The Truth About Riding Elephants

The reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia. An in-depth post on the truth about riding elephants, shows and more in Southeast Asia.

I watch, happy tears swelling in my eyes, as the first of two rescued ex-trekking elephants walks off of the truck, backing out slowly and cautiously placing her hind legs, one-at-a-time, on the ground.

It’s pitch black, save for a few flashlights and one camera light. Around us, cicadas, frogs and crickets all compete to pierce the oh-so-still night.

She walks softly, crunching dried grass, as we follow behind her. Slowly, slowly she walks. To freedom. At the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.

From this moment forward, she will never have to strap a 200-pound bench to her back. From this moment forward, she will never have ropes cutting into her. A bull hook threatening to slash her ear, forehead or neck. She will never have the weight of a person on her. But, most importantly, she will never again be exploited for a human’s need to cross “riding an elephant” off of some bucket list or posing atop her back for a selfie.

Even though I no longer live in Thailand, I receive emails from readers regularly who ask: Should I ride an elephant? What’s the truth about riding elephants in Thailand and the rest of the world?

While many people know me and my work, and that I lived and breathed responsible elephant tourism in Thailand for three years, others don’t, and it normally requires I break down not only why I believe people shouldn’t ride an elephant, but also that I know — despite the realities and the press educating people about the horrific lives elephants in captivity lead — people will still choose to ride them.

Today, I am addressing the questions/comments I receive the most:

Are you sure all elephants in captivity have been tortured in order to be captive?

The sad truth about elephants in captivity is that if they are involved with humans in any way, their spirit has been broken.

Elephants are systematically poached from the wild in order for tourist attractions to keep stock of their moneymakers. Often times, older members of the herd are killed and babies are kept, because, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to see a baby elephant on their travels? Operators know this, therefore it is most common that young elephants are captured illegally and taken to remote areas of countries to undergo a “breaking of the spirit”. Even if an elephants is born into captivity, they still undergo this horrific process. In Thai, this is known as the phajaan.

WARNING: The videos in this post contain graphic and disturbing images.


A centuries old ritual, baby elephants are placed in small wood enclosures (often referred to as “the crush,” as it is designed to crush their spirit), wrists and ankles are bound tightly, and then knives and other sharp objects are placed in their most sensitive areas (ears, eyes, feet, bum, trunk and other parts of their bodies). In this manner, they are trained and broken.

This process goes on for days. During this time, they are routinely deprived of sleep, food and water, and are beaten and bloodied until they learn how to accept human commands. Many young elephants don’t make it through this process. At the end of the crush, the ties to their family herd are gone and they are slaves to people.



This dirty little secret is often not talked about because it isn’t widely known or acknowledged in mainstream media. When I used to pitch major magazines about this, the response was always something along the lines of, “that’s terrible, but we don’t want to upset our readers with this information.”

In reality, any elephant you have seen in captivity and working has gone through this torturous process. Operators, of course, will deny the elephants they have either rented or purchased have undergone this because it is bad for business.


However, this is what elephants go through before they even make it to trekking camps, circuses, zoos and more. It is a culturally accepted practice.

The elephant is a big, strong, and potentially dangerous animal. To get them to become submissive to man does not come easily. The only way man knows how to get the results they want — and quickly —  is to break their spirit. This process happens in every country where elephants are used to work for humans. What’s worse? It’s been happening for more than 6,000 years.

How do I know?

I worked in responsible elephant tourism for a few years and during that time, I went on trips around SE Asia to learn more about the human/elephant relationship.

The reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia. An in-depth post on the truth about riding elephants, shows and more in Southeast Asia.

T: Not just a part of the crush, this rope device includes a sharp hook that goes into the elephant’s ear so the handler can control the animal. B: Although already having been put through the crush, locals demonstrate how the young elephant is tied during the process.

While in one country, I was witness to the final stages of the crush. In a tiny little village (we’re talking a few huts), an elephant around four-years-old was presented to us. The locals were proud to show us because, since it is a long-standing ritual and a part of their culture, they saw nothing wrong with it.

The reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia. An in-depth post on the truth about riding elephants, shows and more in Southeast Asia.

Scars on the young elephant’s trunk and head from hooks and weapons, and cuts from chains around her neck show the past abuse from being put through the crush.

They took this young girl, covered in bloody cuts and marks from ropes, and tied her up to show us how they trained her.

But, that is just the beginning. Through my research, I was witness to incredible horrific sites. Logging elephants tied to trees with only an inch to move. Numbers branded into their backs. Scars showing their past breaking.

The reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia. An in-depth post on the truth about riding elephants, shows and more in Southeast Asia.

At a logging camp: T: an elephant is bound tightly to a tree and cannot move; B: identification has been branded into the elephant.

Today, it is not difficult to find out the truth; there is a vast amount of information available on the internet, if you know how to look for it. Many research findings have been published regarding this fact. In theory, information like this should easily answer the question about riding elephants in Thailand, SE Asia and the rest of the world. One country offering rides is no different than any other: the elephants have all put through the same process because it is what has always been done and will continue to be done until people stop giving the industry money.

You can ride horses. Why shouldn’t you ride elephants?

Horses and elephants bodies are different. And, the process with which they are broken is different, too. I find that most people who argue this with me are simply trying to justify riding an elephant. The reality is, riding an elephant and riding a horse are different, and it is difficult to compare the two. Horses are broken so they can be ridden, which means their spirits are broken. To put it this way: a wild horse does not wish to be ridden by a human any more than a wild elephant wishes to be ridden. To get them to allow this requires breaking. Thankfully, there has been a movement towards “gentling” horses, which is more humane.

