekking, and to a wider extent the exploitation of any wildlife for tourism purposes as wrong, but amongst the mainstream media and more importantly, the travel industry itself.

The small amount of research that had been conducted prior to 2013 – and there really wasn’t much that was easily accessible – was finally taken more seriously and expanded on exponentially. An influential report from World Animal Protection was released in 2017 based on research from 2014 to 2016, stating that more than three quarters of nearly three thousand elephants used in tourist entertainment in Asia were being abused and kept in severely cruel conditions.

In 2016 and 2017 large tour operators like the unfortunately now defunct STA TravelTUI GroupG Adventures, and Intrepid Travel all denounced elephant trekking as a result of the increased media scrutiny and public demand, eliminating trekking and elephant shows from their itineraries, and ABTA released a set of industry wide guidelines around elephants in tourism. Make no mistake, they did this because they had to. Elephant tourism is big business, no one wanted out of it but they couldn’t refuse to take action with the absolute weight of public perception. It was a sea change, and over the course of the next few years the elephant tourism industry struggled to keep up in the face of changing public perception. Thankfully for tourism operators themselves, the rise of ethical conservation camps even showed that not only was responsible elephant tourism possible, it was even more profitable when done right. Unfortunately at around that same time a former partner of Bemused Backpacker, Care For The Wild International was swallowed up by Born Free and was disbanded, so the excellent RIGHT Tourism campaign came to an end, but by this time the message was out there. Those who were fighting to end cruel elephant tourism practices had arguably won. Riding elephants was now widely considered to be wrong and something that should be boycotted by travellers everywhere.

elephant trekking elephant riding irresponsible tourism

Boycotting Elephant Trekking.

This sea change in attitude was probably one of the finest examples of social media activism working for something good for a change, and I don’t think it could have been achieved just a decade earlier. Did the call for a boycott stop the abuse and exploitation of elephants in the tourism industry completely? Of course not! It could never do that on its own. Elephant tourism is not going away completely, tourist numbers continue to rise and humans and wildlife are practically living on top of each other, so in effect there needs to be at least some level of tourism to protect the semi wild and captive elephant populations who could not survive in the wild. There is nothing wrong with elephant tourism in and of itself, when it it done right, but the big problem is that there are still far too many tourism operators out there even now that offer elephant treks and far too many that offer a wide variety of tourist elephant encounters with unethical and unprofessional practices.

What the call for boycotts actually did was change a huge chunk of the industry, not all of it, but enough to make an initial difference, and it did change hearts and minds. It did make people stop, think and question whether how they were interacting with elephants was right or not, and by that measure the calls for boycotts and the changes to the industry were a resounding success.

A Swing Too Far?

Now of course every major tourism industry operator is quick to point to their squeaky clean policy on elephant trekking, those few that do still publish a tour or trek promoting elephant rides are denounced and mobbed on social media, and tourists who participate often receive the same treatment. The fact that the perception of the issue has changed so much in such a short period of time is astounding.

Protecting elephants has always been the priority, but now as the elephant tourism industry is suffering – and by extension the elephants themselves – the questions have to be asked if this is still the right path to take? After a decade have these boycotts now gone too far? As the world and the industry has changed, is it time for a different approach?

Some would argue that boycotting any facility, camp or sanctuary that offers riding elephants can never go too far, and as an animal lover I do have a certain sympathy with that, but I would counter that with now so much ground has been gained and the majority of the public understand that ethical, responsible wildlife tourism is preferable to elephant trekking, a more nuanced, logical look at all the issues involved is needed. Yes, we can say this particular aspect is wrong and should never be participated in, but does that mean all elephant tourism is wrong? How do we stop this one activity, and any number of other unethical practices, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Quite frankly elephant tourism is going nowhere. Unfortunately unethical wildlife tourism practices still exist despite how much has changed, and evidence of the negative effects of boycotts is emerging, So how do we move forward? We have the industry on the ropes, but we can’t keep them there by hugging them, we need to let them back into the ring and position them exactly where we want them with strategic retreats and jabs because it is not a black and white issue. There is still so much grey to wade through before we can reach a perfect balance of animal welfare, conservation and tourism.

And I do still believe we can reach that balance. Not overnight, but it can be done. The key to achieving this however is the ability to take a more holistic look at all the issues. Given that elephant tourism is still big business and positive elephant tourism with ethical practices is a good thing, we need a deeper understanding and a wider strategy around the complexities of elephants in tourism, including the dependence on elephants for the livelihoods of the communities that live with them, the private ownership and cultural attitudes towards animals as well as the complexities of different legal frameworks around the world.

