Why riding elephants is cruel #stopelephantabuse

We’ve all seen them – the obvious tourist, sitting on top of an elephant, laughing and taking selfies – without taking just one moment to think about what their “fun” must mean for the elephant.
And of course, there are always those people who don’t research properly and immediately assume that any place with the word “sanctuary” attached to it must mean that the elephants are treated well, even if they offer rides. Well, think again.

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This picture was taken in Ayutthaya. It made me want to scream

Believe me, I understand why you would think that riding an elephant must be fun – because after all, we are riding horses as well. But elephants and horses are two very different animals. Well, why is riding on elephants that cruel? Let me show you.

1. Babies are separated from mothers 
At a very young age, the baby elephants are often times taken away from their mother, even while they’re still breastfeeding. The younger the elephant, the more easily you can train it – and the more money you get for it.

2. Pahjaan – breaking the elephant’s spirit 
Pahjaan is as cruel as it sounds. For this torture technique, the (young) elephant is tied up and either stuck in a tiny cage, or tied to trees. It is then beaten repeatedly and not fed or given water for days at a time. During this, about 50% of the elephants who undergo Pahjaan die. Sometimes, the elephant is beaten so hard that their legs break, and it is not rare that an elephant will be blinded on purpose.
Pahjaan can last up to five months, depending on the elephant. Once the elephant gives up, it lets out a horrible wail, and a new person, unfamiliar to the animal, will step in and give the animal some fruit and untie it. From that moment on, this person becomes the mahout.
Warning, distressting content: Here is a picture of Pahjaan.
Please get straight in your head that if you ride an elephant, this elephant had to suffer through all of this, just so that it lets you ride on it.

3. The working environment
If an elephant is put into the tourism industry, their life is just as horrible as one would expect it to be. The animals typically have to give rides for up to 10 hours a day – keep in mind that they are not cut out for carrying things on their back, so their back will arch considerably over time.
The mahout will also cut holes into the ears of the elephant and put ropes through them, to indicate the direction to the animal. If the elephant flaps its ears (which it does to keep itself cool in the heat), the ropes will rip through the holes, creating frayed ears. Not only does this hurt, but the elephant is then unable to use the ears as a fan – which it desperately needs.
Most working elephants have to spend all day in the sun without a sufficient water or food supply, and are chained up 24/7.

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This picture, as well as the featured image, were taken at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand.

You want to interact with elephants in an ethical way?

Across all of Asia, especially Thailand, there are many so-called “elephant sanctuaries”. These sanctuaries basically act as a refuge for elephants: many elephants who spent years in the tourism or logging industry can “retire” here. In sanctuaries, their one job is to be an elephant; they do not have to work, obey, or anything other than eat, play, and poop.
However, there are many unethical places that just add “sanctuary” or “refuge” to their name but still practice maltreatment of elephants.
Here are three ethical places you can visit in Thailand:

1. Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand 
WFFT is one of the smaller elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, as it focuses on animal cruelty in general. WFFT is home to several animal species, including monkeys, bears, crocodiles, and elephants. All of the animals living here were rescued from either the tourism or logging industry, or from temples or homes, where they were kept as pets. Here, you will first shown around the entire refuge, introducing you to the animals and their stories. After lunch, you will have the opportunity to feed an elephant and take a walk with it – during this, the elephant is not chained up or anything like it, it is free to leave. Most times however, they choose the fruit over their mates.

2. Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai 
This is probably the best-known elephant sanctuary in all of Thailand, as it is also one of the biggest. Here, the elephants are free to roam within a large area of space. You will get introduced to some of the elephants, and will also get the opportunity to feed the elephant. As of mid April 2018, Elephant Nature Park no longer offers bathing with the elephants, for the benefit of the animal.

3. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary 
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary offers a similar experience to the other two refuges. Here, you can also feed the elephant with some fruit, however it is also not permitted to bathe, ride, or sit on the elephants. You will also have the opportunity to observe elephants exhibit their natural behavior in a big area of free space.

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Taken at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand

How do I know if a sanctuary is ethical? 

1. Use the internet 
There are many backpacker groups on facebook and other social media platforms. Look through past posts or ask which refuges the other travelers went to, and their experience with it. Make sure to also check websites like tripadvisor for negative reviews.

2. Words to look out for 
Often times, “elephant tours” are straight up unethical, as they typically offer rides. A legit elephant refuge will never offer riding an elephant, sitting/standing on it, hugging its trunk, kissing it, or it demonstrating tricks. If the elephant in the sanctuary is chained up in any way, run.



You want to know more about elephant cruelty?

PETA – Why avoid elephant rides
CNN – Elephant rides are killing the animals
One Green Planet – “Breaking the spirit”
PETA – Help stop elephant abuse
World Animal Protection – Elephants exploited
BBC – Elephant tourism is fuelling cruelty



Please share this post so that we can raise more awareness towards elephant abuse and animal cruelty in general. 