When discussing the argument of riding elephants versus horses, remember this: elephants are an endangered species. We are not helping to conserve them by exploiting them for working in tourism or logging. In fact, many elephants die prematurely due to excessive abuse and poor husbandry practices.

I think those mahout-for-a-day programs look really cool. What’s wrong with them?

Aside from riding them, the mahout-for-a-day programs not only encourage too much human interaction (which can be dangerous for the people), but also causes mental issues for the elephants. Remember, these animals have been horribly abused prior to arriving at these programs. And, they don’t forget the abuse. Add the fact that each day, they have someone new riding them and telling them what to do can cause emotional issues for the elephants and put people at risk for attacks.

It should be pointed out that with these programs, the rider isn’t actually controlling the elephant. Many camps offering these activities place a large, sharp hook tied around an elephant’s ear with a rope attached to it. The real mahout walks ahead, pulling the rope, causing the sharp point to stab the elephant in the sensitive area behind the ear. This is actually what gets the elephant to move. Most of the mahouts also carry nails, which they can hide in their hands and tourists never see. When the elephant does not listen, they quickly go behind the elephant and jab the animal.

Like with horseback riding, it is common that elephants in these programs are the more docile and broken ones who won’t question authority. However, even these elephants can snap and it is very dangerous to be alone on top of an elephant when they decide he/she no longer wants to have a rider on its back and shakes the person off.

How can I tell if an operation really is good to the elephants, or if they are just tapping in on the sanctuary greenwashing verbiage to get more business?

There are many elephant tour operators who have realized that sanctuaries can be cash cows. Because many travelers operate solely off of Trip Advisor reviews or packaged deals, they think they are doing the right thing by going to a sanctuary, but really, the sanctuary is simply a mask for elephant trading and exploitation and is using greenwashing to entice people to visit.

The reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia. An in-depth post on the truth about riding elephants, shows and more in Southeast Asia.

Does a tourist attraction claiming to be a sanctuary still use devices like this to control their elephants? If so, skip it.

Be wary of any operator who says they rescue elephants and place them in a sanctuary if they offer any of the following:

– Elephant rides

– Elephant shows (circus performances, playing music, playing sports, etc.)

– Elephant paintings

– Control of the animal with hooks or other pain-inflicting instruments

Also, be on the lookout for abuse. If it is a sanctuary, it means the elephants are supposed to be living in peace. Any operator that uses bull hooks or other instruments to control the elephant means it isn’t a true sanctuary. The elephants should remain off-chain, and not be made to work.

If you aren’t sure about whether a place is really a sanctuary, ask questions:

– Where do the elephants come from?

– What is their life like in the sanctuary?

– Are they able to interact with other elephants?

Keep in mind that most tour operators will tell you what they think you want to hear, so often times it is up to you to do some digging and find out information outside of what is provided to you. Remember, many hotels and hostels will sell packages to you and then get a kick back from the tour operator. It is in their best interest to tell you what they think you want to hear.

Many times when I lived in Chiang Mai, people would talk about their experience at Elephant Nature Park and then about how amazing it was to ride an elephant there. Since Elephant Nature Park doesn’t offer rides, it was clear that these unknowing tourists were actually sold packages to other camps and had it passed off as the Park. Be aware.

What about riding elephants at zoos, circuses or fairs? That’s ok, isn’t it?

Nope. I used to be of the frame of mind that if an animal attraction was offering interaction — especially in the US — then it was regulated and free from abuse. But, that’s not the case. Over the years, reports have surfaced about abuse at circuses and more. Just because rides are being offered does not mean there is anything OK or ethical about them. As I mentioned before, there is no ethical way to keep elephants in captivity. So, again, it is about the demand and showing those in the industry that torturing the animals for our enjoyment is acceptable. It also goes back to the ethics and abuse involved in animals giving rides.

Are Shows, Paintings and Sports OK?

The reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia. An in-depth post on the truth about riding elephants, shows and more in Southeast Asia.

In a remote village in SE Asia, elephants are poached from the wild and trained to do circus tricks after being put through the crush, a horrific training process to break their spirits.

Perhaps you’ve seen the video of elephants playing music and thought it was adorable. Elephants are so talented, right? You’d be talented, too, if faced with torture. Like riding, all of these activities invite abuse in order to train them.

Elephant painting is perhaps one of the most abusive training practices I have ever seen. The elephants are trained to lift and hold their trunk up. The paint brush is shoved into the elephant’s nostril, which makes it difficult for them to breathe. The mahout then uses the trunk as an extension of his arm and guides the trunk to move as he wishes.  Elephants are unable to see right in front of them, so they do not even see the paper on which they are painting. While they are moving the brush on the canvas, the mahout holds the ear tightly, a sharp nail in his hand stabbing into the earlobe. Remember, elephants do not paint; they are used to make a painting instead.

It looks like the elephants are happy. Aren’t they?

None of us speak “elephant” or are elephant whisperers. Often times, people write reviews on sites like Trip Advisor which states the elephants certainly looked happy, and loved giving rides. But, the reality is, unless we can communicate with them, we simply cannot project our human feelings and emotions onto these animals. I wonder if the people who wrote they looked happy noticed the scars on the animals’ heads or ankles. Or knew about the abuse they went through prior to being brought to a trekking camp.