Moving Toward A Positive Model Of Elephant Tourism.

The simple fact remains that the Asian elephant is still an endangered species and the wild population is falling all the time. The vast swathes of protected rainforest where they used to roam just does not exist any more thanks to deforestation and industries like agriculture and palm oil, so wild elephants have less and less space to thrive and human/animal conflict is getting worse.

So given that almost a third of all Asian elephants live in captivity, where are they going to go exactly? The ‘all elephants should never be captive‘ argument is and always has been a non starter because of this, quite apart from the fact most would never be able to survive in the wild anyway.

Remote viewing as elephants roam free is an ideal model, and in the many places that implement that policy already it works fantastically well, but that cannot logistically or logically work for every facility or every herd.

Where is the land going to come from that will allow them to roam free and elephant tourism to be 100% remote view only? Who will protect that wild or semi wild population from poachers or industry? Who will care for the herds or lone elephants who cannot survive in the wild or have health care needs? The answer really is tourism. Positive, ethical tourism, but tourism nonetheless. The key, now that boycotts have swung the pendulum away from exploitation and abuse, is to use other methods to ensure high standards of care and welfare.

The fact is elephant conservation is reliant on elephant tourism, and because of this a strong hybrid model is needed. One that protects the wild population of elephants, cares for the semi wild population, has stringent welfare and management standards for the captive population, and finally gives the local population the finances, resources and motivation to keep all of this in place. Communities need to have a stake in protecting both the animals and their environment. If that stake is taken away the effects can be devastating.

Boycotts have had a great impact in raising awareness of elephant abuse, but in all this time no one has stopped to ask the effect this has had on the communities that live with and around the elephants. Again I agree completely with the fact that the elephants welfare is the top priority, but that welfare is dependent on local communities as much as anything else, and ignoring that has had a huge, detrimental effect.

Many elephant camps and tour operators have seen their incomes severely debilitated over the last decade because of the boycotts, and in many ways that is a good thing. No truly bad elephant camp or sanctuary deserves to be allowed to continue operating, and it quite literally forced many elephant camps and operators to change their practices whether they wanted to or not, relatively overnight. The problem was that not all of those camps who actually want to change had – or in some cases still have – the means, education or training to do so.

This led to best practice guidelines being adopted in a spotty way at best, with a few elephant tourism operators moving to a fully observation only model but certainly not the majority, and the default reaction to anything less than full compliance with perceived best practice became instant boycott.

For the majority of the tour operators and camps that sat somewhere in the middle of the two extremes of full compliance with best practice and abusive hell hole, this meant a severe lack of income for these camps which led to less money coming in, budget cuts, job losses and ultimately less money in the community, because quite often whole villages were largely dependent on tourism. Secondary industries such as agriculture which often provided fresh food for the elephants were impacted too as the lack of income had a knock on effect to local farmers and villages communities. The end result of this of course is that ultimately the local community can’t afford to feed, care for or keep the elephants themselves.

So if local communities don’t have the money to care for the elephants, their welfare will suffer. If these communities cant rely on the tourism industry the elephants risk being left to fend for themselves which they cannot do, sold off completely or used for other industries such as logging where tourist decisions will have no impact at all.

Wildlife tourism is quite frankly dependent on the money from tourists and travellers. Without tourism, there is no conservation or animal welfare efforts. It is that simple. Local communities can care for and look after captive elephants with the support of a secure tourist income, or they will find other ways to survive.

This is why the hybrid model is so important.

So yes, boycotts have had their intended effect of forcing change and raising awareness, they removed tourist income from the worst of the worst, but they also became a hammer to solve a multitude of delicate issues and because of that they cannot continue indefinitely. Not for every facility.

Stuck In The Middle.

There are still many camps out there that are trying to do the right thing by not offering elephant rides, but aren’t quite getting it right. There are camps that have stopped offering them but are getting other things wrong in different ways by putting tourist needs above that of the elephants, and many more that are still offering rides because they don’t have the knowledge or means to do otherwise. They will always find some tourists willing to part with their money to get their own selfish experience regardless of the harm it does.

So what do we do with those stuck in the middle? Do we as travellers and tourists continue to hammer them all with boycotts? Or do we shape policy and behaviour in different ways? With incentives? With money?

Education is still key here, not just for the local communities involved in elephant tourism but for the travellers visiting them too. Travellers need to know the right questions to ask any wildlife tour operator and understand what the five freedoms are. They need to know exactly how to cut through the greenwashing and see exactly what is happening, and they need to look beyond the surface of their own experience.

