The Truth About Riding Elephants

This is the first Frugal Foodies post that has absolutely nothing to do with being frugal or food, but it does have something to do with being an informed traveler.

I hope you enjoy and learn something new!

Elephant tourism has exploded in Thailand, and tourists line up to ride the gentle giants for a unique travel experience and fantastic photo opp.  Was this on your travel bucket list?  Well, you might want to think again.  There is a dark side to elephant tourism, and going for a fun ride isn’t as harmless as you may have thought. 

First off, elephants are massive, and it’s easy to think they won’t notice a couple hundred extra pounds up top, but that is not the case.  Elephant backs are anatomically designed to support the weight of the elephant below, not a rider above. Rather than a spine composed of smooth disks that is conducive to bearing weight, they have bones that protrude upward.  Putting pressure on these bones pushes them down and damages the surrounding tissue, which leads to physical trauma and pain. 

Riding elephants inflicts physical damage, but the real abuse lies in the domestication process

Elephants caught in the wild are resistant to being domesticated, and tamers use “The Crush”, or ‘phajaan’, to force them into obedience.  “Crush” refers to literally crushing the animal’s spirit, and some techniques include tying the creature up so it is immobile, beating it with sticks and chains, forcing it into sleep deprivation and starvation, and stabbing the ears with nails and sticks to pulverize the animal’s spirit down into compliance. 

Think that’s bad?  What they do to the babies is worse. Elephants exhibit behaviors that suggest they are capable of joy, happiness, sadness, depression, and grief, and there is a strong familial mother child connection.  Young elephants are easier to train than adults, and it is common for elephant hunters to rip babies away from their mothers to sell them off.  The babies go through intense separation anxiety, depression, and loneliness that is coupled with the physical abuse and phajaan by the trainers in order to beat them down into seeing the trainer as a new mother figure.

The atrocities don’t end there.

Once sufficiently “crushed”, the elephants are kept in inhumane living conditions. They are tied up in uncomfortably small spaces, deprived of adequate nutrition, don’t get proper medical attention, and aren’t free to socialize.  

Tourism in Thailand has skyrocketed in the last decade, reaching nearly 40 million visitors in 2019. Riding an elephant is usually on the top of the Thailand bucket list, and the number of elephant rides, shows, and attractions has risen to meet demand.  Such attractions cover up the abusive underpinnings to make a profit, and as a result, most people are oblivious to the animal rights violations they are unknowingly supporting.   I’ll admit riding an elephant was certainly on my list when I found out I would be in Thailand, and I was completely unaware of the harmful repercussions.  

So, what can we do?  

First off, don’t engage in any type of elephant tourism, whether it be a ride or a show.  Business doesn’t exist without a customer, so simply don’t be a customer. 

While that may be an obvious no-no, it can be tricky to tell if a “sanctuary” is actually as ethical as it proclaims.  I went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Pattaya to get my elephant fix in what I thought was the right way.  For $70 USD I got to feed the rescued elephants, give them a mud bath (hello spa day!), then go for a swim with the gentle giants. I walked away sporting my cool hippie poncho feeling my humanitarian glow radiating out.

But was I actually doing the right thing?

On a rainy Monday morning, I went down the rabbit hole of researching elephant tourism, and it became apparent that elephants aren’t meant to eat, bathe, walk and swim two times a day on command.  Despite my good intentions, in hindsight I realize that I was just engaging in a different type of elephant tourism. It is certainly more humane than a circus or elephant ride experience, but it’s still not 100% ethical.  

There are true elephant conservation parks and sanctuaries in Thailand, and seeing the beautiful creatures can still be a part of your vacation. Check out this article from The Guardian and this guide from Backpacker for a place to start, and be sure to do your research before going.

Ultimately, the best weapon in fighting the mistreatment and abuse of elephants is knowledge.  Spread the word about the grisly world of elephant tourism to help bring it to a stop one ride at a time. 

9 Comments Add yours

  1. I feel like people are finally waking up to this mistreatment of animals for our entertainment. Be it the circus or tourism. I will advocate right along side of you to stop this kind of behavior.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t agree more. It’s appalling how animals are mistreated for our own amusement, and hopefully we can make efforts to help bring it to an end!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ourcrossings says:

    I’m glad to see that more and more people are talking about the aweful elephant rides and how the poor animals are treated while being forced to carry tourists on their backs! You can also use hashtag #stopelephantriding on your social media to show your support or contact an animal charity BornFree if you see any wrongdoing. Thanks for sharing and safe travels 😀 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It truly is terrible, and the first step is just spreading awareness. Thank you for sharing the hashtag, I will be sure to use it!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Patrick says:

    Very informative and interesting read. Thank you for doing this research!!


    1. thanks for giving it a read!


  4. thanks for this post. It’s really important visitors are aware of all that animals go through. I am guilty of riding an elephant 21 years ago now in Thailand and four years ago visiting that tiger park where I was assured the tigers were not drugged. I did my research afterwards. I feel bad about it and would never go there again but I feel like the damage’s done.


    1. It’s tricky because sometimes you just simply don’t know! All we can do is continue to read, learn, and become more informed!


  5. Thank you for sharing this information.


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