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The Dark Side of Elephant Tourism

By Nemanja Pavlovic, March 29, 2016

By: Nemanja Pavlovic

While elephant tourism, like riding an elephant, seems like a fun and harmless activity, it has a sinister side of which most people are unaware. These attractions are often falsely promoted as cruelty-free to lure in unknowing tourists, including experienced travel bloggers. It isn’t until an investigative blowout that the general population knows the unfortunate truth. Be wise and read our advice on how to have an ethical elephant experience.

Elephants Are Not Toys



One of the customary activities for tourists visiting Thailand is, of course, elephant riding. It appears that the experience is an intimate way to interact with these gentle behemoths. The truth, however, is that elephants are not meant to be ridden.
Elephants are very smart, social, and most importantly, wild animals that can’t be domesticated. There has never been a way for us to breed elephants, like we would other domestic animals, due to their long birthing periods and the large amount of land needed for a healthy lifestyle. This, in effect, means that domesticated elephants are either kidnapped as babies or born in captivity—and are subsequently broken until they obey their human masters.


The Ugly Truth



The reference of domestication as a practice of “breaking the elephants” is exaggerating. Phajaan, or “the crush” is a training technique that is based on breaking the spirit of these good-natured giants. This process originated in the hills of Thailand and India, where the indigenous tribes believed that, in order to control an elephant, elephant trainers had to separate its soul from its physical body.

This extremely cruel and unnatural ritual starts with the separation of the calf from its mother. The young elephant is put in a cage or some other confinement where it is unable to move for days. It is starved and deprived of sleep, beaten with clubs, prodded and pierced with bull hooks and cut with sharp objects, until it is utterly terrified of everyone. Most of the domesticated elephants have scars on their forehead and torn ears from these terrible methods.

After the animal’s spirit is broken, the mahout, a designated elephant handler, shows kindness by giving food and water to the tortured creature. This manipulation forms a unique sort of the Stockholm syndrome in the elephant who views this “kind” human as a hero and savior. Even after this ordeal is over, most elephants are still subjected to occasional beatings and torture, in order to keep them in fear of their handlers.

The abuse towards elephants is nothing new, nor specific only to the Asian and African countries. Circuses worldwide apply similar methods, and up until the mid 70’s  zoos in Europe and the United States used some forms of corporal punishment.


Additional Issues of the

Elephant Tourism Industry

Even the camps that tout their animal-friendly programs are actually telling half truths. These “responsible” camps might treat their trained elephant well, but they usually use the same methods of breaking and training the elephants in the beginning.

On top of this, even if the elephants were treated well in captivity and trained with positive reinforcement, it still wouldn’t make it all right to ride them. They are surprisingly fragile. Sitting on an elephant’s back may cause permanent injuries, stunted growth, or organ failure, as its spine was never meant to take the added load of the humans and the special riding chairs.


Unfortunately, the sad state of the domesticated elephants is further complicated. For example, in Thailand, the current legal platform actually protects only the wild elephants against the abuse, leaving the other group at the mercy of their owners.

John Edward Roberts, director of elephants and conservation activities in one of the leading elephant conservation camps, Anantara Resorts & Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, believes that the most pressing elephant issues will not be easily resolved.

“I wish that all the elephants could live in the wild,” Roberts said, “but unfortunately, we currently have between 3,000 to 4,000 captive elephants in Thailand, all of whom need to earn some form of living in order to be fed. By comparison there is almost the same amount of wild elephants in Thailand and there isn’t nearly enough available land for any kind of effective release program, making the tourism the only viable option to pay for the essential elephant needs.

“All elephants, but especially musth elephants, need quiet forest spaces to relax in. Of course, it would be ideal for elephants to be relaxing in the forest the whole time but that’s not a realistic option for the majority of elephants who need to work in tourism in order to pay for their own upkeep and that of their mahout and owner,” he adds.



The Hopeful Future

While the story of the captive elephants is discouraging, all is not completely lost. In the past several years, there has been a rise in the number of true conservation camps for elephants all over the world, supported in part by various organizations and companies.


In these camps, animals are treated with love and care; they are trained solely by positive reinforcement methods. Tourists are still welcomed, and they can spend some time in the company of the parks’ big gray-skinned protégés. There are no tricks, elephant paintings, or riding of the elephants. These elephants are allowed to live in their natural social structure and form close knit groups that are truly important to these smart, large mammals.

These beautiful gentle giants have suffered unwarranted abuse and death at the hands of humans for centuries, regardless of their involvement in the ivory, labor or entertainment markets. While the awareness about the wild elephants’ plights has been present for some time and legal steps have been taken to protect them, the light has only recently been shed on these issues. We still have a long way to go, but hopefully the kindness of the human spirit will prevail over the ugliness that we sometimes create.



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