If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia, chances are, you’ve come across the idea of riding elephants on a jungle trek. Everyone loves elephants so this activity has become extremely popular. I wanted to take a minute and explain why you should NOT ride elephants on your vacation, especially if you love these animals. Sitting atop these gentle giants may sound like an amazing, magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience, but here are 11 reasons, and some elephant-friendly alternatives, that will hopefully dissuade you.
1. Elephants are very intelligent and social creatures. They know and understand the stress that they are experiencing. They are very social and rely on their herd or family members. Often the elephants in the tourism industry are alone and have no contact with other elephants, which can lead to stress related disorders such as post traumatic-stress disorder and depression…. and yes, elephants can suffer from these kinds of disorders. You can often see these elephants swaying back and forth. The owners will usually say something like “oh, she’s dancing” or “oh, that means they are happy”. No. It’s a sign of these extreme stress related disorders.
2. Elephants in the riding industry have NO freedom. I know you want to think that this is just Dumbo’s 9-5 job. At the end of the day they punch out, and go frolic in a field somewhere. Sorry to burst your bubble… but most owners chain them to a pole or keep them in an area with no room to move. They do this to break the elephants spirits so they feel trapped and helpless; making them less likely to fight back.
3. They are tortured to trained to be ridden. This is probably the most important reason to not ride an elephant. Wild elephants would never allow someone to crawl on their back and ride around. The way they train them is to break their spirit. It is a horrible, grueling process called ‘elephant crushing’. They are whipped and poked with bull hooks repeatedly, deprived of sleep, food, and water, and chained into small areas. They do this from the time the elephant is very young. Here, you can see very disturbing videos of this process, known in Thailand as ‘kraal’ or ‘the crush’ and ‘phajaan’ or ‘the mental break’.
4. The elephants in the tourism industry have often been stolen, not bought, from their natural environment. They, usually, have not been paid for, so while they bring in money for the family, there is not really any incentive to maintain the animal’s health. If the animal dies, they can find another one in the jungle. On the other hand, if they had paid money for the animal (such is the case with ox or horses), they would be wasting a lot of their own money if they let the animal get sick or die.
5. The elephant’s owners often don’t provide sufficient food, water, or medical care. One adult elephant needs about 300 lbs of food every day. The average income of someone in the elephant riding industry does not allow them to give the animal proper nutrition. Besides that point, this is part of the “crush” process. If they are constantly hungry or thirsty, the animal will be less likely to fight back. They are forced to carry weight all day, in the scorching heat, without water. Experts agree that elephants can, at a MAXIMUM carry about 150 kgs for about 4 hours a day, with access to water. Elephants in this industry often carry 2-3 people plus the metal seat, for 8+ hours a day, with little to no water. Without proper medical care, this lack of nutrition and care can lead to serious problems for the elephants. I won’t post the photos here because they are disturbing… but there is the story of Sambo the elephant who passed out and died from lack of water and heat exhaustion while carrying tourists in Cambodia. There are also photos of the diseases and deformities that can result from elephants carrying too much weight.
6. Asian elephants are endangered! Going along the last few points, the sustainability of the species is not exactly the first thing on the owners’ minds. Most of them don’t care about the animal itself, they just care about the profit that it will make for them. Many of these poor animals die every year from exhaustion, lack of nutrition, diseases gotten as a result of riding, or torture. This just makes the Asian elephants even more endangered than they already are. In Thailand there is said to be only about 5,000 elephants left…. and 4,000 of them are in captivity.
7. Walking around so much, especially on pavement, deforms the elephant’s legs and feet. Here are some pictures of what can happen to the legs and soles of the elephants’ feet because of carrying excessive weight and walking without breaks.
8. An elephant’s spine is not built to carry weight from above. They are made to support their own weight from below. Horses and oxen’s spines can withstand weight from above… an elephant’s cannot. They seem like they can carry an endless amount of weight because of their massive size, but their structure is simply meant to carry their own mass. Constantly carrying weight, like riders, can seriously deform their spines. You can hear many stories of retired, tourist-carrying elephants with deformed legs, backs, and necks or arthritis.
9. Giving money to this industry will only encourage this kind of behavior. Trip Advisor and over 160 other companies have stopped selling tickets to participate in this activity. This shows that society is becoming increasingly aware that this is a large problem. In Southeast Asia, many people don’t care about animal rights or environmental protection… not because they don’t care about it or it doesn’t matter… but because they must be concerned with their own needs first. Most of these places are not wealthy. The governments don’t necessarily help the poor as much as they should, so they must help themselves if they want any money for food, housing, or water for their families. Unfortunately, that means they must think about their own individual needs before they can even begin to work on animal rights or environmental protection. Basically the universal language of these places is money and how to provide for their families. If you stop giving money to the elephant riding industry, it means the owners must change tactics and move into another industry… hopefully one that is a little more animal friendly.
