Dark Side of Elephant Tourism in South-East Asia

I’m very fond of watching documentaries about nature and animals. When I was a little girl I used to watch them all the time. I remember, elephants were one of the animals that fascinated me the most. They are not only largest land mammals, but are also highly intelligent and sociable animals that are known to develop strong, intimate bonds with other members of their family. They have excellent memory and even mourn their dead. And they live in a families led by a female! No wonder, two of the my greatest wishes since childhood, were to see an elephant in the wild and to interact with the domesticated elephant. When my husband and I decided to travel to SE Asia, I knew I need to fulfil my at least one of my childhood dreams.

Because I’m very cautious when it comes to interactions with the animals, I wanted to learn more about Asian elephants and choose the best possible way to interact with them. More I’ve read, more I realised there is a dark side of elephant tourism many people are unaware of.

Poaching and crushing the elephant’s spirit

Young elephants are frequently poached from the wild for the tourist trade. When they are are taken from the wild, the adults trying to protect their herd member are killed. According to ThailandElephants.org, on average four to five wild elephants will die as the result of one elephant being taken for the tourism industry. Taking into account there are approximately only 41.000–52.000 Asian elephants are left living in the world, that’s worrying fact!


In order to make those captured young elephants not used of human contact to obey, a technique called “Phajaan” or “crushing the elephant’s spirit” is used. This method is terribly brutal. Elephants are placed in a cage and tied with ropes to keep them from moving. By restricting them, depriving them from sleep, food and water, and physically abusing them (e.g. beating with sticks, chains and bull hooks as well as stabbing into the ears and feet) they mentally break them and make them submissive to their owners. Fearful of the human captors elephants will do anything to avoid being hurt again.

‼️Deeply disturbing video of Phajaan – brutal process of the breaking the spirit of the elephant.‼️ ©WTTF

Elephants born in captivity usually go through the same brutal method as their wild captured counterparts. Alternatively, they are trained via method of positive reinforcement. Although, any kind of form of training still require removing baby elephant form its mother at the young age and often causes lasting emotional and mental distress for the both – mother and baby elephant.

©Ulet Ifansasti/Ecological Response Unit

Why riding an elephant is not ok

Some might ask, why not ride an elephant – it is strong an powerful animal. Carrying a human cannot really harm him. How else could elephants would be ridden for centuries? Answer is, elephants don’t have very strong backs. Adult elephant can only support app. 150kg of weight on their back for up to four hours per day. Putting the heavy howdah – metal seats weighing around 50kg on elephant’s back is highly uncomfortable even without the added weight of the mahout (human handler) and the tourists. Such overweighted working elephants in SE Asia work much longer shifts. Single rides often lasts an hour or longer and are often held in heath without adequate access to water, food and shade.


Long overweighted rides are harmful for the elephants. The weight of the howdah and the ropes with which those metal seats are secured can cause open sores and abscesses as well as lasting spinal injuries and deformities. Long treks in extreme heat and not adequate access to water, healthy food and shade can also lead to dehydration, and exhaustion. Not to mention use the damage spiky metal hooks used to control the elephants during the rides can make.

©Elefanten in Not

The only humane way of riding an elephant is to ride it bareback, sitting on its neck, like their mahouts traditionally do. But even such kind of riding demands elephants to go through the brutal training that broke their spirits. Same training is required for the elephants to learn tricks and activities, like for instance painting pictures, playing football, ride tricycles, et others, that can be seen at the elephant shows and circus.

©World Animal Protection

Elephants are often require to work in the environment with exhaust fumes, hot concrete, traffic, loud music and crowds of people. All this cause much stress to the animals.

©World Animal Protection

Misuse and mistreatment of elephants is something really horrible. The only way to stop with the abuse of these majestic animals is to be responsible traveler and avoid venues that exploit elephants. Don’t attend activities, such as trekking with the elephants, elephant shows and circus, elephant rides et others. If there will be little demand for such activities, the need for savage training techniques will hopefully decrease.


Ethical alternatives

Fortunately, growing awareness of animal welfare issues brought to life new cruelty-free ways of elephant tourism – elephant sanctuaries/refugee centres where elephants are held in conditions that closely resemble their natural habitat and are allowed to behave like elephants again. Those sanctuaries are saving elephants from the riding and logging camps and giving them better life. By allowing tourists to visit elephants, and interact with them with respect, they can still generate revenue.