How Much Can I Trust Trip Advisor Reviews?

The truth is, you can’t. While some reviews are honest and shed light on what really happens at many of these trekking camps, the majority of the reviews go back to the idea I talked about above, where people are projecting their feelings onto the elephants. The people writing these reviews aren’t experts; they are holiday-goers who want to experience riding elephants.

I always tell people to get a real feel for a trekking camp, skip the five-star reviews and read from the one-star reviews up. These reviews often detail abusive situations and show what an experience there is really like.

I got a bad feeling when I went to a camp. What can I do to let people know I didn’t like my experience?

Education is the most powerful way to change people’s opinions. If you went to a trekking camp and got a bad feeling, talk about it. There is a way to educate without putting others on the defensive — and that is extremely important in influencing others. Attacking a person’s desire to ride an elephant often results in them shutting down and not listening to the information you have to present. Instead, be polite. Be educational. Present your experience and why you felt that way.

In addition, if you did not like your experience, tell the camp owner that you would have paid more money to have a more ethical time with the pachyderms. Camp owners are starting to learn that tourists are willing to pay more money for a more meaningful — and non-exploitive — experience with the elephants. Save Elephant Foundation has worked tirelessly to educate camp owners throughout Thailand and has been making leeway in changing the way they operate.

Your voice is the most powerful thing you have to help these animals. Use it.

I know riding elephants isn’t good for them, but at the same time, I REALLY want to ride one. Is there any such thing as a “more humane” riding experience?

After seeing what I have seen and spending time researching elephant treatment in Thailand, I cannot possibly condone riding elephants on any level. It is important to remember, that even if you opt for a less abusive experience — these experiences are still abusive. Simply giving money to camps that offer rides furthers the demand for poaching. And, remember, any elephant giving rides has been put through the crush.

I always encourage people who want to see elephants while in SE Asia to walk with them instead. This is a newer concept, started by Save Elephant Foundation, that is slowly catching on in Thailand. Walking with the elephants is incredibly fulfilling and humane — for both the humans and elephants.

That being said, some people still want to ride elephants. While it breaks my heart to even include this section, I know that for some people, the abuse won’t matter. Groundbreak Productions released a documentary a couple of years ago that highlighted the abuse elephants must undergo in order to be a part of the tourism industry. Quite poignant was one particular scene where, after informing would-be-trekkers at a camp about what really goes on, they asked if the couple still planned on riding an elephant. Sadly, they responded that although they knew the truth, they still wanted to experience riding a top one.

An Elephant Never Forgets – A Groundbreak Productions Feature Documentary from Groundbreak Productions on Vimeo.

If the truth about riding elephants in Thailand and the rest of the world won’t change your mind, then please consider the following:

– Only ride an elephant on his or her neck, not on a heavy bench;

– If a operator uses hooks, nails or other means of controlling the animal through fear of pain, skip it;

– Look for new cuts (often times they will be covered in a purple antiseptic spray, or covered up entirely with a bandage or plastic bag). New injuries likely mean abuse happened recently, and at that particular location;

– Are they chained before/after riding? If so, find another place to ride;

– How much access to water and food are they given? Elephants need to eat and drink a lot. If they aren’t able to do this regularly, it causes illness, stress and irritability;

– How much access to mud and water to bathe do they have? Again, elephants need mud to protect their skin from the sun and bites, and water to cool off;

– Are elephants allowed to have other elephant friends? Important to an elephant’s well-being is the ability to have relationships and socialize, even if it is not their original family;

– Are the elephants swaying in place or rocking? This is a stereotypical behavior and a sign of emotional stress.

What’s the Best Way to Experience Elephants?

Hands down, the best way to experience elephants is in their natural environment. Sadly, their natural environment, in many parts of SE Asia, has been encroached upon by humans and now these areas have conflict which makes it unsafe for people to go.

Safaris, like Minneria in Sri Lanka, are one way to see elephants in nature. But, even these safaris run on the border of irresponsible as there are too many vehicles getting too close to the elephants. Still, it is by far the best alternative.

Touring national parks is another way to see elephants in the wild in SE Asia, however it is dangerous and elephants have been known to attack vehicles. Only opt for this if you can hire a guide who understands elephant behavior, otherwise you are putting yourself at risk.

The reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia. An in-depth post on the truth about riding elephants, shows and more in Southeast Asia.

Elephants roam free at Elephant Nature Park, just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Sanctuaries — true sanctuaries — are another way to see elephants in their natural environment. While these animals have likely undergone abuse at the hands of humans, now they are free from that abuse. Places like this, which educate people about the realities of elephant tourism, and share the stories of the rescued animals, help give tourists perspective on their plight and, in turn, make these people advocates to help stand up for the elephants.

The reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia. An in-depth post on the truth about riding elephants, shows and more in Southeast Asia.

A rescued elephant enjoys snacks at Elephant Nature Park.

I recommend the following places in SE Asia:

Elephant Nature Park

Journey to Freedom

Surin Project

Wildlife Friends of Thailand

Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary

Boon Lot’s Elephant Sanctuary

– Green Hill Valley

Please note: if you have questions about a particular outfit claiming to be a sanctuary and would like me to look into it, send me a message or comment below the post.