10. It’s more fun to just interact with them, than to ride them! Many years ago I rode an elephant in India. This was before I knew the truth behind this industry and before I had done any research for myself. However, I am a huge elephant lover, which is why I (and most people) want to get close to them and ride them. So, I started looking into alternative ways to see and interact with these animals. Recently, my son and I went to an elephant sanctuary where you are allowed to walk with, feed, and sometimes even bathe in the river with the elephants, but NOT ride them. I must say, that just interacting with them was a much better experience than riding the elephant was! The elephants are so much more playful when they are not scared of being whipped or hit. You can see their true personalities. Often when you are riding (at least with my experience), the owner will whip the elephant or tug their ears with a bull-hook when they try to stop to eat some leaves. I didn’t like that and felt bad for the elephant. Also, I don’t know about you guys, but I always get super self-conscious of my weight when I’m riding an animal too, making me feel even worse for the poor ele. That’s all taken away when you’re just watching them, getting a “trunk hug” after feeding them a banana, or splashing mud or water on them during their bath. No concrete room. No chains. Just elephants walking around being elephants; playful, curious, and just amazing.
11. There are elephant friendly alternatives to riding! As these countries develop, so does their awareness for animal rights. Today, there are more elephant sanctuaries than ever before. Here’s a list of elephant friendly parks and sanctuaries where you can hang out with them, but not ride them or watch tricks/performances.
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary (near Phnom Penh, Cambodia) They rescue elephants who used to be in bad situations. Here, you can walk with them, feed them, and even watch an injured elephant get his prosthetic foot changed. Its amazing to see these animals getting a second chance at a real ‘elephant life’. This is halfway between a zoo and a safari but the enclosures are huge and the elephants roam around free when their are no visitors. Part of the tour in the morning is trying to go find the elephants. There are also tigers, bears and tons of monkeys.
- Elephant Valley Project (Mondulkiri, Cambodia) Here you can see rescued elephants and can follow them around, feed them, and bathe them. It is a little out of the way but I have heard nothing but amazing things about this place and it is considered the best sanctuary in Cambodia.
- Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai, Thailand) Probably the most famous sanctuary in Asia. They have been in operation for nearly 30 years saving and rehabilitating elephants and have won countless awards for their efforts. You may walk with them, feed them, and bathe them here.
- Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (Sukhothai, Thailand) Run by one woman who was inspired by an elephant, named Boon Lott, to provide a sanctuary for abused or retired elephants. She has won an award for this sanctuary from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Guests can interact with the elephants, walk with them, feed them, and also volunteer their time harvesting elephant food from the jungle and walking them to their grazing areas.
- Yala National Park (near Hambantota, Sri Lanka) This is the 2nd largest national park in Sri Lanka and is the only place you can go to see wild elephants. It is always hard to determine which elephant sanctuaries are really just profit machines and which actually care about the elephants… so obviously the best option is to just see them in their natural habitat. In Yala National Park you can go on safaris and see about 300 elephants roaming the grounds as well as many other species, including about 25 leapords! No cages, no chains, they are free to roam the grounds as they please. This also means no feeding or touching as they are considered wild, not domesticated!
- Bannerghatta Biological Park (Bangalore, India) This is a very new elephant sanctuary and is also the only chain-free establishment in India currently. It is a large attraction housing a zoo, an elephant sanctuary, a butterfly park, and a safari. There are elephants in the zoo, but most of them are in the chain-free sanctuary where they roam free in a fenced in 122-acre area.
- MandaLao Tours (Luang Prabang, Laos) There are several elephant sanctuaries in Laos, especially near Luang Prabang, but nearly all of them I found had riding programs. This is the only one I could find that strictly says NO RIDING. All of the tours are at the lead of the elephants; following them around and feeding them their breakfast or lunch. If you know of any other places in Laos, please let me know in the comments!
- Vietnam– Sorry, but there are currently NO elephant sanctuaries in Vietnam that do not offer rides. The only sanctuaries are located near Yok Don and Lak Lake where the elephants no longer work the fields, but give rides instead. I have heard that they do treat the elephants quite well, considering they are still ridden; but please, if you know anywhere in Vietnam to ethically see elephants, let me know.
Please, do not support this industry. As I said before, it is more fun for both you and the elephant to just interact with them. There are many alternative ways and places to enjoy these amazing animals. If you have had a wonderful elephant experience somewhere, PLEASE, let me know in the comments. I would love to check out more awesome ele-friendly places!
Thanks for reading!