In the ideal world, all the elephants would be freed from the captivity and would happily wander the woods without danger to be killed or captured. Sadly, this is never going to happen for various reasons. Some captive elephants are simply too damaged and are not equipped with the necessary skills for survival in the wild. Also, in some countries, elephant’s natural habitat is gone. There is simply nowhere to release them to. Elephant sanctuaries and refugees are most likely the only appropriate alternative for the elephants in captivity.

My husband and I visited one of such establishments where they keep elephants rescued from the riding, trekking and logging camps. We fed them, walked with them and washed them. From what we’ve experienced, we think we chose good ethical sanctuary. More detailed report about my visit coming soon! Until then, you can enjoy the video of our visit:

Tips on chosing the right establishment

When I was choosing the ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand, I found out there are tons lot of places that advertise themselves as sanctuaries. Further research showed, not all of them treat their elephants in an ethical way. When I checked the latest online reviews, I found out even one of the sanctuaries that came highly advertised in various articles as being ethical, changed their policy and now allows bareback riding. Therefore, I urge you to do a research on a place you’re planning to visit.

To help you chose the right place, here are some pointers to see if the place you’re visiting really is ethical as copy/pasted from RoughGuides article:

To sum up, it is on us, tourists and travellers to chose not to support cruel practices that are still wildly used in elephant tourism all across the SE Asia. Don’t interact with the captured elephants at all! If you have to interact with them, chose the ethical cruelty-free establishments! Only by doing so, we could change the future for captured elephants.

Those gentle giants deserve better, brighter future!


Sources: ThailandElephants.org, STAEPETA Asia, IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesRoughGuides, Lonely Planet, World Animal Protection


FARAWAY FILES FIVE BADGE with map theweeklypostcard-3


46 thoughts on “Dark Side of Elephant Tourism in South-East Asia

  1. Sha says:

    Aww, I always like to watch the elephants bathe cos they can be playful sometimes…hahaha..and I couldn’t really watch the other video where they beat the elephants to break their spirits, too heartbreaking to even think about! 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Urska - Slovenian Girl Abroad says:

      Yes, they are so fun to watch when they bathe! They reminded me of giant dogs, hehehe. 🙂 I agree about the other video – it’s heartbreaking. But I felt I needed to include it in my post. As horrible it is, it is harsh reality of how those gentle giants are treated. 😦


  2. Amanda Afield says:

    It’s so sad to hear about the abuse, especially when most people I know who have gone to Thailand have participated in some sort of elephant activity and probably don’t know how bad the conditions are for them. I hope to visit Thailand someday, and will keep these ethical guidelines in mind because I’d definitely like to see an elephant! 🙂 #FarawayFiles

    Liked by 1 person

    • Urska - Slovenian Girl Abroad says:

      I know! It’s same with the people I know! They have/had no clue about the mistreatment and abuse behind elephant activities. That’s also one of the reasons why I decided to write this post! If because of it at least one person decide not to ride an elephant, it will be a win. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lisa Marie says:

    This post makes me equally sad and angry. I just can’t understand how anybody could treat animals like that! It I so important to speak up about topics like that – so thank you for that informative and really important blogpost! #FarawayFiles

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Clare Thomson says:

    This is a really useful and important post, Urska. Thanks for going into such great detail about how these incredible animals are maltreated and what to look out for if you want to interact with elephants. Hopefully more people will become better educated about the elephants used for riding and in shows and avoid this in the future. Thanks for sharing with us on #FarawayFles

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Purple John _ shelley Jarvis says:

    I so often see people’s travel photos with pictures of them on elephants, posing with tigers and monkeys and I feel so sorry for the animals. I once stood for 40 minutes on a beach after I told some people that is was not allowed to remove living starfish from the tide pools. I told them I would call the rangers if they did so. They were standing around waiting for me to leave. I held my ground. They finally left. Thank you for writing an important piece on being a good travel ambassador. Information that I will share with others when they ask questions about certain locations where animal tourism is prevalent.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Purple John _ shelley Jarvis says:

    Posts like these are so important because many people have no idea what goes on behind the scenes when they are posing with a tiger, monkey or elephant. This is an important post to share when other are asking for information on destinations that cater to animal tourism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Urska - Slovenian Girl Abroad says:

      I agree, it is important to talk about the mistreatment of animals in the tourism industry, as horrible and unpleasant as they are. I think many people would decide not to participate in such activities if they would know the horrible truth what’s happening behind the scenes.