If you’re looking for a responsible tour, I suggest the following operators:

Intrepid Travel

Where Sidewalks End

– Wild Sumatra

– LocalAlike

– Khiri Travel

– Bangkok Vanguards

– Hivesters

– Le Vélo Asia

– Bornéo à la Carte

– Green Discovery Laos

– Buffalo Tours

What About the Repercussions to the SE Asia Economy?

By sending a message to trekking camps in SE Asia that you prefer a more responsible way to see elephants, things can change. Trekking camps operate because they are money machines. They can churn rides quickly and easily throughout the day. But, if they were to see that they can make more money and give people are more meaningful experience — as well as a more humane one for the animals — there is incentive to change.

Many critics of posts like these argue that by telling people not to ride elephants, the people who run these outfits will lose their money. However, Save Elephant Foundation and other organizations in the region, have proven this to be untrue. There are ways to involve the entire community in sanctuaries or at least more responsible tourism operations, and ways to make more money than simply by offering rides.

Responsible tourism is becoming the wave of the future, and even Thailand tourism is seeing it. More and more places are cropping up which focus on sustainable options for travelers. While responsible tourism tends to cost more money than abusive options, as more places get into the mix, the cost will go down and the opportunity will become more widely available to those on a budget.

How Can I Help Elephants?

As I mentioned previously, education is key to change. By educating others on the plight of elephants, you can help make change. Set an example, too. Don’t participate in rides or shows, don’t buy paintings. Speak out. Sharing posts which depict “happy” elephants playing in the sea (which is actually completely the opposite of a positive experience for the elephant because 1. salt water isn’t good for them; 2. they are likely separated from their family; 3. they are performing for humans; 4. they have been or will be put through the crush) or people riding elephants sends the wrong message. It encourages others to get their photos taken and tick off those check marks on their bucket lists.

Instead, take a moment and educate people as to why images like this should not be shared via social media.

The reality of elephant tourism in SE Asia. An in-depth post on the truth about riding elephants, shows and more in Southeast Asia.

Each year, the Global March for Elephants is held in cities around the world.

Other ways to speak out against riding elephants include:

– Message guide books who still write about elephant attractions and encourage them to remove the listings;

– Ask your local government to ban rides locally;

– Send letters to consulates of foreign governments who still offer rides and shows and encourage them to change their policies and to give animals more right; 

– Participate in public events. Each year in October, the Global March for Elephants take place. Find out if a march is coming to your town.

Please note: links in this post direct readers to additional information. If you wish to engage in a meaningful conversation regarding this topic, please visit the links above before you do so. Comments based on conjecture and written as fact will not be approved. Opinions, however, are certainly welcome.

About the Author

Diana Edelman is an avid traveler who recently spent four years living as an expat. Most notably, Diana spent nearly three years in Chiang Mai, Thailand where she worked with Save Elephant Foundation to raise awareness about the realities of elephant tourism. Currently based in Las Vegas, Diana works in many industries as a publicist, social media expert, content creator and journalist. The co-founder of the Responsible Travel & Tourism Collective, Diana has spoken at conferences about travel blogging and responsible tourism.

134 Comments on " The Truth About Riding Elephants "

  1. Greg Vaughn August 11, 2015 at 2:36 pm · Reply

    Excellent and very thorough article, Diana. I especially appreciate that you give a lot of details and background information, not just say “don’t ride!” and leave it at that.

    During your time in Chiang Mai, did you have the opportunity to visit Patara Elephant Farm? I spent a day there a few years ago as part of a trip with the Society of American Travel Writers. I was very impressed with the dedication of the owner to caring for elephants and rescuing some who had been abused. I saw no evidence of the cruel means of controlling the elephants that you mention.

    On that same trip, we visited two elephant “experience” attractions that were examples of the kind of places you urge readers to avoid. It’s great that you recognize that some visitors will still want to ride an elephant and that you give them specific things to look for so they can make an informed choice.

    • Diana August 11, 2015 at 2:53 pm · Reply

      Hi Greg, thank you for taking the time to comment and share your experience in Thailand. I did not visit Patara, but I do know they do a lot of things better than others. That being said, as I mentioned, I do not support riding elephants in any way, and they continue to offer that as a part of their package. The program they offer is a take on the mahout-for-a-day experience, which I mention in the post. In regards to how they control the animals — since I have not been there, I will not further rumors or promote false information, as I have heard varying reports throughout the years. I think the information above speaks for itself though, and places which offer rides, use hooks, etc., have shows and more are places to steer clear from. In addition — and this is an entirely OTHER can of worms — I do not support places which have breeding programs and breed elephants for a life being captive working animals. I do know that this is the camp which gets the most amount of press in terms of media/FAM trips.

      I think it is a shame that people still want to ride elephants, but if they choose to do so, my thinking is better to be completely armed with accurate information, make an informed decision knowing exactly what the support of these places contributes to, and then to satisfy whatever need they have to ride in a more responsible way. The things i have seen throughout the years (it should be noted, the entire region has this issue, it isn’t isolated to Thailand) would make most cry, so I can only hope that more people really take into consideration what I have presented and choose to spend their money with places which work to help save the elephants and give them better lives versus keeping them as captive working elephants. I love that the tide is changing as more people become aware, and that camps are able to switch their model to something more profitable and better for the animals. In this case, I’d say Thailand is leading the way on making changes to a more responsible elephant model.

  2. Greg Vaughn August 11, 2015 at 3:04 pm · Reply

    More good points, Diana. It is good to hear that you see change coming, and that Thailand is leading the way.

