Should You Ride Elephants in Thailand? It’s Complicated

(Last Updated On: May 31, 2016)

In our last trip to Thailand, it didn’t take long to see advertisements for every sort of “elephant experience” – washing, bathing with, feeding, riding, and trekking with elephants.

“Ride the Elephants!”

“The Elephant Experience!”

“Up Close with Elephants!”

We saw baby elephants frolicking on the beaches under the watchful eye of a trainer. Elephants lined up on the side of the road awaiting bus load after bus load of tourists to have their elephant encounter.The elephant is the official national animal of Thailand, so it isn’t surprising that many people are hoping for an up-close elephant selfie to take home with them from their Thai vacation.

Should You Ride Elephants? Beach Elephant

Recently, however, there has been more and more backlash against the tradition of offering tourists the opportunity to interact with elephants. Talking about riding elephants is akin to talking politics or religion – the opinions run deep. It’s easy to find articles condemning riding elephants on the web. In response, many places now advertise “no riding” camps where you can visit with elephants, but not ride them.

But, is there anything to this? Should you ride an elephant? It’s a more complicated question than you’d think.

First, some history of people and elephants

Interactions between people and elephants have a long history. Elephants have been trained and used by human beings for thousands of years, for everything from transportation to construction to logging to war. Remember your history lessons of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants and army? That was 218 B.C. And elephants had been utilized by humans long before that.

In more recent times, Asian elephants have been used in entertainment and as living “machinery” to help move logs through the jungle as part of the logging industry. The latter changed in Thailand in 1989, when the Thai government banned the use of elephants in the logging industry.

At that time, it is estimated that there were thousands elephants employed for logging purposes. The ban put most of these elephants and the mahouts (or trainers) who owned them out of work. Owners of elephants used in the logging industry at that point had very little choice but to turn to tourism to earn enough to care for themselves and their elephants.

Mahouts and elephant training

Mahouts are the elephant handlers who you will see riding or managing the elephants at any camp you visit. Traditionally, being a mahout is part of the family business, and a young family member is matched with a young elephant, and they spend most of their lives together. The traditional mahout life isn’t easy – since they are they one bonded to their elephant, they rarely have time off or time for family.

Should You Ride Elephants in Thailand? Mahouts

In more recent years, younger mahouts in Thailand have been more likely to leave the mahout life to find jobs in the city, changing the dynamic and resulting in elephants having to get used to multiple mahouts. This can lead to additional stress on the elephant, or result in abuse by a mahout trying to manage an elephant that hasn’t built any level of trust with him.

Elephant Mahouts

 What’s with the nasty looking spike mahouts use?

Most mahouts use an elephant hook (also called a goad, bullhook, or ankus) to train and control their elephants. Supporters suggest that elephants skin is so thick that to even fell the pressure of the hook requires a sharp push. Proponents says that the elephant is an instrument of torture, a reminder to the elephant of the initial “training” they received that made them pliable to commands from humans.

Why do you need train an elephant at all?

While the phrase “domesticated elephant” is commonly used, in reality all elephants captivity are wild animals, no different genetically from the elephants living in the wild. Elephants are intelligent, extremely strong, and clearly have a will of their own. Any elephant that has interaction with human beings, in any sort of captivity, requires a certain amount of training.Thai Elephants in the Mud

Of course some of the training can result in “tricks” like painting a picture or standing on certain legs, as well as being strapped with a chair on their back to provide rides, all requiring that the elephant follows certain commands. Even in preserves and parks that allow interaction but nothing more than elephant bathing, the elephants must be trained to follow commands (or enticed with food) to move to the river at the appointed time.

Don’t think that elephants in no-riding nature preserves are in a completely natural environment. In preserves with even minimal human interaction, veterinary treatment requires elephants be familiar to people and able to follow some basic commands.

Elephants are chained and caged in captivity

This varies by the camp. But, it certainly isn’t unusual to see chains and enclosures in camps. Arguments against this are obvious, but proponents argue the the chains are for the elephants own safety – to prevent them from wandering into the road, neighboring farms, etc.

