Shocking Truth of Riding Elephants in Thailand: Do or Don't

Last Updated: July 24,2019

What is on your bucket list when travelling to Thailand? Is riding an elephant on the top? I understand most of people would go for a ride. At first glance, it seems good. I mean, elephants are extremely big for riding. Much bigger than the horse, we ride the horse all the time while scarcely any people ride an elephant. Just think. What's a good experience. Unfortunately, riding an elephant is a huge moral argument around the world. When you search for "riding an elephant in Thailand", there may be a lot of elephant tours, because there are still many travelers who are not aware of this unethical travel style. If you ignore this problem, you will torment these beautiful animals. Just read this article. Let's bring to light the truth.

--An overview about elephant in Thailand.

Plight Of The Asian Elephant

Wild elephants in northern Thailand.In short, the Asian elephant is endangered. In 1900, Thailand had about 100,000 captive elephants and 300,000 wild elephants. Thailand currently has fewer than 4000 captive elephants and 2000 wild elephants. Most captive elephants are now used for tourism. As a result of loss of habitat, the wild population is rapidly declining.

Illegal capture and torture in tourism is also a big problem. The elephant tourism industry thrives because foreign tourists want to ride elephants or watch them play tricks. They pay a lot, which in turn thrives the elephant tourism.

But the truth is, these wild elephants only can be mounted after cruel taming process. Elephants are trained to perform magic tricks, to allow humans to ride on their backs. It's not easy to tame an elephant than a horse. The difficulty means more cruelty. These tortures often begin from an early age in order to be more domesticated. Those elephants are stolen from their mothers and trained to obey human. More importantly, elephants used for tourism are locked up in harsh conditions throughout their lives. They were forced to work for long hours, without food and almost no water.

Torture begins from baby elephant

A wild elephant will not allow human ride on them. In order to mount this huge animal, people need to torture them when they are a baby to completely destroying its spirit. 

Elephants are captured from the wild, and adult elephants of the same family had to be killed in order to break baby elephant's heart. Then, those captive elephants are often beaten, a process called "mentally collapsed" (known as "phajaan"), to make them submissive for profitable tourist entertainment in tourist parks. The training involves putting them into a "squeeze cage" where their forelegs and back legs are tied and stretched out. The Mahouts hit them with metal tools, poked them with sharp objects, and sometimes even burned them. The baby elephants are roared, beaten and deprived of food and water. These suffering would not stop until they obey appointed performance without a struggle. In the rest time, they are confined to a very small cage where they can hardly move or turn around. These heartbreaking images worth the attention of travelers who want riding an elephant in Thailand.

Circus baby elephant training.Baby elephant and mother.

They are brutally trained to entertain!

You might often hear people saying, "Elephants are friendly creatures", "They understand what we are talking about and like to interact with us," or "they're for fun! They can play balls, draw and even juggle! ", but those are the heartbreaking results of human taming. 

If you really think elephants are a natural painter, animal for riding or entertainment tool, I have to say you are naïve. They should roam freely in the wild, neither being ridden nor painting. All kinds of tricks are against their nature. After being domesticated by humans, they lived in narrow cages for life and were forced to perform all kinds of tricks.

Do you know the secret behind the elephants who can draw? Those special training props have sharp nails or spikes to poke elephants so that force them draw in the direction we expected? These cruel props are meant to remind them of their painful training process. Under all the innocent fun, there are years of hidden torture. You may also see that Mahout often carry a hook which they say are simply used to "guide" elephants. The hook are actually to threaten elephants to obey every command.

Poor living condition

  • Narrow huts

When they're not working, they're usually locked in narrow huts where they are tied together by chains that can be very tight and almost immovable. 

  • Lack of food

Elephants are expensive to keep. An adult elephant can spend around 16-18 hours in eating and consume 130-300 kilos of foods everyday. The best way to make more money on these giants is making them eat less while endure high strength work. Captive elephants often lack food, clean drinking water and regular veterinary care. 

  • Poor health condition

Elephants are wearing chains on their scarred feet.

Lacking of exercise and standing on hard cement floors for long will cause serious foot problems, painful illness, back injuries and arthritis. If those elephants live in a natural environment, they can live decades longer than most captive elephants.

Are elephants good carriers?

The elephant is large while its spine is very fragile. The elephant's spine cannot bear too much heavy weight. Don't forget you are not only two or three adults, the chairs, straps, chains and cushions also count. The total weight on the back of elephant is much beyond your imagination and the acceptable range of elephants. 

Look at this image of elephant's bone and spine. It shows exactly how stupid riding an elephant.Why? The elephant's spine extends upward, with a bony, sharp protuberance in the middle, rather than a smooth saddle. When they have too much weight, sharp bumps poke and point to the tissue that protects them. Captive elephants are forced to walk about eight hours each day, overloaded and overworked. Riding an elephant is not fun for an elephant at all. Elephants are taken away from the wild since childhood. The elephants for human's entertainment will endure the pain through their lives.

Elephant never forget

The elephant's brain takes a larger percentage of the whole body than any other terrestrial animal, which means elephant is one of the smartest animal in the world. Elephants, like us, can feel sorrow and understand human language. Aristotle described elephants as " the animal that surpasses all others in wit and mind."

