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Millions of tourists travel to Asia every year and most will want to have an encounter with an elephant, whether that is taking a ride or having a photo with a baby elephant, or maybe even watching elephants performing in a show.

In Thailand, elephant tourism is now a booming industry. There are many factors to consider and we would urge anyone who has “riding an elephant” on their bucket list to please RESEARCH carefully before your trip.

While planning your travels, it is important to remember that elephants working in the tourist industry are not domesticated animals, they are captive wild animals, even after several generations they still maintain their natural instincts and behaviors. Domestication is a breeding process where the required characteristics are identified and animals with those characteristics are bred together over many generations. This has NEVER been done with elephants.

Thinking of Going Elephant Trekking This Summer? Here's What You Need to Know Before You Book!Mahouts Foundation


Domestication cannot happen to an animal during its lifespan. Even though elephants have been kept by humans for around 3000 years they have been, on the whole, poached directly from the wild, with one generation and sometimes two being bred in captivity. The result is that all elephants in the tourist industry are wild animals that are trained through a process of pain, fear and force.

Thinking of Going Elephant Trekking This Summer? Here's What You Need to Know Before You Book!


For them to be kept with any degree of safety in a captive situation; they must:

  • Undergo a cruel and painful process called the Phajaan which is designed to break the elephant’s spirit and force them to accept human control. The process is horrific and performed on baby elephants. They are shackled, starved and beaten. They learn to fear the hooks and nails that will be used to control them in the years to come. Many elephants have not survived this process.
  •  When they are not working, elephants are restrained at all times usually on very short chains restricting any movement in any direction. They are often chained by front and back legs and also both feet are shackled together further restricting any movement. If an elephant is considered “naughty” they are frequently chained by the neck too.

Thinking of Going Elephant Trekking This Summer? Here's What You Need to Know Before You Book!Mahouts Foundation

Danger to Humans

Captive elephants are vulnerable to stress and rapidly changing emotions which can lead to sudden outbursts of aggression. When elephants are being used for tourist excursions, these outbursts can lead to injuries and fatalities. Every year, tourists suffer serious injuries and even fatalities from their interaction with elephants.

Thinking of Going Elephant Trekking This Summer? Here's What You Need to Know Before You Book!

Danger to Elephants

Thinking of Going Elephant Trekking This Summer? Here's What You Need to Know Before You Book!Mahouts Foundation


When in captivity, added stress and frustration can also manifest itself in mental and physical ailments for the elephant. Among some of the documented behaviors are the following:

1. Stereotyping

Elephants kept for long periods on short chains tend to display this. It can be head bobbing, repetitive swaying movements of the body sometimes holding one leg in the air. Tourists are frequently told that the elephants are dancing.

2. Joint Problems

Elephants are designed to travel long distances every day, standing still on a restrictive chain for much of their lives can lead to joint and problems and severe pain.

3. Foot Problems

From standing still for much of their lives and frequently on concrete they develop holes and ulcers in the soles of their feet, unhealthy cracks in their nails and a multitude of other issues. Foot issues are a serious problem in elephants and can result in premature death.

4. Hook and Nail Wounds

Sadly control of the elephants can be harsh and extremely abusive. Elephants young and old can be seen displaying wounds on their bodies from tight chaining hooks and nails. Handlers can be poorly educated on the elephants needs and over use implements for causing pain. Sharp nails are frequently used on baby elephants as they can be cleverly concealed in a hand. Hook wounds can become infected and cause severe pain to the elephant.

Thinking of Going Elephant Trekking This Summer? Here's What You Need to Know Before You Book!

The Lonely Life of a Captive Elephant

Elephants are highly intelligent and live in family groups. Female elephants never live alone in the wild and younger members of the family learn how to “be an elephant” from the older females in the herd. Their lives mirror that of humans with youngsters depending on their mother well into teenage years.

Elephants in captivity are forced to live in isolation from other elephants, due to chaining and work schedule they have extremely limited contact with any other elephant. Babies are born often as a result of forced breeding, they are taken from their mothers at around a year old, years before the recommended age, and they are offered a poor start in life being denied years of mother’s milk which can cause health issues later in life.

The Tragic Lives of Baby Elephants in Captivity

Thinking of Going Elephant Trekking This Summer? Here's What You Need to Know Before You Book!Mahouts Foundation


A common sight now at most trekking camps, performing in shows and on beaches begging. Many tourists will see a cute baby rolling around on the beach and want to feed bananas and have their photo taken with the young elephant. Please do not encourage this.