Baby Elephant with Chain

When you visit a nature preserve and see a small herd of elephants interacting together, you are almost always seeing females and maybe some young males. In fact, the population in parks and preserves is heavily skewed to female elephants. The reason for this is related to musth (also called must).

Male, or bull, elephants periodically enter a period of massively heightened testosterone levels (up to 100X more than what is considered normal) called musth. Musth can last from anywhere to a few weeks to two months. During this time, bulls can be extremely violent, attacking handlers and other animals, including male and female elephants alike. During the musth, elephants in captivity must be separated, and confined. This is the case even in non-ride elephant preserves.

Interestingly, in India, where mahouts have worked with elephants for thousands of years, it is common practice to tie an elephant in musth to a strong tree, and place it on a starvation diet. Through food and water deprivation, the musth can be reduced to a few days instead of weeks or months. So which is worse? Starving the animal for a few days? Or chaining the elephant and forcing it to undergo the (painful) process of musth for a much longer period of time?

Who owns the elephants? And what are the costs?

About 95% of Thai elephants in captivity are privately owned. Some owners may be foundations or nature parks, but most often they are families of mahouts. And, with an average lifespan of an elephant at 60 years, often the animals are in the family across generations.

Should we ride elephants? Costs of Elephant Care
A fraction of what an elephant eats in a day

Owning an elephant isn’t cheap, as you would expect. Elephants eat 10% of their body weight per day, or about 800 lbs (3,500 KG) of food per day. It’s estimated that it costs 2,910 Baht ($80 US) per day to properly feed an elephant in Thailand. In comparison, average monthly wages in Thailand are less than 14,000 Baht per month, or less than 500 baht ($15) per day. It’s pretty clear with these economics, that Thai owners of elephants need to be able to earn some income from the elephants in order to feed and care for them properly.

Are Asian elephants endangered?

Yes, they are on the endangered list. And their population has dropped by 50% in the last three generations.
In Thailand, there are thought to be around 4,000 elephants, with approximately 3,000 of them in captivity

Elephants should just be allowed to live in their natural environment

Should we ride elephants in Thailand? The River

Of course they should, just like with most wild animals. But, habitat for wild elephants is rapidly dwindling. As human population expands, farms encroach on the elephants’ natural habitat, and farmers are not friendly to elephants, who can trample, eat and destroy a field of crops in very little time. Farmers will occasionally resort to poisoning or shooting them to spare their harvest from being destroyed.

Elephants are tortured to “domesticate” them and then abused regularly

Unfortunately, human beings are guilty of having abused just about every species of animal on the planet at one point or another, and elephants are no different.

Wild elephants require a “breaking” process in order to follow commands from their trainer. While other animals go through this process (horses, for example), this process is particularly harsh for elephants. There are plenty of videos online that detail the process, and it’s not pretty. Describing it as torture is not an exaggeration.

How an elephant is treated in captivity is really about the particular mahout managing the elephant. We’ve seen all sorts of treatment: positive reinforcement techniques using food (which is effective if they’re motivated at the moment), prodding and poking with the elephant hook, and even mahouts using slingshots to move the elephant where they want. Visiting a camp for rescued elephants reveals the results of abuse and neglect: many permanently blinded by slingshots, or maimed as the result of injuries not treated.

Should you ride elephants? Elephant mistreatment
Torn ear and damaged trunk of a rescued elephant

One argument against riding on the chair is that elephants are not designed to carry weight on their backs for prolonged periods, and this can lead to spinal injuries. Predictably, there are arguments from elephant-riding proponents suggesting that an elephant can safely carry up to 25% of its body weight on it’s back.

In many camps, social interactions between elephants are extremely limited. We’ve seen elephants in “riding stations” off a main road stand for the entire day in a pen, chair strapped in place, their trainers waiting for tourists to drop in for a ride. For extremely social animals, this level of isolation must have some sort of affect. Recommendations have been made by elephant proponent groups for a minimum amount of social “down” time for elephants, including limiting the amount of time per day that the elephant can be ridden, but these are just guidelines, and don’t need to be followed.  And of course the straps used to hold the chair in place can cause sores and injuries that will cause problems if left untreated.