26 thoughts on “Why riding elephants is cruel #stopelephantabuse

  1. Interesting Read. I didn’t know that they have to undergo torture before. I was thinking, since they are such intelligent animals, that they would simply learn how to behave.
    However, I do not think sitting on the back is that bad. Horses are even smaller and no one speaks of torture there. Might be because an elephant has to do it all day.
    Have to look it up though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The back of an elephant is its weakest part, and like I mentioned, elephants and horses are two completely different animals. And yes, a big part of it is also that they have to do it all day long under terrible conditions.

      But you are right that essentially, just sitting on an elephant’s back is not what the big problem is – it is that they would not let you sit on them unless they have undergone Phajaan.

      Yes, please look it up! 🙂 My goal is to just spread more awareness, so that elephant abuse can eventually be stopped

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I had to quit reading this halfway through because it made me nauseas. We were in Thailand recently and opted to not visit an elephant sanctuary, camp, refuge, or any other name during our visit despite having that intention when we arrived. I couldn’t agree more, it is horrific. What we discovered after attempting to find an “elephant sanctuary” was exactly what you describe. Many, if not most, are not that at all and actually are just as bad as the rest of the riding camps. Some even have a riding camp as well but give it a different name so they aren’t associated.
    We searched TripAdvisor looking for a good one. What we found was horrific. Reading the bad reviews on any of the “ethical” camps revealed tourists who had noticed terrible treatment of the elephants so they would be forced to perform on command. Even the good camps have some routine where visitors feed or bathe the elephant at a certain time. Every day. The only way this can happen is to jab or starve the creature to ensure that they are ready when the time comes.
    Our final determination was that supporting any elephant tourism in Thailand, even if there were a legitimate sanctuary somewhere, would have a negative and unintended consequence. Bringing money to this industry, regardless of how well thought out, provides demand and therefore a financial motivation for the industry to continue to open new camps and capture new elephants. We felt that the best action was to completely boycott elephant tourism and give it no money whatsoever.
    I’m not saying that the ones you have listed aren’t good. I don’t know if we ever researched these. You may want to read the bad reviews just to make sure.
    I actually had a conversation with someone recently who responded that “maybe they like being taken from the wild and locked up? They don’t have to run from tigers anymore.” Seriously…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comment! I totally understand your choice not to visit any type of elephant experience!

      I looked up all of the sanctuaries I have listed and talked to people who went there as well, and as far as I know, they are all real. For example, the WFFT has elephants who simply cannot be released back into the wild for various reasons: some of them grew up only with humans and have thus no natural instincts at all, so they wouldn’t be able to survive. They also had injured or blind elephants, who naturally would also starve in the wild.

      I completely agree that it is better for the elephants to live in the wild, but sometimes this is not possible anymore – due to humans and what they did to the animals.

      Also, stupid comments like the person you mentioned seriously make me doubt the human race sometimes. I don’t understand how people can be so ignorant to support this cruelty

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well said. Glad there are some good ones out there. The experience really sounded great and we would have enjoyed it I’m sure. Thanks for raising awareness. We added some of this info to a Chiang Mai post we did not long ago, but it wasn’t the main topic and was nowhere near as well discussed. I hope this gets a lot of attention 🙏🏼😊🐘

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting read. I knew they suffered but didn’t know the extent of it. Unfortunately, I have done it once when I was a child, never again though. It’s so sad. This article helps educate people which is great!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yay! I would love to ride in the elephant one day.. One of my dream place to visit outside the country is Thailand.. I hope I can go visit Thailand one day and ride the elephant plus explore Thailand’s culture and beautiful places. 🙂


  5. Thanks for this post! Next time someone asks me why I think that’s cruel, you know ”I’m sure they’re treated alright” way, I have straight clear answers. To me, it seemed so obviously not right, I had a hard time explaining it to others till now…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m kn Phuket and I see people riding elephants all the time and I feel the same way, horrible. I want to yell at tourists how cruel and ignorant they are being to the elephants. So glad you posted this

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you so much for speaking for our beautiful animal friends. Elephants are majestic, intelligent and have emotions. Humans are so habituated to using other creations for their own benefit and amusement, they do not realize or care that animals are sentient beings. They have as much right to a life of dignity, to be loved, to be respected as much as humans do. Thank you this post.


  8. Oh the humans….I can’t imagine a person being fine with themselves as they do this to a beautiful being. I reblogged this, but will undo it if you prefer. Decent people need to know this. Thank you for sharing, though I’ve a new sadness for them.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It is truly awful that people still do that with all the information all over how animals are treated so they can ride them, take photos with them, etc. So thank you for posting this and maybe someone will at least think twice before doing something so cruel.


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