Why I’ll never ride an elephant again

I was rummaging through a storage box the other day when I came across something that made me cringe: a framed photograph of my partner and sitting atop an elephant, grinning for the camera.

We were 19-years-old, and on our first backpacking adventure together – to Thailand. Like thousands of travellers to the Thai Kingdom before us, one particular experience rated high on our bucket list: riding an elephant.

Elephants battle extreme heat to ferry tourists around the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, where a working elephant dropped dead from exhaustion in April 2016. Image by Osrin / flickr

When we rolled up to the elephant camp, we didn’t spot any red flags. The elephants were kept in a grassy pen with seemingly adequate shade, and they looked healthy enough – to a non-expert. During our short trek though the jungle, I felt a bit uncomfortable about the mahout’s somewhat aggressive use of a bullhook (also known as an ankus), but reassured myself that this was normal. None of the other tourists seemed to be worried. I remember wondering at one point whether the elephant was enjoying our little meander, but my concerns were quashed by the gleeful way my steed reached its trunk around behind its head to receive bananas from our outstretched hands. She seemed delighted!

Today, armed with over a decade more wisdom, I can be pretty certain that elephant wasn’t happy, and by riding it, I had unwittingly contributed to one of the world’s most problematic wildlife tourism industries. Had I known better at the time, I never would have done it.

Information about the animal welfare issues surrounding elephant rides has been readily available to anyone with an internet connection for years, but it is only recently that the travelling community has really started to educate itself about this complex issue. This is thanks largely to the pioneering efforts of tour company Intrepid Travel that was among the first to remove elephant rides from its tours (more than 60 tour companies worldwide have since followed suit), and animal welfare groups making more effective noise about the issue – in early 2016, World Animal Protection ranked elephant rides the world’s cruelest wildlife tourism attraction in a list of the top ten.

A captive Asian elephant strains against its chains. Image by Bruce Thomson / flickr
A captive Asian elephant strains against its chains. Image by Bruce Thomson / flickr

If you’re not up to speed, the key issue with elephant rides (not to mention elephant shows) is that these wild animals – whether captured illegally or captive-bred – typically undergo a brutal regime of abuse known as ‘breaking the spirit’ to ‘train’ them to carry tourists and perform for humans in other ways. As the pachyderms mature, they are kept in line using tactics ranging from the use of a bullhook to simply touching sensitive pressure points to force particular responses. Most travellers don’t realise they can contribute to elephant abuse just by siting on one – animal welfare experts claim elephants can only carry a maximum weight of 150kg on the middle of their backs for up to four hours per day, yet many elephants work full days carrying two adults in a metal howdah (a seat weighing around 50kgs) at a time. Even as a skinny 19-year-old, my weight combined with that of my partner and the howdah would have tipped 170kgs on that poor elephant’s back.

So what about the ‘sanctuaries’ that offer more ‘ethical’ alternatives, such as bareback rides? No matter how many reassurances you might be given by the ‘sanctuary’ operators, forcing elephants perform unnatural behaviours of any kind – such as carrying humans – are ultimately harmful for these gentle giants.

Knowing this, it’s easy to say that the elephant ride industry should be shut down. But it’s not that simple. In the case of Thailand, for example, around 4,000 of the country’s 5,000-strong elephant population are captive. Few could survive on their own in the jungle after a lifetime of captivity even if there was enough room for them. There isn’t enough space in the nation’s existing sanctuaries, either, nor could any of these sanctuaries afford to take in such a large volume of pachyderms, not to mention their mahouts (traditional carers), which also need to be provided for.

Tourists take a dip in the Khwae River to give two retired working elephants a good scrub-down with coconut husks at ElephantsWorld in Thailand. Image by Sarah Reid
Tourists take a dip in Thailand’s Khwae River to give two retired working elephants a good scrub-down with coconut husks at ElephantsWorld in Thailand © Sarah Reid

So what’s a traveller to do? Without strict laws to protect elephants in any country where rides are popular, one of the easiest way to ensure that you don’t contribute to the problem is to shun operators that offer elephant rides or shows in favour of visiting a legitimate sanctuary or viewing elephants in the wild. Critics of elephant ride boycotters say the livelihoods of locals who work in the industry will be put at risk if travellers take this stance. But let’s be realistic – with more than 30 million people visiting Thailand alone every year (and plenty of them planning to ride an elephant) the volume of travellers consciously avoiding elephant rides aren’t going to contribute to putting anyone out of business anytime soon. But as more and more travellers decide to support elephant sanctuaries doing the right thing by pachyderms, we can only hope that it inspires the industry to move in a more sustainable direction.

In 2014, I partook in the ‘work for elephants’ program at ElephantsWorld near the central Thai city of Kanchanaburi (yep, near the notorious Tiger Temple), during which visitors learn about the plight of Thailand’s pachyderms, gather and prepare food for the resident elephants, feed them, and bathe with them in the river. It was an incredibly rewarding experience; a million times more so than my elephant ride all those years ago. At 2500Baht for adults it’s more than double what a couple would typically pay for an hour-long elephant ride, but having (unfortunately) sampled both options, I can personally attest to the fact that the former is worth budgeting for. There are a handful of sanctuaries like ElephantsWorld in Thailand (I noted five top choices in this article for Lonely Planet), but ‘sanctuaries’ that don’t offer elephant rides are few and far between in other countries. The Elephant Conservation Center in Laos and the Bunong Elephant Project in Cambodia are two worth looking into. I’m yet to hear of a sanctuary in Indonesia that doesn’t offer rides and/or shows – please let me know if you find one.

Retired working elephants at ElephantsWorld in Thailand enjoy a snack on sugar cane. Image by Sarah Reid
Retired working elephants at ElephantsWorld enjoy a sugar cane snack © Sarah Reid

Before choosing an elephant interaction, do your research (the Ears Asia website is a good place to start). Sadly, many camps that call themselves ‘sanctuaries’ or ‘eco-camps’ are far from what you’d expect of a facility carrying those labels. And just because a sanctuary does not offer rides does not mean it is perfect. If you do find yourself duped into visiting a shonky operation, don’t keep it to yourself: report it to an animal welfare group, warn other travellers via online forums such as the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, suggest to the travel resource that inspired you to go there that it might want to reconsider its recommendation, and tell your friends. The more travellers start talking about animal welfare in tourism, the more we can collectively help to drive change.