Should you ride elephants? Injuries
A mahout caring for his injured elephant at an elephant sanctuary

Most elephant camps will have their own rules on how the elephant is treated, some not allowing hooks, others implementing maximum number of rides. Ultimately the mahouts are the ones responsible for whether an elephant is treated humanely or not .

What about elephant preserves?

With decreasing natural habitat, perhaps the best option for elephants to live “naturally” is in an elephant preserve. But there are constraints to this. The largest preserve for elephants in Thailand, the Elephant Nature Preserve, has 250 acres of property, and houses less than 70 elephants. Hundreds of people visit the park each day at a minimum of $70 per person. The park has a well earned reputation for their humane treatment of the elephants in their care. However, some have called into question the practice of allowing such large numbers of visitors, which in itself is a stressor for the elephants. Their every move is monitored by the mahouts in order to insure the visitors safety – all day, every day. Detractors question whether making large profits is an equal driving force along with elephant conservation at the park.

Should you ride elephants in Thailand?
Elephant sanctuaries let tourists up close with elephants without riding them

With over 3,000 captive elephants in Thailand, there simply aren’t the resources, or the space to create preserves to house them all. And, as always, there are politics. Most landowners aren’t happy about an elephant park or elephant tourist attraction moving in next door. Elephants may wander free of the park and do serious damage to farms and homes nearby, or become a danger on nearby roads, as well as pollute water sources. We’ve heard a number of stories about elephant camps being shut down with little warning (and seemingly little reason), forcing the owners to scramble to find a new spot for their animals.

Should we outlaw elephant riding?

Opponents of elephant riding may suggest that elephant rides be outlawed. My worry is that an immediate ban could lead to another massive change in how elephants are treated/cared for, similar to ending elephant logging in 1989. How will mahouts that are currently making a living and supporting their (expensive) elephants through rides be able to continue do so? The average lifespan of an elephant in captivity is 60 years – any solution needs to take into account the long-term effects on the elephants currently employed giving rides.

For now, elephant riding is not illegal, and any interaction with these huge, powerful animals is can be a highlight of a visit to Thailand. So regardless of your opinions, do your research, and make sure that any camp or preserve you visit is treating its captive elephants humanely.

Do you choose to take a ride, or just observe elephants interacting in a somewhat natural environment?

It’s complicated.

Note: the top picture is us, riding an elephant in a camp in Koh Chang in 2010, long before we researched this topic. Honestly, it was a lot of fun being perched on top of the elephant and wandering through the jungle. Would we do it again? Jen: No. Me: Probably not.

 

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32 thoughts on “Should You Ride Elephants in Thailand? It’s Complicated”

  1. Guys, this was a great post! You’re absolutely right — it is complicated! After being in Thailand for a couple of years, we never rode an elephant because we weren’t sure how we felt about it. Instead we ended up at the 14th Annual King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament in Bangkok, in which a huge amount of funds were raised to help domesticated elephants.

    You hit it right on the head: “Talking about riding elephants is akin to talking politics or religion – the opinions run deep.”

    • Thanks Ashley! And I think it’s great for everyone to have an opinion – but I think it’s good to look at all sides of the issue before jumping to a conclusion.

  2. I really appreciated this honest and well-researched article. It is definitely a tricky topic. I, myself, am shamed to admit that I rode an elephant in Bali and Thailand many years ago. Now that I understand how the elephants and broken in and often not well cared for – it has completely changed my point of view. I understand that the dwindling forestation is a reason to be concerned about not having space if all the elephants were to just be set free. I have a feeling that although they won’t ban elephant riding, that more and more elephant-friendly camps and sanctuaries will pop up and public opinion will sway as it has away from traditional animal circuses.