  3. Kay August 12, 2015 at 8:09 am · Reply

    Informative and compelling post, Diana! I recently went to Thailand but skipped the elephant attractions because I just had a funny feeling about them. Though I was completely uninformed about the extent of the abuses, I did recognize that there’s no way riding an elephant, which should be a wild, undomesticated being, is ethical. Thanks for this article and for pinpointing specific warning signs — as more and more tourists flock to Southeast Asia, it’ll be important to make this message loud and clear.

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 7:21 pm · Reply

      Thank you for the support, Kay! And, thank you for sharing your experience!

  4. Pamela MacNaughtan August 12, 2015 at 9:44 am · Reply

    Diana, thanks for writing this post! I had thought of writing something, but I think your post does a fabulous job. It should, you lived this life for a couple years in Chiang Mai. I decided to share it on my Facebook page, hopefully my readers will also read, share, and decide to not ride elephants.

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 7:20 pm · Reply

      Thank you so much, Pam!! I hope this is shared far and wide. The more people who know, the more change can be made!

  5. Laura August 12, 2015 at 9:44 am · Reply

    I really needed this, and I didn’t even know it. I’m planning a trip to Asia and now I know not to contribute to the mistreatment of such beautiful animals. I’ve seen a couple friends go to elephant “sanctuaries” in Thailand… but they were riding elephants in several of the photos. People just don’t know, and you’re making a real difference with this article! Your kind approach to sharing the facts made me read all the way through. Thank you for writing this.

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 7:20 pm · Reply

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read it and share your story! You are absolutely right — people don’t know. That, and people assume that because an organization says it is a sanctuary that it really is one. Sadly, it gives these places the idea they can greenwash what they do and pass it off as something other than what it really is. If people who visit places like this were to voice their concerns to the owners, tell them they’d pay more money to simply walk with the animals and observe them versus ride them, perhaps these outlets could actually become more of a sanctuary.

  6. Kripa August 12, 2015 at 10:31 am · Reply

    Thank you for this brilliant article. I quit riding on elephants (in fact any animal for that matter) a few years ago after reading a very similar article. I hope more people get to read this and stop this act of cruelty.

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 7:18 pm · Reply

      That’s wonderful! I am glad you stopped riding animals. Since I started working with elephants, I won’t ride anything, I don’t visit zoos, I don’t eat meat and I won’t consider any attractions where animals are kept in captivity for our benefit/enjoyment. My wish is the same as yours! I hope this post is a good start!

  7. JenBetweenDots August 12, 2015 at 10:45 am · Reply

    Hi Diana, thanks for this great article – I have never had the desire to ride an elephant as something about it seemed wrong to me but I couldn’t quite explain why. This article does a great job of summing up all of the reasons it does more harm than good to the elephants. Thank you for a well written and informative article.
    That being said, my bf and I are planning a trip to SE Asia next year. I saw a facility called Hug Elephant Sanctuary that looks ethical – no elephant riding, but you can walk near them (they are loose, not on ropes or chains), bathe them and play in the mud. Does this facility sound like an ethical one? Do you have any knowledge of it? I think it’s likely that we’ll go to the Elephant Nature Park as it sounds like they are the most well known and respected, however I don’t mind giving my money to a lesser known sanctuary if they are treating the animals properly and not offering rides. I would hope that these smaller parks being profitable would show other smaller elephant parks that they CAN make money without resorting to elephant mistreatment and abuse.

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 7:17 pm · Reply

      Hi Jen, thank you so much for taking the time to read the post and comment. I am not familiar with this sanctuary. Where is it located? From what you are telling me, it SOUNDS like it could be responsible, but I’d need more information and to read some reviews. You are absolutely right — camps seeing other camps do well and bring in money to help support the operation can certainly lead other camps to offer something similar. It is happening right now in Thailand and is a great start to changing the way people engage with elephants on their travels.

  8. Vicky August 12, 2015 at 11:15 am · Reply

    Hi Diana, thank you for this article. I went to a “sanctuary” in Bali where they said they rescued and took care of elephants. At the time, it was incredible experience. And yes, I rode on one. But in the last few years I started to wonder about the authenticity. And now this article has just confirmed my suspicions. I feel horrible! I will be sharing this post on my FB page so that others can learn from this. I am also planning a trip to Thailand in November and had hoped to experience elephants again. I’m glad that you recommend Elephant Nature Park, as I am hesitant now after my past experience. Thanks again for this helpful post.

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 7:13 pm · Reply

      Don’t feel horrible. So many people share a very similar story to yours. The important thing is now you know and now you can help educate others so they don’t make the same decision. ENP is a fantastic place and Lek, who runs ENP and Save Elephant Foundation is simply amazing. She has done so much for the elephants throughout the region and continues to do so. Her work has helped many camps in the area change their model and offer more responsible tourism options. Thank you for sharing and helping to educate others!

  9. Erick August 12, 2015 at 11:45 am · Reply

    Nice post! Everything you need to know about elephant captivity.. On our trip to SE Asia we stumpled upon an elephant which was chained to a tree. You could tell she was very sad because of her pulling the chain firmly with her trunk. She followed us around as far as the chain would let her, but was in no way voilent. Kinda cute even.. After an hour the ‘carer’ came and yelled to us that the elephant was dangerous because she supposedly stomped on people. The dude took us to the rest of their elephants.. Let’s just say I can understand why she would’ve attacked one of the employers.. Our first experience with an elephant. Unforgettable. We’ll definitely visit one of the places you’ve mentioned the next time we’re in Asia..

