The uncomfortable truth about elephant tourism in Asia

Elephants in captivity

Elephant tourism is a big business in South East Asia. Over half of Thailand’s elephant population (8,000) are held in captivity and used for tourism.

Elephants are highly intelligent animals, with extremely strong family ties. They use intelligent group techniques to protect their young, mourn their dead and have memories that span many years. They display signs of grief, joy, anger and show empathy. They are one of the few animals which exhibit signs of self-awareness.

And yet these beautiful creatures are being pulled away from their families due to the growing trend in elephant tourism, where there is big money to be made from tourists seeking to gain an experience with a wild animal.

elephant tourism

The baby elephants are taken from their mothers and subjected to a taming regime called phajaan, meaning ‘the crush’. Their spirits are broken by being kept in tiny cages and being beaten with the use of hooks, nails, knives and spears. Only after this torturous training regime are they considered safe to interact with tourists and are willing to do whatever their trainer instructs them to do. The elephants can be trained to let people ride them, paint pictures and perform other cruel circus tricks.

elephant tourism
After a tortuous regime, an elephant can paint a repetitive picture day after day for tourists

The owners of these elephant camps have learnt to use buzzwords like ‘sustainable’ to promote their camps, even though they still use the same regime to train their elephants. They have learnt that tourists are becoming more ethically conscious, and so might put out a collection jar for ‘save the elephants’, whilst still treating the elephants badly.

elephant tourism
Scarring on a baby elephants head

Elephant riding

Contrary to popular belief, the spines of elephants are extremely weak, especially for baby elephants who are still developing.

elephant tourism
Drunk tourists riding a baby elephant in Phuket

Often a heavy and uncomfortable ‘howdah’ seat is placed on the animals back with up two four adults sitting on each elephant. The ropes and chains used to hold the howdah in place can cause sores, abscesses, spinal injuries and deformities to elephants.

Long treks in the heat lead to dehydration and exhaustion for elephants. Adult elephants have been known to collapse and die under the weight of tourists.

elephant tourism

Elephant begging

Elephants are used as begging props in some tourist towns. Tourists will pay money to buy some fruit or sugar cane to feed the elephant, without realising this is no substitute for their natural diet of grass and leaves.

elephant tourism

The pavements burn and blister the soles of the elephants feet, which are designed to walk on grass and dirt, not burning concrete. The constant stress of being in an unfamiliar environment leads to an average 50% reduction in lifespan of the elephant. The polluted air and drugs used to sedate the elephants often leave young begging elephants dead before the age of 5.

elephant tourism


Unfortunately in most countries there does not remain enough untouched land for the elephants to go back into the wild. And even if they did, they run risk of poaching, or being used in the illegal logging business where they could face ever more cruel treatment away from the eyes of tourists.

This means that most captive elephants will have to stay in tourism, and luckily there are some companies committed to truly looking after these animals ethically and sustainably.

elephant tourism
Use of bullhook on a young elephant

Signs an elephant is being treated well

Is there plenty of fresh food? In the wild, elephants eat up to 300kg of food and can spend 20 hours grazing per day. Check that the food is not kept on the ground where it can get contaminated with the elephants urine and dirt which can make them ill.

Is there plenty of shade? Elephants need cool spaces to avoid overheating and dehydration.

Are there signs of cruelty? Excessive use of bullhooks and other implements leave wounds to the elephants face and body.

Is the elephant happy? A happy elephant will flap it’s ears and swish its tail constantly. If the elephant is not moving, it is probably sick. If the elephant is swaying from side to side or swinging its legs, it is probably bored from being tied and held in captivity too long. This behavior is never seen in wild elephants.

If you really really must see elephants on your trip, then here is a list of responsible elephant tours


Elephant Nature Park 

Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary 

Surin Project  

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary 


Elephant valley project 


Elephant conservation centre 

Sri Lanka

Elephant freedom project 

Elephant conservation and care centre