Home Sustainable Travel Elephant Riding – The Ethical Dilemma

Elephant Riding – The Ethical Dilemma

by Harriet Reeves

I have been thinking about this blog for a while. As we are developing and refining our sustainable travel product, this issue has kept cropping up and quite frankly, I simply can’t decide what to do about it! The issue I am talking about is that of elephant riding throughout our destination countries.

As a conservationist, I struggle with the idea of elephant riding as it doesn’t really fit into the box of ‘Bad’ or ‘Good’. The conditions in which many elephant trekking outfits worldwide* keep their animals is horrific, with animals being malnourished, overworked and beaten into submission – all so that they can cart about a few tourists to earn his mahout some dollar. However the benefits to worldwide elephant populations as a whole, from a conservation point of view, cannot be ignored. Exposing people to elephants face-to-face gives them a chance to experience their beauty, intelligence and nobility; educating them and providing the opportunity to learn about the elephant’s plight worldwide. It is a known fact that people who have not experienced an animal will be far less likely to care about conserving it, so this interaction can go a long way in helping elephant populations worldwide. But at what cost, and is there a way to educate people without harming the elephants?


Elephants are wild animals. Although some appear tame, they have never been domesticated in the same way as horses or dogs, and a great deal of ‘the wild’ remains in their being – whether roaming the jungles freely or cooped up in an enclosure. They are also one of the most intelligent, social, emotional and ‘human’ animals – their behaviour often resembles human behaviour – and as such, they need to be treated with dignity and respect.

Elephants were originally used in the logging industry – particularly in South East Asia – but, following the introduction of machinery that took their place, the mahouts have had to find a way to pay for the care and upkeep of their elephants. This is when many of them turned to begging in the streets and tourism in the form of trekking camps or circuses (please see my earlier blog).

It has been said (and unfortunately despite my research I am struggling to find anywhere that provides a contradiction) that the process of making a wild elephant compliant and controllable by humans involves ‘food and sleep deprivation, subjection to regular beatings using the ankus (bull hook), social isolation and physical restraint using chaining, shackling and a contraption known as a ‘Crush’ or Thai ‘Phajaan’’. Young elephants are known to be taken from their mothers at an early age (females in the wild do not leave the maternal herd and males do not leave until they are around 10years of age), before undergoing the above set of procedures to essentially break the animal’s spirit.

From what I understand (and please feel free to correct me if I am wrong – I love to learn!) it is possible to tame elephants more humanely, by treating the animals with dignity and care, however this is a far slower process and unfortunately, the quicker method of beating the animal into submission appears to be the method of choice by many trekking centres and circuses.

Despite their size, elephants are not designed to carry people on their back and any load of more than 2 average sized adults on their back is too many. The best and most comfortable place for the elephant to carry someone is on the top of its back, straddling its neck. Contrary to popular belief, elephants are also not designed to walk all day, though in the wild they will occasionally do so in order to reach food or water. In many trekking centres, unnatural social groupings and a lack of space and stimulation can lead to a host of problems such as skin and foot ailments, joint pain, an increased susceptibility to infectious diseases and a decline in mental wellbeing.


I have ridden elephants before – first of all on my gap year as a wide-eyed, animal-mad 18 year old exploring the northern hills of Thailand, and more recently as I check out our suppliers’ credentials in terms of animal welfare in both Sri Lanka and Laos. While I appreciate that I am fortunate to have had opportunities that not everyone else has had, I want to highlight the impacts of elephant riding, both bad and good, in order to help with your decision making process.

The first time was great….for the first 10 minutes or so anyway. What I actually enjoyed more was the interaction with the enormous animal on the ground; being investigated by its trunk and searched for titbits (see right photograph). The feeling of being on top of the elephant itself is like being in a slow, juddery rocking chair – only it rocks side to side rather than back and forth. If you are lucky and have good balance, you might get the chance to sit on the elephant’s neck, which feels more like riding a reeeeallly slow horse, lolling from side to side as though in slow motion. After a brief stint in the Howdah (chair), I moved to the neck position, preferring to have a physical  tie to the animal and feel more connected to the overall experience.


Whilst I have never ridden an elephant at an establishment that suggests cruelty or mistreatment, I have enjoyed the experiences less and less each time I’ve done it. Having said that, each time I get to be around the elephants on the ground, I learn more about how to behave around these majestic and potentially dangerous animals and my enjoyment of the experience is heightened. And, in my mind at least, having your face sniffed by an enquiring trunk beats sitting perched on a high wobbly seat having it thrashed by leaves in the tree canopy!

Over the past few weeks we have considered opting out of elephant riding activities altogether and informing clients that if they want to go elephant riding then they can but not through us.  But I don’t think this will absolve us from responsibility. We are in a great position to inform, educate and influence people with what we know and, if you decide that you still want to ride an elephant, then we can ensure that you go to the best location possible for own safety, but also for the animal’s welfare.

There are some excellent opportunities in our destination countries to experience and interact with elephants on the ground: learning to be a mahout for the day at Shangri Lao Elephant Garden in Laos, visiting the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, or heading to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. These give you the opportunity to get close to the elephants and experience their unique nature without causing as much physical damage and stress to them. Of course my preferred option for experiencing elephants is always going to be in the wild and, if this appeals to you too, then there are some amazing national parks you can visit, such as Wilpattu National Park, Udawalawe National Park, Minneriya National Park and Yala National Park – all of these are in Sri Lanka.

Where possible therefore, we will always promote sustainable, ethical photographic safaris in national parks as the best way to see wild elephants. If this option is not possible, which is the case in many South East Asian countries, we are happy to promote and include an elephant ‘experience’, where you can meet and observe well treated, captive elephants from the ground. If someone is desperate to ride an elephant we will provide this experience in our tours, using the best possible suppliers to provide this ride and tested by us. If you are going to do it, we need to at least make sure you go to the most humanitarian option there is.

The elephant riding debate is a difficult one, so please do let us have your thoughts on this topic!

*Please Note: There are some elephant trekking outfits that are excellent and are heavily involved with elephant conservation. I am not trying to tar every outfit with the same brush; it is merely unfortunate that there are fewer good places than bad!


You may also like