The black and white paradigm of ethical conservation camps and unethical elephant trekking has for too long blinded people to the fact that there is still good and bad practices on both sides of the fence. A conservation camp can still be highly unethical and captive facilities such as zoos can still be ethical and have a significant positive impact, and just because an operator has labelled themselves a ‘conservation camp’, or declares that they do not offer rides or use an ankus, that does not automatically mean they are ethical. This is a huge problem as those travellers who only have a superficial understanding of the issues but know the ‘no riding’ mantra, are more easily taken in by the vast amounts of greenwashing in the industry.

The fact is the exact same questions should be asked of any elephant tourism facility regardless of if they are offering rides or not, and all camps should be subject to professional management and welfare assessments on a regular basis. Even in so called ethical camps there could still easily be abuse or neglect of the animal, there may still be questions about where the animals where obtained, about the facilities themselves, the pay and treatment of the staff and much more. Simply making a show of not offering rides is no guarantee of ethical practice, but many are using it as a way to greenwash their facilities.

So which camps do travellers boycott? Are boycotts still the best option?

Don't ride elephants in Thailand

So Should Travellers Ride Elephants?

No, of course not.

Nothing has changed in that regard. Any elephant that allows itself to be ridden has probably been through the horrific training process known as the crush. Chains are still used to keep elephants in place. The weight of evidence that howdahs or other types of saddle cause irreparable harm to their spines and skin. The use of bullhooks is still as obviously barbaric as it ever was.

But is all elephant tourism bad? Again, no.

Maybe now is the time to ease back on boycotts of every single facility now that public awareness is at the point that it is accepted that riding elephants is abusive, unethical and wrong. I’m not saying we should support the obviously unethical practices either, but maybe there is some room for compromise in the slightly grey area that will ultimately improve welfare standards for the elephants even more.

A Better Way.

Full boycotts are now no longer the answer for the vast majority. Yes, in some cases of wildlife tourism boycotts are still needed even beyond elephants, such as the infamous Tiger Temple for example, but not in all cases at all times. It is all too easy to say if a facility offers elephant rides or elephant experiences, boycott them, but the vast majority have got the message already. Now is the time for education, training and support.

What if an elephant camp offers elephant walkalongs instead of rides, but still allows local mahouts to ride them without a saddle? That is after all a part of local mahout culture too. Should they be boycotted?

What if a camp has elephants who are genuinely and provably rescued, cannot in any way shape or form ever return to the wild and are otherwise well taken care of in terms of food and welfare, and there are continuing conservation efforts from the operator to buy an increasing amount of land to be protected for a habitat for semi wild or even wild elephants? But to pay for all that they allow tourists to bathe with elephants and wash them?

What about a facility that has recently changed over to an observation only model, but still offers an up close feeding activity from behind a barrier (which is still allowed under current guidelines)?

What if a camp has stopped giving tourists rides and advertise themselves as fully ethical, no riding and ‘view only’ (which of course is always touted as the gold standard), but now has to keep the elephants in too small an area with no exercise so tourists can ‘view’ them? How is that any different to the worse type of zoo with a badly planned enclosure?

What should be done with all the current elephants who have been rescued and are reliant on tourism for their welfare?

It’s not so black and white, is it?

There are so many facilities out there that are doing amazing work, with many that have or are moving toward an observation only model but aren’t quite there yet, and many more still that have abandoned elephant rides but still offer other types of interaction but may be struggling with implementing best practice techniques even if they want to. I am still completely and utterly dedicated to seeing those who wholly abuse and exploit elephants shut down and prosecuted, but not every facility is perfect. We cannot abandon those who are trying to do better either. This would just undermine camps that do put the elephants welfare first even if they are imperfect, and ultimately hinder the sustainability of elephant conservation in the long run.

The fact that conservationist Jane Goodall had had to step in with the Foodbank: Trunks Up campaign with Lek Chailert from Chiang Mai’s Save The Elephant Foundation to raise money for elephants who are starving without tourist money says it all. This specific campaign was started after covid19 obliterated tourist numbers completely, but highlights perfectly just how much tourism money is needed to help elephants and what happens when an industry is hit with mass boycotts.

So do travellers only help finance those facilities that are 100% view from a distance, or do they use that money to help guide and educate the remaining facilities who aren’t quite there yet or have other tourist activities to keep moving toward a more ethical experience with a focus on true welfare?