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 12:02 pm · Reply

      Sadly, what you saw is likely how these elephants are kept when they are not giving rides. The camps will tell you otherwise, because what would people say/how would they react if they were told that was the reality for the animal when not being forced to work? I’m glad you were able to experience that though, helps you be able to educate other people as to why you wouldn’t ride one. Definitely check out one of the places I mentioned when you return to SE Asia! If you have questions, let me know. I’d be happy to help you.

  10. Leah August 12, 2015 at 11:57 am · Reply

    This is such a wonderful article, Diana. It’s absolutely heartbreaking that so many people still participate in this kind of tourism, and that many will do it even in the face of evidence like this. Hopefully with more and more people speaking out and educating travelers, these practices will die out in time.

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 12:00 pm · Reply

      Thank you, Leah. Sadly, so many people don’t know the truth about elephant tourism. I hope this piece can shed light on what really happens and influence people to make a more responsible decision when it comes to planning their travels and seeing these magnificent creatures.

  11. Rutavi Mehta August 12, 2015 at 12:12 pm · Reply

    Hi Diana, So glad to know about you and lovely work you do on elephant. I come from country India where elephants are in abundance. In past history there were used for hunting by Maharajas, during war, transport,etc . From generation we have seen elephant being more of commodity then living being. I wrote my fave facts on elephant today here , hope you like it .. However I wanted to say that yes the torture they do through riding elephants in Kerala is insane.Which you come to India and see the torture they go through and try to help in conversation. Btw if you are in Thailand in October for TBEx let me know.Would love to meet you.. Do tweet me on @rutaagayire, incase I miss seeing a reply here 🙂 Good job!

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 7:12 pm · Reply

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and share your experiences. The abuse I mention certainly is definitely wide-spread throughout the region. I’ve heard some stories about Kerala. I look forward to meeting you in October!

  12. Susan August 12, 2015 at 2:04 pm · Reply

    Thanks for posting this important and helpful information. Please also include Ganesha Park elephant sanctuary in Kanchanaburi (Central Thailand), which has rescued 6 elephants from tourist parks and maintains them with the income from overnight stays. It is run by a Frenchman but a bit of English is also spoken. People can feed them and play with them in the water, as well as taking short rides (bareback) to and from the jungle and lake. I spent a week there recently and recommend it for those who want to learn more and discover elephants close up in a loving setting.

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 7:10 pm · Reply

      Thank you for including your information. However, I cannot support any place which offers riding, regardless of whether it is on a bench or bareback. There are other more fulfilling ways to be in the company of elephants that don’t include making them work or being exploited for our benefit. Perhaps the camp should look into offering programs like walking with the elephants through the jungle rather than riding? If they were to do that, I would be more supportive. As it is now, I would not ethically be able to recommend them.

  13. marius August 12, 2015 at 3:07 pm · Reply

    Hello Diana, thanks for this piece, very informative.

    Just a few comments. The controversies surrounding elephant riding abound and the way to solve the inner complexities of these problems are always championed by varying groups with ideology-supported tunnel vision and with little insight into the social repercussions of simply banning elephant riding, the kind of riding which 99% of camps do nowadays, via the howdah on the back with 4 people strapped in. The riding, however horrible the experiences the elephant has gone through in its early stage—which I wholeheartedly denounce and believe should be stopped—appears to be a necessary evil, what I discovered throughout my research because elephants and handlers need to eat and be employed and survive and there is little to be done to provide alternatives. Unfortunately, the misinformed tourist will always want to ride, just as how Siamese Kings have ridden for centuries. They will probably not want to just walk it, although that is changing a lot too thanks to education and being informed.

    The problem is also when camps exploit their elephants and put them to work 14 hours a day in the sun with no shade or breaks. This is all for profit because for some people it isn’t animal activism but a business. Also, people need to understand that an elephant can handle ONE human behind its ears on its neck and for a short time but there isn’t as much money in that than placing a massive seat on the back filled with tourists. Let me reiterate, the riding is horrible as you said because of what the elephant has gone through, the breaking of its spirit, but since it has been broken in horribly, what is the next step? There needs to be a management program in place rather than the profitization of broken in wildlife.

    Regarding the bullhook. In the article it is not stated that the new elephant on the block could potentially be attacked and killed by the other elephants stampeding toward it, seeing it as a potential enemy. At TECC’s elephant clinic I saw an elephant being treated as its tail was bitten off! Elephants are gentle and majestic but can also be quite aggressive to each other, what people fail to understand because they project human sentiment onto them when seeing them. It was actually bitten off by another elephant and I could only imagine what would have happened to the mahouts or guests had the bullhook not been used to separate them. Unfortunately, to prevent these elephants from killing each other and the guests or mahout, the bullhook NEEDS to be used, in my opinion, on a just-in-case basis, just like how guns are used by police officers, just in case (in the US that may be a different story). The problem is also with the overuse of the bullhook and the abuse of the elephant by some mahouts because he finds it easier to hit and to get the elephant to do something rather than other means which are also effective. Educating is key, as you mentioned in your piece.

    After the elephant suffers the crush it enters a different stage in its life, no turning back, one of suffering and hopelessness because there can’t be much done anymore to help it be its natural self. It is condemned to a life under human control. After it has been made to tolerate humans it can’t be released back into the wild—it would die. It then needs humans to survive and seeing how some humans are, you could see what a life after the phajaan would be.

