To many people who visit Thailand (and other Southeast Asian countries in which elephant tourism persists), riding on one of these animals’ backs, or even watching them “paint”, is often marketed to them as part of the authentic Thai experience. However, few people realize just how terrifying and soul-destroying the elephant tourism industry is to the animals involved.

In order to be rendered “tame” enough to allow humans to ride on their backs, elephants must be torn from their mothers at an early age and forced to go through a spirit-breaking training process called “phajaan.” This involves the elephant’s confinement to a small space – often no bigger than a minuscule pen which can barely contain them – where they are beaten into submission by their keepers, known as “mahouts.” Clubs and bullhooks are commonly used for this purpose. The fear of being beaten by their mahout is what motivates an elephant to work.


Being forced to work for twelve hours a day or more in stifling, humid conditions can take a serious toll on the animals’ health. Last month, we reported on the tragic story of a young trekking elephant who collapsed and died of exhaustion in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. This incident was indicative of the highly stressful conditions that too many elephants in the tourism industry must endure. The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival (EARS) Foundation said of the heartbreaking case, “Angkor Wat is a huge temple complex with steep hills and it is no wonder that given the temperatures and the weights the animals are forced to carry that these endangered elephants die. This is simply not what these amazing creatures are built for.”

Asian elephants are smaller than their African cousins, but are still Asia’s largest terrestrial mammals, reaching a height of up to 6.4 meters and a weight of five tons. In the wild, they typically live in closely bonded matriarchal herds, led by the oldest and most experienced female. They are highly sensitive and intelligent beings, who have often been seen grieving when a loved one dies. Baby elephants remain by their mothers’ sides at all times until they reach the age of four and begin to make their first independent moves. Elephant herds spend most of their day travelling, foraging for food, and enjoying one another’s company: an experience that their captive counterparts, forced to work in the tourism industry, are never given the chance to know.

Sometimes, a working elephant is lucky enough to be rescued from their life of drudgery and brought to a reputable sanctuary, where they can live out the rest of their days in peace. This recently happened to an elephant named Sontaya in Pattaya, Thailand.

She was saved from her back-breaking existence as a trekking elephant and brought to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES).

She was given to BLES by her owners, who were tired of living a hand-to-mouth existence on their trekking camp, and wanted to provide a better life for themselves and for Sontaya.

BLES pointed out that trekking elephants’ abusive situation often arises because of their mahouts’ extreme poverty.




“After speaking with some of the mahouts at the camp, we learnt that the mahouts earn a pathetic 20 Baht per ride (the equivalent of $0.57). In a typical day they can give 50 rides. This means that in one working day, which is normally twelve hours, the mahout earns an average of 1000 Baht ($28.45),” they said. In Sontaya’s case, her owners cared deeply about her, but felt that they had no choice but to compel her to work.


“The owners of Sontaya were sad to let her go,” BLES explained. “It was obvious they had fallen deeply in love with her and I think we all shed a few tears as they blessed her, hugged her and helped us load Sontaya on to the truck.”


BLES added, “A lot of (mahouts) are unable to provide for their families. They are stuck in a rut and treated appallingly by the wealthy camp owners. The mahouts are given nothing. They are not even provided with homes and so they live, with their wives and children, in squalor. Their shacks are built with old bits of scaffold that they find on building sites. There are no toilet facilities, there is no drainage system in place. Often, the mahouts are not even paid a salary.” It is clear that if the cruel elephant trekking industry is to be eliminated, the desperation and poverty that causes mahouts to mistreat their elephants must be addressed.


Luckily for Sontaya, she has quickly begun to settle in to her new home…

… and is beginning to trust her new caretakers, who are eager to reassure her that she will never be put to work again.

“Sontaya is a special lady,” BLES said. “She has such a wise and calm energy.”

This special lady will now be allowed to enjoy a peaceful life, surrounded by other rescued elephants and safely guarded by humans who are devoted to their well-being.



It is so wonderful to know that this beautiful elephant will never again be forced to carry tourists around on her back for hours on end. Instead, a life of serenity and joy awaits! You can find out more about BLES’ incredible work via their website or Facebook page. For more information about the truth behind elephant tourism, and why you should never pay to support it, check out the articles below.

All Image Source: Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary/Facebook