Tuesday, September 9, 2014

To Ride or Not To Ride: Elephant Tourism in Thailand

My article on elephants and tourism that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Saturday 6 September has been my most-shared story on social media ever. Clearly the issue of wild animals used in entertainment is a pertinent one, and something that all tourists should be aware of.

Here is the link to the story as it ran in the SMH: http://www.smh.com.au/travel/activity/great-outdoors/asian-elephant-hospital-thailand-in-the-hearts-of-giants-20140903-3esmt.html

I confess that I have ridden elephants in Thailand; but to tell you the truth, I find plodding around on one of those uncomfortable wooden saddles that trekking elephants wear really boring! Welfare issues aside, it's just not that much fun from a tourism perspective.

This elephant does not appear stressed or unhappy 

Far more rewarding is watching elephants be elephants ... hoovering up food, being washed in a river, and interacting with each other in a herd situation. 

Feed time on the River Kwai

There is nothing more amusing than a baby elephant at play - the rambunctious toddlers are a laugh a minute.

Baby ele at ENP
Seriously the cutest creatures in the world!

As my elephant guru John Roberts from Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation states in my article, a blanket ban on elephant tourism is not the solution. We have a duty to ensure Thailand's captive elephants are well cared for, well fed, able to roam as free as possible and have interaction with other elephants. Elephants and their mahout owners still need to eat, and tourism still provides the best, least invasive solution for these animals.

A rewarding tourism experience at ENP
Best fun ever - washing the elephants at Anantara Golden Triangle

So what do we look for if we want to interact with elephants on our Thailand holiday?

Here are some guidelines from WAP, who did the original study on elephants and ethical treatment for Intrepid Travel:

Freedom to move without restraint. Are the animals free to move without restraint when not used for tourists? Can they interact with other animals on their own terms?

No signs of abuse or distress in the animals. Are the animals healthy and without wounds and not showing any behavioural problems? Do the animals seem calm but not apathetic?

Clean and natural husbandry conditions. Are the animals housed in a natural environment? Is the area kept clean?

Fresh and varied food available. Is fresh, unprocessed food available at all times? Can the animals forage natural food? Most animals also require free access to water at all times.

Don’t ride elephants or patronise shows where the elephants are clearly made to perform unnatural or human-like activities. You can politely voice your concerns to the appropriate tourism authorities.

If wanting to help elephants or experience them at close range, support a commendable venue or at least a venue that clearly priorities the elephant’s welfare.

For more information about how to be an ‘animal-friendly tourist’, visit worldanimalprotection.org.au

Happy eles!


  1. Elephant tourism in Thailand is a sort of catch 22 situation. If nobody rides the elephants or watches the shows, what is to become of the elephant when the owner has no income to feed them ?

    Ideally there should be more places like ENP, and the wild herds should be better managed. It's ironic that they have to introduce new blood to wild herds via domestic elephants because the elephant herds are inbreeding, they cannot roam intermingle due to man made barriers such as highways, and deforestation.

  2. The elephant is the most important animal in the Thailand. I really must take it ride whenever I have a chance to go to this country. This is really a nice blog on the elephants. The all pictures are very pretty. My sister has great affection for this big and polite creature. She loves them very much and even she goes there to see the elephants. I must show this article to her and I am sure she will like it very much.