    The issue however needs to be addressed before the elephant is placed in the crush, when it is a wild elephant, and what I mean is the protection of wild elephants and the enforcement of laws to protect the elephants. Many SE Asian governments have been signatories to certain protection laws but the problem is that there is no enforcement because of the lucrative business elephant camps are. I will finger point here and say Myanmar and Thai governments do little to prevent wild and captured elephants from entering Thailand’s porous borders. Maybe because it so hard to control. With a baby elephant valued at 33,000 USD, you could see why many are paying big bucks for the babies (killing 4-5 adults in the process), paying off many officials at the same time and creating a cycle of corruption and misery. Do you know that there are even smugglers walking elephants onto land mines to increase their price value? It is sick! These days there simply aren’t any effective mechanisms in place to manage the few thousands of elephants left in Thailand and to prevent them from entering illegally. I think the problem needs to be addressed from the ground up, from the roots of the issue. Remember when logging was banned in Thailand in 1989? Hundreds of elephants almost overnight went into the street begging with their mahouts. How could this be? The government to have no social safety plan in effect? Many were taken in to TECC and a few ended up in the nascent pay-to-ride camps. Many continued working illegally in the forests heavily sedated in the night. It was horrible what happened but people needed to care for these elephants and themselves so they needed to start marketing exotic rides, begging, however horrible that is, as there was nothing else to do but that. Nobody at the time thought about the elephant or mahout. They needed to live. But what I noticed also is that many organizations and people push for the outright banning of riding not even considering thinking about the thousands of people and their elephants who could enter a life of homelessness. Could you imagine the devastating snowball effect this could have on communities? There is so much to be discussed here. I’m a freelance journalist ( in no way an elephant expert) and I researched the Asian Elephant last December and January in Thailand. I visited several camps and interviewed many important people on the matter .I’m very passionate about this subject and feel the need that more info needs to get out there. Perhaps more background information needs to be given so as people will understand the entirety of the problem. In fact, this month my feature story came out in Travel3Sixty. If you want to read about this more, you can find a link here:
    I’m fairly new to Instagram but am posting narrated photos of my experiences on the road in Thailand and other places. You can find me at ‘mariusstankiewicz’ Thanks for getting your article out as it is very important for people to learn. I mean, I once rode an elephant too only learning after what the elephant goes through. I assure you I will not ride one anymore. Salud!

    That being said, I always cringe inwardly when I read the titles of blog posts that begin with “The Truth About…” because upon further reading I always find truths omitted regarding the story. The problem is

    • Diana August 12, 2015 at 7:08 pm · Reply

      WOW. What a comprehensive and informative comment. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together and share your experiences. Elephant tourism is not black and white, but there are ways to operate more responsibly within the industry. You bring up some very valid and well-thought out points and I hope others take the time to read this. I tried hard not to omit any truths regarding riding and the realities of elephants, and tried to address the economic impacts for these animals, but I’m not perfect. My main point in writing this was to simply educate people on what their tourist dollars are going to and encourage a more responsible option. There are ways for these elephants to not be ridden and still make money for their owners and camps. Elephant tourism and the desire to be around these creatures will not go away anytime soon, but the important thing to remember is that there is a way to be around elephants without causing them more harm or furthering the abuse.

      In regards to using hooks, at ENP no hooks are used. Instead, elephants are trained using positive reinforcement. It should be noted that they are not trained to perform, but simply to listen to basic commands to keep people and other elephants safe, as well as for medical treatment. Hooks don’t need to be used to get them to listen; a properly trained mahout with a bag full of bananas can often do the trick. Additionally, if there are mentally unstable elephants and there is fear of an attack on humans or other elephants, they should be kept separate and not interacting with the general population or tourists. If that was well-monitored, there wouldn’t be a need for using the hook.

  14. Laura @ Grassroots Nomad August 13, 2015 at 2:34 am · Reply

    Thank you Diana for writing such an incredible post about this issue.

    A few years ago in Thailand I booked a tour and found out afterwards that it included an elephant ride. When we got to the pen there was a mother and a baby both chained to trees. The baby was sitting on the ground pulling at his chains and crying, trying desperately to reach his mother. I will never forget the sadness in his eyes and the horrific cries he made.

    I don’t know how, but everyone else in our tour ignored this fact, shoving it from their minds as they joyfully hopped on board a scarred elephant. I cried and tried to get the owners to at least move the baby closer to his mother. They did not.

    I am passionate about grassroots volunteering and always try to dissuade people who want to go to Thailand to volunteer with orphans or animals – in both instances many immoral and illegal practices take place. People need to research and investigate where they are going, what they are participating in and their impact.

    I will also be at TBEX Asia and I look forward to hearing your talk about ethical tourism and hopefully meeting you at some point.

    Thanks again,

    • Diana August 13, 2015 at 2:03 pm · Reply

      Thank you for sharing your story, Laura! I think people on the tour ignored it because it went against what they wanted to experience and acknowledging it would have meant they couldn’t have done what they set out to do, which is to ride an elephant. Many people will simply gloss over the reality because it doesn’t serve their needs and their needs are more important than the animal’s they are exploiting.

