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    Should You Ride an Elephant in Thailand?



Should You Ride an Elephant in Thailand?

Elephant tourism is huge.  Without prior knowledge or research it may be difficult to know, should you really ride an elephant in Thailand?

Feel free to share your views and spark a conversation in the comments section below the article.

Prior to my trip to Thailand, it was impossible to scroll through my social media newsfeeds and not see a photo of someone riding an elephant.   I’ll admit, years ago, I didn’t know a great deal about the elephant industry and after seeing all the pictures, I did have an urge to ride an elephant myself.  What a once in a lifetime experience I often thought to myself, as I’m sure many people do.

Estimates believe that there are 6,000 Asian elephants in Thailand and around 3000 are in captivity.  Initially, this is a surprising figure when you think that 50% of all the elephants in Thailand are held in captivity.  However, when you think about the demand for experiences to be up close and personal with elephants in Thailand and the financial opportunities for anyone who owns an elephant, the figures aren’t a huge surprise.

I have previously posted an article about our trip to Elephant Nature Park, close to Chiang Mai, Thailand.  I felt it would be appropriate to re-focus on some of the issues touched upon in that article and really dig deeper into the predicaments behind the elephant tourism industry and answer the question behind the post, should you ride an elephant in Thailand?

Why Are so Many Elephants in Captivity in Thailand?

I mentioned above that there is around 3000 out of 6000 Asian elephants in captivity in Thailand.  It’s interesting to know how many of Thailand’s elephants are in captivity, but why are there so many?

The answer to this question isn’t black and white, but a large part of the huge numbers in captivity boils down to the logging industry.  Until its ban in 1989, logging was a huge economical, yet unethical, industry in Thailand (as it is in many countries worldwide still today).  The jungle is home to gigantic, centuries old trees, as you can imagine a human would have literally no chance of moving.  Que the elephants.  In terms of purchase and running costs, elephants are much cheaper than log skidders (commonly used in the logging industry to transport cut trees from the cutting site to a vehicle).  Prior to 1989, over 4000 elephants had ‘jobs’ within the logging industry.  These jobs included; pulling logs, carrying good and people cross-country and dragging ploughs.

A fatal flood in 1988 signalled the end of the legal logging industry in Thailand.  However, it was not all good news for the elephants.  Although the majority of the captive elephants would no longer be poorly treated on the logging sites, they still had owners, who paid for them and they now provided no form of income.  Around 70% of captive elephants were now out of ‘work’.

Elephant Tourism in Thailand

Following the logging ban in Thailand, came the boom in elephant tourism.  Elephant owners needed a new stream of income for themselves.  Also, an income in order to feed their elephants, which can consume up to 136kg of food each day.  These methods of income came in the form of street begging and elephant camps.  Providing the opportunity for naive tourists to be up close and personal with animals they have only ever seen on TV, offered a profitable opportunity for elephant owners.

Privately owned elephants can provide a lucrative investment to their owners, with their value estimated at around $60,000. The elephants’ high value and ability to attract high incomes through the tourism industry, ensured many owners turned to tourism following the logging ban.

Elephant tourism isn’t a straight forward issue.  There are many factors to acknowledge.  Captive elephants cannot be released back into the wild, there just isn’t enough natural habitat for them to survive anymore.  If the elephants didn’t provide an income for their mahout and owner, the only choice would be to let the elephants fend for themselves or sell them on.  On the other hand, the elephant industry in Thailand is notorious for the cruelty towards the elephants, which is becoming a lot more of a known issue these days.

It really is catch-22 for some people.  The cruelty of the industry is no secret, but some just can’t pass up the chance to ride and get up close and personal with the elephants.

Should You Ride an Elephant?

In short, my answer is no.  Animals aren’t on this earth for human entertainment.  Elephants are wild animals, no one should be sat on top, riding a wild animal.  Let alone an endangered animal, like the Asian elephant.

Although I would personally never ride an elephant or support exploitation of elephants, a lot of people do, and you wonder what would happen to these elephants if they didn’t, would it be an even worse existence for them?

I’ve touched upon the fact that these elephants which are in captivity in Thailand, can no longer be released into the wild.  Therefore, the elephants are more than likely destined for a life of earning money for their owners and mahouts.  The elephant camps are doing whatever they can to entice tourists to part with their cash.  If you’re ever in Northern Thailand, you will notice how many choices there are for riding/watching elephants.

