Why You Should Not Ride Elephants On Your Holiday

Beautiful, majestic elephants. For as long as I can remember I have had an affinity with these beautiful creatures. I even had the pleasure of visiting them in Thailand on several occasions (even as recently as last month).

And I feel sorry and ashamed to say that I have ridden an elephant in the past. Something I feel terribly guilty about.

Let me tell you a bit more about that.

Here’s the thing, I first came to Thailand in 2008. I was 25 years old, it was my first ever long-haul travel and I was a bit of a newbie to things. I had had plenty of experience travelling around Europe previously. But Southeast Asia was a whole new kettle fish.

But enough of the fish, let’s talk about the elephants.

why you should not ride elephants

First Experience with Elephants

Back in 2008, I was invited on a deluxe camping trip with the hostel I was staying at in Chiang Mai. It ended up being a fantastic and rather eventful couple of days which, among many things, included white water rafting, a trek and camping under the stars at a remote natural spa. However, the beginning of the trip started with an elephant trek.

However, the beginning of the trip started with an elephant trek.

We arrived at the elephant trek camp in the morning. I must admit, I was super excited to see the elephants. We jumped off the van and met with an elephant. A tall, beautiful elephant stood behind a fence. As we moved closer I noticed the elephant swaying from side to side. I looked down. The elephant was chained to the ground by its ankle.

We jumped off the van and met with an elephant. A tall, beautiful elephant stood behind a fence. As we moved closer I noticed the elephant swaying from side to side. I looked down and saw the elephant was chained to the ground by its ankle.

Immediately I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I felt awe for this magnificent animal. But at the same time, I felt guilty. I felt bad that this animal was chained up. It was clearly unhappy and unhealthy.

Our group was directed over to a platform where we climbed up some steps and waited as a group of 5 elephants were walked over to us. Just above their head sat a mahout with a bullhook in their hand. Upon the elephants’ back, there was a wooden seat for two people, it was fastened atop a few mats and tied around under her belly.

We climbed from the platform onto the seat on the elephants’ back and our small herd of elephants made their way off on a trek around the park. We walked along a small path, through some forest, climbed up a steep hill and through a shallow river. We came across the rest of the trekking elephants. It appeared there were at least another 20 elephants ahead of us climbing up the hill.

Elephant Ride

It was such a surreal experience, to be honest. I felt constantly torn. It was overwhelming. I love elephants, I felt honoured and humbled to be in such close proximity to this beautiful animal. But I was wincing every time the mahout was using the

It was overwhelming. I love elephants, I felt honoured and humbled to be in such close proximity to this beautiful animal. But I was wincing every time the mahout was using the

I love elephants, I felt honoured and humbled to be in such close proximity to this beautiful animal. But I was wincing every time the mahout was using the

But I was wincing every time the mahout was using the bullhook to steer the elephant. I felt uncomfortable sat on the wooden seat on its back.

Fast forward to 2015

I was back in Chiang Mai and this time I was determined to choose my own elephant experience and make sure I went to a company that took care of them.

During my research, I was saddened that I had taken part in an elephant experience in the past that was blatantly hurting the animals.

I learned more about why you should not ride elephants. And it is through this research I discovered the Elephant Nature Park, the sanctuary that we ended up visiting in January (I wrote about it here).

Do not ride elephants

Why You Should Not Ride Elephants

1. The Phajaan

Elephants that are put to work (in activities such as tourist riding, logging, street begging, performing) are put through a ritual called the Phajaan (meaning: crush) which breaks their animal spirit to make them compliant with humans. They do this whilst an elephant is very young. It is literally torture and includes isolating a baby elephant from its mother, confining them to a small dark space, starving them, depriving them of sleep and beating them with clubs or

They do this whilst an elephant is very young. It is literally torture and includes isolating a baby elephant from its mother, confining them to a small dark space, starving them, depriving them of sleep and beating them with clubs or bullhooks. It is literally torture.

2. Cruel Tools

They continue to use bullhooks to intimidate the elephant into working.

3. Elephant’s Spine

An elephant’s spine is not actually made to carry a human being. Yes, elephants are huge and look like strong beasts. But riding them does cause them long-term harm damaging their spine.

4. Blisters and Sores

Elephants with chairs strapped to their backs can suffer from blisters which get infected. Their feet get sores from the constant trekking. These sores also get infected and suffer from long-term damage.