An extreme position was right when the battle was all one sided and those who cared about animal welfare faced an uphill struggle to even be heard. Now, there are too many major organisations who are still taking that extreme stance across the board, and worse still some that are only doing it as a PR stunt. This does not allow them to engage with local communities who are trying to put elephant welfare above all else but aren’t quite there.

We need to find a new way. A better way. The boycotts worked amazingly well a decade ago. Public awareness has been lifted beyond the point anyone thought it could be. There is even legislation that is at the time of writing being discussed in the UK to ban the sale of tickets from those that promote or offer unethical experiences, and in Thailand new legislation will compel owners of captive elephants to provide DNA samples to the national elephant database and to register all new elephant births to help with monitoring, as well as legislation being lobbied to change the legal classification of elephants from working animals. There have been ground breaking leaps and bounds in elephant welfare in the last decade, but all those facilities still not getting it right shows that it still isn’t enough.

It is time to find an approach that works for everyone, a way to protect and care for elephants and the communities that live alongside them at the same time. And for that, we need to accept the good that elephant tourism does and concentrate on finding that balance between sensible tourist practices whilst ensuring animal welfare is as good as it can be.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages 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.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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50 comments on “So Travellers Have Stopped Riding Elephants, What Happens Next?
  1. John says:

    Interesting points, it is definitely a complex issue and I can honestly see both sides here but I think you are right that we can’t just boycott the issue into disappearing. Great read.

  2. Emma Wells says:

    Elephants are intelligent and social creatures that require vast amounts of space to roam It is that simple. When they are kept in captivity or used for rides, performances or any other form of entertainment it can cause them to suffer from physical and psychological harm. Boycotting any facility that does this is the only answer and always should be.

    • Okay Emma, that’s great. Now what about those private owners who don’t have acres of land for them to roam in? What about those that are trying but don’t have the resources to put back into animal welfare? I agree completely that all abuse and anything that harms elephants should be stopped, but how do we do that now? What practical options do you have for supporting a large wild and then a larger semi wild population in a country that has destroyed a large portion of their natural habitat?

  3. Andrew Casey says:

    Such a fantastic article and very well written. It is rare to see any logical and full discussion on this topic now beyond the instant knee jerk response of boycott, and I agree entirely that a more nuanced approach is now needed. As travellers we can make a difference, and we did through those boycotts, but now for the elephant tourism industry that is left we need to show up and use our money and influence to guide them toward better animal welfare standards.

  4. Hayleigh says:

    As you very rightly say animal tourism in general is not going anywhere, so it really is more important than ever to make sure that where it does exist, the animals welfare is put above all other considerations. To an extent removing the source of income through a boycott is absolutely right for the worst of the worst and hopefully those who do mistreat and abuse animals will all shut down, but then if every single facility shuts down – including those that do or at least try to put animal welfare first – which is the logical end point of that, what happens then? We really do need a more open and honest conversation on this. Great post on what is a very important topic!

  5. Raya says:

    Another amazing article that has really made me think. 👏👏👏

  6. Eddie says:

    The ideal scenario would be having elephants semi-wild in large natural enclosures where they can run and play or forage for food just as they would in nature, but tourists can view them from a long distance.

    • And where is this land coming from? The personnel to stop poaching/give medical aid? Would you pay an absolute premium to do this to counter larger markets such as China are paying through the nose for unethical tourism practices?

  7. Jess says:

    What, so we should just support elephant shows and keeping them chained up now? I’m so disappointed in this.

  8. Paul says:

    A big problem is that despite the calls for boycotts and education has had a huge impact in the west, it hasn’t in other major markets like India or China, and as they travel in greater numbers the elephant trekking and shows won’t go away as they do provide an income for the elephant owners as you rightly point out, many of whom actually really need it.

  9. Ian says:

    Great post and very thought provoking. I think the big problem is the fact there are no legal frameworks for it, especially in Thailand where most of the elephant tourism is focused. It is all pretty much left up to the local owners to decide what to do and how to do it. If there was an enforced framework of welfare backed up by government support (in the form of creating land/space as much as financial aid) and then profit to be made through responsible elephant tourism then that would have a huge impact.

    • That is a very good point Ian and very true! All the activism in the world can only go so far before legislation is needed.

    • Lauren Brown says:

      Yes! Legislation is definitely needed. I know the UK government are planning to ban promotion of these treks, whether they do or not is another matter, but it is really the Thai government in particular, and China and India (as the two biggest markets for elephant tourism) that need to act.

  10. Leanne says:

    So where exactly do you draw the line at this? Should no contact be enforced rigourously or are certain activities acceptable? What is the diference?