  7. MummyTravels says:

    This is such a useful post to raise awareness of these horrific practices – it is so sad to think how they are treated and so important for us as tourists to help stop it, and support elephant sanctuaries instead #farawayfiles

    Liked by 1 person

    • Urska - Slovenian Girl Abroad says:

      I agree! For the most of the locals, elephant tourism is main source of income. Poor as many of those countries in SE Asia are, it would be unrealistically to expect people will stop using elephants in tourism. Therefore, it is on us – tourists and travellers, to not to support such horrible practices. Only by doing so, riding and other cruel activities won’t be profitable enough, and the elephant owners will hopefully turn to other animal-friendlier alternatives, such as sanctuaries.


  8. Connie (@connieconsumes) says:

    This is such an important issue and one which I have been trying to educate myself more about… we recently went to Sri Lanka and saw so much maltreatment, it was heartbreaking! But we did also go on a safari and saw these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat, completely undisturbed and it was incredible – it’s all about making informed choices when we travel! #farawayfiles

    Liked by 1 person

    • Urska - Slovenian Girl Abroad says:

      I agree about the making informed choices and I know – seeing the mistreatment can rally break your heart! I think seeing animals in their natural habitat is the best experience one can have in terms of animal interactions. Only so, you can really see animals in their true glory, in a place where they truly belong. 🙂


  9. fifi + hop says:

    Such an enlightening post. That really makes me mad that some of these supposed elephant “sanctuaries” are using some of the practices they apparently preach against. I’ll be looking forward to reading your next post on the sanctuary you visited. Thanks for linking up with #farawayfiles

    Liked by 1 person

    • Urska - Slovenian Girl Abroad says:

      Thank you Corey! I know! It seemed to me “sanctuary” is the word they really start using as rather as marketing tool! So sad. That’s why is so important to really do your research before the visit.
      Also, thanks for sharing my post on social media! Means a lot to me! 🙂


  10. Rachel ¦¦ A Nesting Nomad says:

    I can’t agree more with this post. I’m a big animal lover and I’ve come to realise that so many (even ethical) tourist activities are actually awful for the animals they often claim to protect. I’d hope that most people know circuses are cruel now, but as you say some so-called sanctuaries are obviously not treating their elephants well, either. There is also the concern that even increased traffic to legit sanctuaries could cause elephants to be poached from the wild to supply them, albeit indirectly. It’s just such a minefield, and the thought of hurting those poor elephants makes me so sad 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  11. katherinefenech2017 says:

    This is just so sad. I’m glad that you’ve written about it because it makes people more aware of the damage being caused to these poor elephants. And less likely to frequent the tourist “attractions” that they’re used for. #FarawayFiles

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Cynthia | Adventuring Woman says:

    Thanks for a really well-researched and thoughtful article. I’ve heard things about ethical elephant tourism, but this is the only thing I’ve read clearly spelling it out. It’s heartbreaking to hear about how they are “trained”–tortured more like. I am traveling to SE Asia soon, and I will be absolutely sure not to participate in any elephant tourism except a vetted cruelty-free sanctuary. That is something I would like to support.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. annette @afrenchcollection says:

    A very important issue for travellers and its amazing how even ‘educated’ people can still make unethical tour choices. I recently have had two different friends, who I thought knew better, ride elephants in Thailand (and then see them get spiked with the hook and whimper) and the other, visit tigers and feed them milk (but say to me ‘they weren’t drugged’). How can intelligent people not get it? Thank you for raising awareness #TheWeeklyPostcard

    Liked by 1 person

    • Urska - Slovenian Girl Abroad says:

      I agree, it is a vey important issue and that there are still way too many (educated) people who doesn’t know about the ugly side of elephant and tiger activities. I guess, not getting well-informed, curiosity, and following suggestions by the locals are some of the reasons why even people who generally care about animal welfare made mistakes and visit such establishments. Also, I feel there is not nearly enough of talk in the western media about those issues. On contrary, I feel like you see positively pictured elephant rides in the movies and documentaries way too often. Not to mention all the documentaries about monks “rescuing” tigers. I’m sad to say it, but I feel there is still a long way too go to raise the awareness about those ugly practices.

      Liked by 1 person

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