    • Thanks, Chantell. I understand the “shamed to admit” feeling, but I think that’s just a response to the current environment. For better or worse, elephants have been ridden for thousands of years. And, keep in mind, that ANY elephant that has interactions with people at all will have to go through some sort of breaking process, not just those who are being trained to be ridden.

      And, I completely agree – as the climate turns away from riding elephants to no riding camps, more and more of these will pop up.

  3. Excellent write up on the pro’s and cons of the elephant industry. Because there is often little way to confirm the treatment of these animals outside of your actual visit, I generally vote on the “stay away from the elephant rides” corner. I also understand wholly that elephants are a vital part of industry and the economy for some countries, not just tourism, but farming and beyond as well.

    It’s definitely is complicated.

    • Thanks Kevin. And, you bring up an important issue that I didn’t really touch on in the post – it’s very difficult to determine how the elephants are treated when visitors are not present.

  4. After spending a week at Elephant Nature Park and another at BLES elephant sanctuary I became extremely aware that the question of elephants being ridden is more about what it takes to get an elephant to be ridden than the actual riding of the elephant that is the problem. Elephants are brutally treated from their early start in life (when they are under six months old) in order to be “broken”. That is the practice that people need to be aware of. It is inhuman, horrific and needs to stop. That treatment is what allows the elephants to paint pictures (not something they naturally would do) along with being continually poked with nails in their tender skin to remind them to behave. Also elephants have very tender skin, not thick skin and the bull hooks are extremely painful to them. What I learned from my visit was how incredibly intelligent, sensitive. forgiving and loving these beings are and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

    • Yes, the “breaking” process for elephants can be terrible, as well as the ongoing treatment of elephants. There are plenty of videos out there on the internet, but I chose not to link to them. They’re easy enough to find.

      And I can’t agree more – these animals deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Of course, nearly any interaction with humans is somewhat “unnatural” for them, and requires management by mahouts, so after researching this article and thinking about it further, I think the ideal would be “no interaction” preserves. Unfortunately, due to habitat loss, political issues, and financial concerns, this option isn’t widely enough available for the existing Asian elephants.

  5. I was a little unsure about reading this post since personally I am VERY against elephant riding, painting, shows, etc, but I am glad I read it. It is a touchy subject, and I know that I have made some enemies traveling after talking (otherwise known as getting up on my soapbox) with them about it.
    I went to ENP 5 years ago to volunteer for a week and have been back to the sanctuary and to ENPs other programs a few times now. Lek paints a very vivid picture when talking about the torture elephants go through for the benefit of humans, and I saw some pretty awful stuff while volunteering at the Surin Project.
    Anyone who says that the bull hook doesn’t hurt the elephants is fooling themselves and others. At the Surin Project, I saw a huge bull elephant drop to his front knees and let out one of the loudest scream I have ever heard because his mahout decided to stab him in the head with a bull hook when he was heading into town to give rides.
    I understand that humans have been using animals for 1000s of years but does that make it right? Humans need to stop talking about animals and the environment as something for us to control and start looking at it as something we are a part of.
    I also understand that animal tourism, whether it be elephants, tigers, monkeys, etc, has been a big part of certain economies, but again does that make it right to keep abusing animals for it? There are ways to make money without abusing animals. We the consumers have to start speaking up for this change and spending our $ on more ethical treatments.
    I am glad you guys have decided not to ride elephants again and that you wrote this post to educate more people about the abuse they go through. It definitely got me talking, and I’m sure plenty of others are talking about it too. Hopefully this will help them make a more educated decision when deciding to partake or not in an animal attraction.

    • Sadie, thanks so much for reading the post and for your comments. I’m glad the article got you talking – that’s the best news I could possibly hear. It takes dialogue and communication to help educate everyone on all sides of the issues, and help to affect change.