The lives these babies lead is nothing short of tragic. They are taken from their mothers at one year old, have to suffer a very cruel breaking process and then spend their lives chained standing on concrete with minimal contact with other elephants, the only break they get from this is when they are working. Through force and pain they are trained to entertain tourists, forced into the sea, forced to kiss tourists, forced to sit down and pose in unnatural positions.

They are frequently used in shows; dancing, playing musical instruments, playing football and painting are just some of the activities.

Tourists often take great pleasure in watching elephants painting pictures; claiming how intelligent they are. Painting and generally doing “human activities” does not make them clever. They are clever and highly intelligent because they are elephants and do the things that come naturally to elephants. To paint they have to learn to hold the brush, it is crossed with a long point that is inserted into the trunk, this is extremely painful and like having this inserted into your nose.

Every stroke is learnt with the stab of a nail behind the elephants ear. They are taught through fear, pain and force and frequently beaten if they make a mistake.

Elephant Trekking

Elephants in tourist areas now start a life working as a trekking elephant as young as 8 years old. Their bodies are still growing and developing. Carrying tourists on their backs at such a young age will inevitably cause pain and long term health problems. Trekking then carries on throughout their lives. Working long hours carrying tourists often in the heat of the day without access to adequate shade, food, water and rest.

The weight of the heavy chair carrying tourists on their spines can be damaging to the elephants backs and lead to pain, deformity and long term problems. REMEMBER; the elephant won’t just be giving you a ride that day but many more tourists as their purpose is to make money.

The Five Freedoms

In 1965, the UK government commissioned an investigation, led by Professor Roger Brambell, into the welfare of intensively farmed animals. The Brambell Report stated that animals should have the freedom to “stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves and stretch their limbs.”

This short recommendation became known as Brambell’s Five Freedoms, now recognized internationally by animal welfare organizations. As you research your summer plans, consider these five freedoms to guide your choice

The following five thoughts, “the five freedoms” should be in your mind as you do your research. In your view are the animals:

1. Are the elephants free from hunger and thirst?

Do the elephants  have ready access to fresh water and a diet that maintains full health and vigor?

2. Are they free from discomfort?

Does the environment seem appropriate, including shelter and a comfortable resting area?

3. Are they free from pain, injury or disease?

Are the elephants getting the correct nutrition, disease prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment?

4. Are they free to express natural behaviors?

Are the elephants provided with sufficient space, natural stimulation of the senses and the company of the animals own kind?

5. Are they free from fear and suffering?

How are the elephants treated? Are they being kept under circumstances that are causing physical or mental distress?

If all of these freedoms are true for an animal it indicates good welfare;

Consider whether the activity you are planning to take part in fulfills the elephants needs with these criteria. If not then please consider interacting with elephants at a project or sanctuary that really puts welfare at the top of the agenda.

The Alternatives

There are many projects in Thailand making a real difference and showing it is possible for elephants to live in peace in a natural environment. Where they can simply live being “elephants.” Free to forage for their food, access to food, water and shade; sharing their world with other elephants, free to interact with their own species. Being given the freedom to walk free of chains; to dust themselves down; cover themselves in mud and soak in a pond or river.

Visitors who see elephants in a natural environment leave with the animals in their hearts; they learn about these gentle giants and feel privileged to walk at their side. This can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it is crucial that it occurs in conditions that are not harmful to elephants. For ideas on some sanctuaries or projects that can guarantee the well-being of elephants, check out this list:

  1. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
  2. ENP
  3. The Surin Project
  4. BEES

To name but a few!

Again it is so important to fully research every establishment and don’t rely on your tour operator to do this for you. Many facilities are now learning that tourist’s ideals are changing.

They may call their project a sanctuary or use words like eco-tourism, Conservation and orphanage. They often have donation boxes on view stating “save the elephants.” This is tricking you into believing they care for the elephants. So armed with these tools and tips, you are set to embark on a fun and cruelty-free summer excursion. Remember, no one’s entertainment should come at the expense of another!

For additional resources to help you along the way check out Ears Asia and of course, Mahouts (my organization)!

To learn more about elephants in the tourism industry, check out this video from the Mahouts Foundation. Check out the Mahouts Foundation website for more, here.

Image source: Steve Evans/Wikimedia