Wild elephants certainly wouldn’t allow a human to ride on top of them.  The human would more than likely be trampled on the floor if they tried.  Why do captive elephants so willingly allow humans to ride them?  The simple answer is that they have lost their will to fight.  The majority of elephants which are exploited for the financial gain of others have had to endure a life of cruelty and torture.  Elephants which are captured from the wild, are abused into submission until they lose all will to fight back.

People riding an elephant, should you ride an elephant?

Elephant Riding. Image by Benjamat Khongkam via Flickr

How Can You Help Without Harming?

OK, so we know the elephant tourism industry probably isn’t going to end anytime soon in Thailand, there’s too much money involved.  Whether this is the small amount of income to the mahouts, to the larger profit made by the elephant owners, all the way up to the huge tourism income as a whole from foreign tourists visiting Thailand.

However, you don’t need to support the cruel and inhumane sector of elephant tourism in Thailand.  In order to get close to elephants and experience them face to face, do you really need to climb on top of them and trek through the jungle? There must be other ways in which you can get close to these animals and not provide funds for further cruelty.

There are elephant sanctuaries which you can visit.  These sanctuaries usually home rescued or retired elephants.  One of the sanctuaries in Chiang Mai is Elephant Nature Park.  One striking thing about the sanctuary is that the majority of elephants there are permanently injured.  The main reason the elephants end up at the sanctuary is due to being too old to work anymore, or no longer having the ability to work i.e. They’re injured.  The sanctuary will, therefore, purchase and care for the elephants.  I’d dread to think of the other existence for the elephant if they didn’t end up in a sanctuary.

Elephants being fed at Elephant Nature Park

Feeding at Elephant Nature Park

Up close and personal with the elephants on the feeding platform at Elephant Nature Park

Up close and personal with the elephants on the feeding platform at Elephant Nature Park

Do Your Research

Just because there’s an advert which contains the buzz words ‘sanctuary’, ‘orphanage’ or ‘rescue’, doesn’t mean these places are what they say they are.  Camp owners have cottoned onto the fact that the cruelty in the elephant tourism industry is now well known worldwide.  They’re adapting their advertising to fool you into thinking they actually care about the elephants and not for their financial gain.

Definitely, do your research if you plan on visiting a sanctuary.  I would always recommend Elephant Nature Park (view their website here), but there are others out there.  Take a look on Trip Advisor at the reviews.  Ask your fellow travellers where they would recommend.

As you can see from this article, the elephant tourism industry in Thailand and across the world is a complicated subject.  A topic a lot of people do feel emotive about.  My answer to the question ‘should I ride an elephant in Thailand?’ Is and always will be, no.  I would always steer people to a place like Elephant Nature Park, where the money will go to good use, by protecting elephants.  There’s no need to fund a cruel trade.  By paying to ride an elephant, you create demand.  More demand could possibly mean more elephants becoming captive.  It’s a vicious cycle.

The Asian elephant is a beautiful and majestic creature.  The sad truth is that the Asian elephant is an endangered species and their population is dwindling.  At the rate the population is shrinking, the Asian elephant will sadly be extinct in less than 50 years.

Do what you can to help. Don’t fund a cruel sector, visit real sanctuaries.  Certainly, don’t buy ivory.  You can even donate to wildlife funds and sanctuaries.

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For more information and destinations in Thailand Click Here.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments section.

Have you ever considered riding or rode an elephant in Thailand before? Would you still ride an elephant in Thailand after reading this article? If yes, why? If no, why not?


  • ActivityFan Thailand, 23/02/2017 Reply

    Great post - I couldn't agree more with this post. I hope this post can educate more and more people about elephant cruelty.

    Elephant riding should be banned as it may endanger the elephant's health. Their spines are not made to support human weights. They should be well-treated. Thus volunteering activities in some few places in Thailand should be supported.

    I hope one day, elephants are no longer treated in such a bad way :)

  • Elisa, 22/02/2017 Reply

    Fortunately i read about the torture on the elephant before my trip to Thailand.
    I've been on the Elephant Nature Park too and I've loved it (I've wrote it too on my blog)
    Now, to let everybody know about the torture that the elephants are subjetc, I'm trying to tell everybody I know about this orrible practice.

  • Samantha Elisabeth, 16/02/2017 Reply

    I LOVE THIS. I love how in depth you are with your explanations. I'm PASSIONATELY against elephant riding, and this pretty much outlines why. I was a little worried clicking through the pin, but I'm happy this isn't just promoting some tourist company's rides but helping to educate your followers.

    • Nathan, 16/02/2017 Reply

      Thanks Samantha! I'm so glad I did all my research when I visited Elephant Nature Park. I was against riding elephants before that and I certainly am after. Some of the stories were horrific!

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