    • That’s an excellent point Leanne, and there is no definite answer yet. My own instinct would be to start by adhering to something similar to the five freedoms that are applied to horses, camels and donkeys for eg, but tailored specifically for elephants to take into account they cannot be ridden without harm.

    • Gareth says:

      I think that would depend on the Elephants, if they are fully wild or semi wild (ie can survive with enough space and just provided with food at certain spots etc) then yes, remote viewing and no touch is applicable, but there are many camps without that space where Elephants have been rescued, are used to human contact and cannot possibly survive in the wild but their owners also don’t have the space or resources for that. So if it comes between a choice of those owners offering elephant rides to tourists who don’t care about ethics, or say offering bathing/washing activities that otherwise allows enough income to keep them unchained, cared for, fed well etc, then is that such a bad option?

  11. Craig says:

    Interesting post. This is the first time I’ve read anything other than a blanket boycott ride (and by extension all types of elephant tourism) approach. I never really thought about it beyond that.

  12. Emily says:

    I hope one day there will be a tourism industry that helps elephants and doesn’t abuse them

  13. Nick says:

    Very insightful post. I would say that common sense should prevail here, and if elephant welfare is prioritised at a conservation camp and there are no rides or chains, they roam relatively free, then activities such as feeding them from across a barrier shouldn’t be boycotted if the money they earn from that helps them survive and provide that welfare. That makes perfect sense to me. Obviously it is different if they do activities that are harmful.

  14. Lisa says:

    I went to a camp in Thailand that advertised itself as no ride, no bullhooks, but when I went (and after I paid my money) I saw they actually did offer rides but they said it was okay because there are no saddles and the Elephants were definitely chained up in between. I demanded my money back and left. It was so disappointing and definitely not right.

  15. John Burscough says:

    Another factor you didn’t mention here is time. What happens in 20 years, 30 years, 100 years, when the current elephant population is gone and the next generation are being used for tourism too? Should there be a difference between how we treat rescued Elephants now, and those born in captivity in the future?

    • Very good point John, I think there does need to be a move toward an almost complete semi wild or wild population in the future, but until then those who were born in captivity right now don’t have that luxury or wouldn’t survive. Good point about future generations though.

  16. Lauren Brown says:

    Such an excellent read, thank you for this! It’s good to see someome thinking about what happens next.

  17. Sue says:

    I have followed your site since you started pretty much, I remember reading your elephant trekking post at the time and thinking how amazing it was that someone is saying something about this. I’ve read all your wildlife welfare posts over the years too and it’s really good to see you are still carrying on with the fight all these years later! Keep up the amazing work!

  18. Kim says:

    Any sanctuary should be observation only, no touching, washing, riding, feeding, anything. just elephants being elephants. If you can touch an elephant it’s not a sanctuary.

    • And where is the land coming from for this? The money that will pay for welfare upkeep, food, veterinary bills etc? I don’t disagree entirely and there needs to be a huge element of that in ethical wildlife tourism, but we also have to think about the practicalities of that in a welfare orientated way. What if for eg a sanctuary offers a vast national park with remote viewing only, but pays for that with a smaller sanctuary with a few elephants that can’t be in the wild, are otherwise well cared for, are generally left to roam but still offer paid for feeding experiences with a barrier?

  19. Ahmed says:

    I would love to see elephants in the wild but would never ride on them.

  20. Amy says:

    All captivity causes elephants immense physical and psychological harm, and they should all be allowed to live in an elephant sanctuary that can meet their welfare needs

    • Okay, great. So what if I tell you sanctuaries are a form of captivity too? A necessary one since many elephants could not survive in the wild or need ongoing veterinary care. And what about the fact there are as many bad, unethical sanctuaries as there are good ones?

  21. Zoe says:

    Very interesting article, and I agree it isn’t always black and white, but allowing the industry to exist in any form invites abuse. The boycotts worked well, but didn’t go far enough.

    • That’s the exact, extreme stance some of the welfare organisations are taking, and yet none of them have been able to explain how they would care for the animals already in captivity or privately owed, or get the money to pay for every elephant to live in the wild or make local communities stakeholders in their care. Can you?

  22. Frank says:

    Brilliantly put! 👏 👏 👏 👏 This is a complex issue that requires complex thinking, and you are absolutely right. Boycotts did a great job and have their time and place, but now it’s time for new thinking.

  23. Eleanor Hunt says:

    Love it when you write posts that really make me think like this! I admit I did see it as a fairly black and white issue but maybe it isn’t. Great writing as always.

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