For decades, elephants in captivity at tourist attractions have to endure terrible living conditions, including imprison, illness, isolation and loneliness. Even if they get rid of the suffering, the poor mental health will last in the rest of their lives.

They will remember this black period and the performance that is unlike those they do in the wild. In brief, they will never forget. Captive elephants with poor mental health exhibite stereotyped trunk swinging and rocking behavior. The behaviors may also involve self-injury or reduced reproductive success. Tourists might have only one chance to ride an elephant in a lifetime, while this may lead to a lifetime of pain for elephants.

Choice Is Up To You

In Southeast Asia, brutal elephant training has been going on for hundreds of years. The problem today is that most of Thailand's captive elephants are used for tourism rather than for traditional uses such as logging or battle. There are no need now to capture them just for entertainment.

Elephant feels peace with human in natural environment.It is understandable that most tourists ride an elephant just because they like them. They don't know what else they can do to get close to elephants while if they google on the Internet, most travel agencies simply tell them "riding an elephant in Thailand!". These cheap riding tours occupy a large position in elephant tourism. Many of the first-time travelers don't know the intense physical and psychological pain involved in training an elephant. Now, ignorance is no longer an excuse. The more we support the industry, the worse it will be. It's time to do something. We just want to share our real experience to help you make a wiser decision.

What you can do with us:

  1. Do not ride elephant in Thailand for the welfare of elephant. Instead, you can join in an ethical elephant sanctuary package.

  2. Help us spread the message of elephant illegal treatment in Thailand and why you should never ride an elephant.

  3. Donate towards official sanctuaries – Donations will go towards expanding the capacity of ethical sanctuaries and adopting more elephants, elephant daily needs and improvements of elephant welfare.

So how to ethically see elephants in Thailand instead?

So we have no choice to meet those lovely giants? The answer is no. You have a better chance to get in touch with them – become an elephant volunteer! Now there is a dawning realisation of elephant's welfare. Many parks offer such one-day tours, and if you have more time, you can also choose a one-week volunteer deal

Elephant sanctuaries enable visitors to interact with elephants in a responsible way and learn about them. In these sanctuaries, you can spend an amazing 8 hours with lovely animals in a moral way. In these moral sanctuaries, you will walk with them through the thick mountains, in the soft morning light, witness their natural behavior and sense of freedom. You can wash fruits/vegetables, boil glutinous rice and pumpkins, feed and bathe them, and scoop elephant droppings. Later in the afternoon, take the elephants to the river to bathe and swim with them. Your experience here will give you an interesting insight into how elephants live in nature and how these magnificent creatures think, live and react.

Volunteers wear local folk costume and take care of baby elephant.Volunteers wash fruits to feed elephant.

Feeding elephant.Walk with them in rural area.

The best elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand

When you search authentic elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, keep in mind that a real one will not allow people to ride an elephant. It fundamentally distinguishes a reputable elephant sanctuary from others. If you have no time, we did a lot of research on all ethical elephant sanctuaries. Here is a list of the best elephant reserves where you will have fun with them in a responsible way.

1. Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

The most famous elephant sanctury in Thailand. It was one of the main pioneers in the ethical park.

2. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Pattaya and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Phuket

If you have limited time in Bangkok, just go to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Pattaya. It is the nearest elephant sanctuary. You can return to Bangkok at the same day or extend your tour in Pattaya. The sanctury also set up a new park in Phuket.

3. Elephants World, Kanchanaburi

A real elephant nature sanctury with river and hills. Good choice in central Thailand. If you visit like Bangkok-Ayutthaya-Kanchanaburi-return to Bangkok.

4. The Surin Project, Surin

Every year in Surin, there will be an grand two-day event about elephant - Surin Elephant Round-up. Approximately 300 elephants move through Surin city. It also known as the largest elephant buffet when the people will prepare tonnes of fruit and vegetables.

How ethical elephant sanctuaries work?

These elephant sanctuaries usually offer rehabilitations for elephants across Thailand. The elephants in those rescues were used for illegal logging, forced ridding or begging in tourist places. Elephant volunteers rescue them from illegal tourism and provide nature homes for them. 

So will them be release to nature once be free? Unfortunately, these domesticated animals rarely return to the wild and live as before, because most of them have serious psychological problems during rigorous training. New ethical sanctuaries to take care of them may provide an alternative to this problem. They are allowed to roam freely in protected nature park. Although the elephant has been locked up for generations, it is never too late to do something.

Some of the typical shelters, like Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, are are registered Thai nonprofit foundation. They charge money to feed and care for elephants, to rescue more elephants from abusive owners as well as expand the park size. So, these moral camps may be more expensive, you should know that they collect money to further improve ethical camps, rescue more elephants, and create more programs to help people understand the plight of Asian elephants.

Now, thanks to the dawning realization of elephant protection, the tide of public opinion is turning against ridding an elephant. Other hiking camps have been slowly affected by these elephant sanctuaries. More and more elephant parks allow visitors only to interact with animals on a more natural level or other types of travel rather than just riding elephants.

Read more: Ethical Elephant Tours in Thailand

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