  6. Hi Sean, Hi Jen,

    my name is Bodo Jens Foerster. I work with and for elephants for more than 30 years. Congrats to this thoroughly researched article and objective evaluation of the mayor and minor problems and challenges we – my fellow companions and our elephants – are facing every day. In our camps in Northern Thailand we do not only provide a unique adventure for our guests but rather focus on education and raising awareness for the elephant and its problem to survive. We chose a way to guarantee a preferably individual contact with the animal on the one hand and to offer a relaxed life to the elephants on the other hand. Animal welfare is placed above profit maximization. Riding elephants under conscientious evaluation ensures an acceptable living situation for both animals and people and provides income for the elephant owner/mahout and his family. 3 of the pictures shown in your article were taken in our camps. We would have loved to provide you with even more valuable input during your stay with us if we had known you were researching this topic. And yes, in our camps you can see hooks and chains. We are not hiding them and we allow everyone to see how we handle them for a good reason – we care for elephants and humans. We are convinced that our special approach in bringing together man and elephant corresponds to the needs of the animals and offers them a possibility to look into a future in the 21st century with more confidence. But to ensure this we need responsible guests from all over the world.

    • Hi Bodo,

      We were sorry we were not able to meet you when we visited your camp, but your staff provided lots of great information. I definitely appreciated the fact that everything was up front and open. I think at the time we visited, we weren’t even sure were going to write this article; the idea only really came after visiting a number of camps and preserves. I commend your efforts in preservation and caring for elephants (and people!), and I agree that responsible tourism requires responsible tourists!

  7. Well this post immediately hooked me in and I appreciate the well researched and honest information and opinions you guys shared! I have never ridden an elephant, and probably won’t based on all of the things I have read and heard about how they are treated. However, I totally understand the other side of the argument as well (which is why I liked this post so much!). Anytime this topic is brought up on social media, the ridicule some people get for elephant riding blows my mind! A lot of people don’t know the truth behind ‘breaking in an elephant’ so we need more articles like this to educate everyone! Thanks!

    • Hi Katie,

      Thanks for reading it, and appreciating both sides of the issue. It’s certainly a topic that people are passionate about (and we include ourselves in this group), but sometimes that passion clouds the real, often difficult issues that are involved in protecting the elephants for the long-term.

  8. Wow, lots of information to digest. Thanks for writing this. I too have done it once (long ago), will not do it again though. I am actually much more interested to visit elephant sanctuaries now, so I hope that trend grows in lieu of ‘elephant riding’.

    • Hi Vanessa,

      Yes, there is lots of information! That’s what makes the issue so complex. One point that I had hoped to make was that even no-ride elephant sanctuaries need to manage/control the elephants, and this can result in abuses even there. It’s best to do your research and be aware of the issues. Thanks for reading!

  9. While I certainly appreciate the amount of research presented in this article and the tricky politics of how to manage and properly care for an elephant population with dwindling habitat, the choice of whether or not to ride an elephant is simple. You should not ride elephants. It doesn’t matter that elephants have been used by humans for 1000s of years. When you know better, you should do better. We know that in order for elephants now or elephants back 1000s of years ago to do manual labor or give rides, the elephants, typically babies, had to be forcibly separated from their mothers and put through a torturous breaking process to crush their spirits. How could I possibly support anything that perpetuates this with my dollars? It’s simple supply and demand. If tourists continue to ride elephants, elephants will continue to be broken and used for riding. If tourists use their dollars to support ethical (non-riding) elephant experiences, riding camps and mahouts will have to react accordingly.
    Riding camps for tourism may differ slightly in how they treat their elephants, but a visit to elephant preserves or sanctuaries shows elephants still suffering with broken backs or shoulders from riding chairs that the elephant was forced to wear, some for 24 hours a day. Many of these camps don’t allow the elephants to engage in normal behaviors like tossing dirt and mud onto themselves or engage socially with a herd. I agree the number of people should be limited at popular elephant preserves like ENP, but I also think the post should have mentioned, many of the elephants there are experiencing a joyful life living as close to how an elephant should for the first time in their lives. The stress these animals feel is in large part due to their past negative experiences with human beings. Also, the park has many elephants in its care that never come into contact with visitors because they’re too traumatized psychologically from the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of humans. I’m glad you’ve written this post and have chosen not to ride elephants in the future. People need to think about that animal experience they’re seeking, whether it’s with elephants, tigers, or the like and ask themselves how that experience is possible when it would not otherwise happen in the wild. As I wrote above, and in the words of Maya Angelou, when you know better, you do better.

