Behind the Elephant Rides


We’ve all seen images of people sat atop one of these great animals, with huge smiles on their faces. Adverts for a friendly and up-close experience with elephants are irresistible. It’s sad to think that many don’t know what lies behind this tourist experience. The illegal capture and torture of wild and critically endangered Asian Elephants is the backbone of this cruel sector of the tourism industry. 

Reports of elephants dying due to over-exhaustion and starvation in the tourism industry is sadly not a thing of the past. Despite campaigns and conservation efforts, it is still occurring today. As long as people are willing to pay good money for a view from an elephant’s back, the industry will continue. In 2014, baby elephants were worth up to $33,000 according to An Assessment of the Live Elephant Trade in Thailand, a report by Traffic. In any terms that’s a lot of money; an attractive reward for poachers who then sell the elephants illegally to the tourism industry.

Young elephants are captured and forced apart from their mothers. Tortured and abused in a process called Phajaan, where the elephant is “divorced from its spirit” – roughly translated. The “crushing”, which it is also referred to as, can involve tight confinement of these endangered babies for days whilst they are starved and beaten. When the elephant has no spirit left, it is then considered tamed and ready to be sold in the format of rides.

Credit: Jakob Owens via Unsplash

With so many of us now heading out to Southeast Asia, we’re all trying to one-up each other’s trip, trying to have the best experience, stories, and photos to show. Sometimes this can take us down a path with an unknown dark side. I would like to believe that if we all knew the horrors that went into having elephants allow you to sit astride their back, elephant rides would be a thing of the past. But the sad truth is so many people still don’t know about the torture and the irreversible damage caused because it doesn’t make travel look good. It’s not a pretty light for an article; not a cheery piece of journalism; so it gets ignored and unreported.

So, to all my fellow travellers, please read behind the headlines and consider whether an Instagram picture is really worth it. Don’t be a part of this abusive animal industry and instead visit some of Southeast Asian conservation programmes, or volunteer to help look after rescued elephants at the many rescue centers. Remember these are wild animals, we should observe them from a distance with respect. Always question the welfare of captured animals, make sure your money is going to respectable organizations that take good care of their animals and spread the word when they are not!


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