5. Mental Distress

Elephants tend to be social animals. They form herds and have been observed forming social relationships with one another. However, at tourist camps, they are often isolated and this causes them mental distress.

6. Starvation and Dehydration

Elephants eat a lot. Like, a shedload of food. Elephants eat constantly, for around 12 to 18 hours a day. They also need a lot of water to keep hydrated and cool.

When working at camps they are not eating or drinking as much as they require to be healthy animals. They are, essentially, going hungry when they are working.

Elephants-Eating-Fruit

Elephants are not domesticated like dogs. They are wild animals. If you come across one that is comfortable with human contact than the likelihood is they have undergone the phajaan process to break them.

The Sanctuary

Thankfully there are now organisations such as the Elephant Nature Park who are rescuing mistreated animals and providing a sanctuary for them to live in.

At Elephant Nature Park there are elephants arriving with all kinds of injuries. One with a nasty landmine injury caused during illegal logging activity on the border with Burma. Another one was blinded by her mahout when she refused to work following the miscarriage of her baby (caused by overworking in logging activities). Some arrive with broken legs, damaged backs and a broken spirit.

One with a nasty landmine injury caused during illegal logging activity on the border with Burma. Another one was blinded by her mahout when she refused to work following the miscarriage of her baby (caused by overworking in logging activities). Some arrive with broken legs, damaged backs and a broken spirit.

Another one was blinded by her mahout when she refused to work following the miscarriage of her baby (caused by overworking in logging activities). Some arrive with broken legs, damaged backs and a broken spirit.

Some arrive with broken legs, damaged backs and a broken spirit.

The staff at ENP work with the newly rescued elephants to get their strength and health back. They work to help them to trust humans again through positive reinforcement. They observe the elephants closely to ensure they can meet their needs as best as possible. It’s heartwarming to see.

It’s heartwarming to see.

Elephant Nature Park Sanctuary

However, there is tourist demand for elephant riding (and performances etc.). As a result, an increasing number of baby elephants will continue to be poached from the wild and forced through the horrendous phajaan ritual.

I was naive enough the first time round to go along with the elephant ride. I did not know any better, but I did not do the research either. For that I am guilty.

This is why I want to help spread the awareness about the dark side of elephant tourism.

It is cruel, no matter what assurances these elephant trekking/performing camps tell you.

Please, please, please do not ride elephants.

Do some further research, read around and decide for yourself.

Elephant-Nature-Park-bath-the-elephants

In Thailand, my recommendation for a sanctuary where you can meet rescued elephants is Elephant Nature Park. There you can spend time watching, feeding and bathing some of the elephants. Just a day with them was a phenomenal experience. We got to see first hand just how much elephants need to eat! Plus how elephants actually behave when they are happy and not being chained or forced to work.

There you can spend time watching, feeding and bathing some of the elephants. Just a day with them was a phenomenal experience. We got to see first hand just how much elephants need to eat! Plus how elephants actually behave when they are happy and not being chained or forced to work.

Just a day with them was a phenomenal experience. We got to see first hand just how much elephants need to eat! Plus how elephants actually behave when they are happy and not being chained or forced to work.

We got to see first hand just how much elephants need to eat! Plus how elephants actually behave when they are happy and not being chained or forced to work.

I hope this post helps enlighten some of you. I wish my 25-year-old self could have read this, and how you should not ride elephants.

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(A similar version this post first appeared on Awesome Wave blog, my travel blog.)

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4 Comments

  1. Rebecca D
    25 October 2017 / 3:37 pm

    This is super helpful, I love Elephants and I’ll be travelling to Thailand next week and will be staying Chiang Mai. The Elephant Nature Park ideally was the place I wanted to visit however online it appears fully booked do you think this is accurate? do you have any others you could recommend?

    • 25 October 2017 / 3:52 pm

      Hi Rebecca,
      Elephant Nature Park does get quite busy in peak season so worth booking ahead of time. I’d recommend giving them a call to see if they have any spaces or cancellations.
      Have a great time in Thailand! 🙂

  2. Jessica
    25 October 2017 / 4:22 pm

    I think this needs to be more widely campaigned about because there are a load of 18-25 year old gap trippers who will be thinking they’re not doing any harm.

    It’s my dream to see Elephants wild in Sri Lanka. That way I know it’s ethical.

    xoxo
    J
    from
    The Crown Wings

  3. 9 November 2017 / 9:37 pm

    Absolutely. We need to keep speaking up about it.

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