    • Hi Jackie,

      Thanks for you comments!

      I wasn’t able to find any definitive information in my research that any elephant has sustained major injuries from carrying a riding chair. If you’re referring to the elephant with the broken back at the ENP, the staff there told us that the injury occurred during a forced breeding incident – certainly no less atrocious, but I think it’s important to have the facts.

      I completely agree that elephants in preserves and sanctuaries typically have a far better quality of life than those stuck in a roadside riding camp with no social interaction. One potential issue is that as more tourists move toward “no ride” camps, more of these camps will identify themselves as “preserves” or “sanctuaries” in order to draw in more discerning tourists.

      It’s interesting to note that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Captive Elephant Working Group, a group of elephant specialists, veterinarians, and conservationists, has stated that not a single tourism-funded sanctuary in southeast Asia meets all the requirements to be a true sanctuary. We still have a long way to go, it seems.

  10. My family and I went to Thailand in 2015 and we were aware of this issue and didn’t participate in elephant riding. However, you make such a good point that it’s much more complicated than it seems because as a result of us not wanting to harm elephants, my family and I didn’t see any elephants at all for fear of contributing to their mistreatment. You’ve given us a lot to think about and what I do know is we all have to do research ourselves before participating in any sort of elephant activity. Great post.

    • Thanks Brenda,

      It’s a challenge, because fas you know, for now, most elephant owners rely on tourism to earn a living (which in turn allows them to care for the elephant). It’s a tough choice.

  11. Thank you for this well researched and thought of post. Will be pinning this! I too am guilty of riding an elephant long before I knew all about how they were treated. Would I do it now? Never. We need more posts like this to inform people of facts.

  12. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I have always been very wary of ‘elephant tourism’ and reading through some of your examples of treatment had me skimming as I am always afraid about what I’m going to read on the subject. However, I do understand that we live in a complex world and elephants in Thailand and their humans have come to be quite intertwined in many ways. I’ll still probably skip elephant riding myself, but I think I would be interested in volunteering on a project somewhere…

  13. I love to see and interact with elephants. Would I ride an elephant? Most likely not. Elephants are one of many animals I find really amazing. They appear so relaxed and cool, but I know they can defend themselves. This topic will rage on for years and years. I hope at the end of it there are still elephants left.

  14. Great post. I am a vegan and a strong advocate for animal rights, and I love to see more and more people raising awareness to the issue of elephant riding. Tiger petting zoo is another issue that should be discussed more! Cheers, Amelie

  15. Hearing about the torture these animals go through is so saddening. There are so many issues involved with any wildlife/human interactions and it’s a learning experience for us all.

  16. I can see both sides of the argument. I don’t like the abusive treatment of some elephants by some owners.

    The elephant’s use in South Asia is very similar to the use of horses in other parts of the world. It’s a draft animal to them. If they are humanely trained and managed then I am all for their continued used but I do recognized that this isn’t the case in most situations.

  17. Read the article twice and still thinking about this issue – seems like your post here pushes all the great buttons in us as readers.
    When hearing about the kind of abuse these animals are subjected to one has to really think long and hard before trying it. Part of the problem comes from the oh so natural promotion of these activities, and tourists in general wouldn’t think it’s out of the ordinary when “so many others do it too”.

  18. This is a great write-up, I appreciate how you were able to look at both angles and objectively list all the facts and reasons. It’s a really complicated issue and one that’s not easily solvable. We as travellers often don’t have an insider’s view into how animals are treated at a particular place, but we should strive for learning as many facts as we can, just to make sure we don’t contribute to mistreatment and don’t create more damage. Thanks for putting it together so well! I’m sure there was a ton of research behind 🙂

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