      I think it is wonderful that you are passionate about this and work to dissuade people regarding orphan and animal tourism. There are SOME animal volunteer programs which do right, like SEF’s programs and WFFT. Volunteering at a place like Tiger Temple, I would definitely discourage though. It takes a lot of research and asking the right questions to properly identify animal organizations and volunteer opportunities. As for orphanages, if people can volunteer short-term with no prior interview, background check, etc. stay away! Actually, stay away unless you are there long-term and have a skill needed.

      I look forward to meeting you at TBEX. Please find me when we are there!

  15. Abi August 13, 2015 at 2:57 am · Reply

    Hi D – do you have any insight/comment on the elephant orphanages found in Kenya? Particularly the one in Nairobi?

    • Diana August 13, 2015 at 2:00 pm · Reply

      If you are thinking of David Sheldrick, amazing.

      • Stephanie Christman September 12, 2015 at 2:58 pm · Reply

        I agree 100% DSWT is AMAZING . I foster 8 ellies from there.

        • Diana September 14, 2015 at 3:26 am · Reply


  16. Simon August 13, 2015 at 3:40 am · Reply

    Thank you for this great piece, Diana. I think it’s very important to educate people and make them aware of what lays behind elephant riding, and I also appreciated Marius comment, offering more food for thoughts.
    Animal exploitation for agriculture in poor countries is one thing that I’d rather would not exist but understand. Animal exploitation for foreign (and well-off) tourists is something that I consider unacceptable. Unfortunately, the exploitation is often not limited to animal, but also to human beings, which saddens me even more, and makes me really angry.

    • Diana August 13, 2015 at 1:59 pm · Reply

      You are so right, Simon. The human exploitation in places is just as bad — if not worse — then the animals. Sex slaves/not orphans in orphanages where people volunteer (with no qualifications or background checks, mind you); exploiting hill tribe people when they have zero rights and essentially are on display for people to take photos of; poverty/slum tourism that glorifies human struggle; and it goes on and on.

  17. Lisa Arnold August 13, 2015 at 5:59 am · Reply

    There is good elephant sanctuary in eastern Cambodia worth visiting.

    • Diana August 13, 2015 at 1:57 pm · Reply

      Hi Lisa, thank you for sharing this. However, I do have a question: what is the purpose of breeding in captivity? To add more captive elephants into the project or to release them? And, why have breeding at all while in captivity? I think many parts of what this project offers are wonderful, but why not just have these three elephants and rescue more from tourism versus actively breed more to be brought up in a place that is not the wild?

      • Lisa Arnold October 23, 2015 at 8:17 pm · Reply

        Hi Diana,

        I think in Cambodia the domestic elephant population in Cambodia is getting very old. Fewer than 100 remain. It is not easy for any Cambodian sanctuary to rescue more elephants because there are not many left. They are also competing with a rich elephant riding company in Siem Reap who are willing to pay lots and lots for more elephants as the ones they have don’t live long. Soon there will only be wild elephants left. Cambodia has had the highest rate of forest destruction in the world in the past 10 years. More roads are being built to log more forest. The small wild populations of elephants in Cambodia have fewer and fewer places to live. Talking to Mondulkiri Project, their plan is to have a natural breeding program. If the elephants don’t fall in love, there will be no babies. They don’t have a male elephant at the moment. A baby elephant at their sanctuary might live a lot longer that any baby elephant born in the wild. You cannot release a baby elephant into the wild. Diana – what is the purpose of having elephants in zoos? Is it to give people the opportunity to see an elephant? Is it a place where you can breed elephants so they don’t become extinct? Is it better to have elephants in zoos when the wild populations become extinct?

        • Diana October 30, 2015 at 4:09 am · Reply

          These are all great questions. I am against zoos unless done absolutely right, and I have found very few of those.

  18. Federico August 13, 2015 at 10:35 am · Reply

    A very educational post Diana, myself being one of the ignorant travelers who many years ago did ride an elephant (didn’t even have the blog back then). What really surprised me though is the fact that you say that upon pitching magazines they would get back to you saying that! So they don’t want to educate their readers and gain popularity?

    • Diana August 13, 2015 at 1:55 pm · Reply

      You’re not the only one who has ridden one 🙂 It just takes education, and am guessing if it was before your blog, chances are there weren’t many people speaking out online against riding. As for the magazines, yeah, it is a real shame. The ones I pitched said they wanted to have aspirational and positive content versus educational and controversial. I am sure some of that has to do with advertisers … and some of that has to do with the magazines I was pitching. Clearly, a publication like Traveler will not run it because it would make readers feel sad and discouraged about visiting a place. Looking into a few more serious and reputable magazines right now to see if there are opportunities.

  19. Britt August 14, 2015 at 1:11 am · Reply

    I wrote a similar post after my trip to Thailand because I agree that most people are just largely misinformed about how mistreated these animals actually are. Unfortunately mine didn’t get as much traction as yours, so I’m very happy that some people have the ability to get this information out there!

    Even if I can stop just a few of my friends from doing it on their next trip to Thailand I think that is a win. It makes me so sad the way animals are exploited all over the world due to a human need for entertainment. We need to stop putting our enjoyment before theirs.

    • Diana August 15, 2015 at 6:37 am · Reply

      You are right — changing one person’s mind is a win. Then, they change another person’s mind and the chain reaction begins! I wish more people were able to put animals before themselves, but we live in a world where social media rules and the priority is us versus them. Hopefully, it will change!

  20. Jaime August 14, 2015 at 4:56 pm · Reply

    Thank you Diana for writing the most informative and inclusive article I have ever read on elephant abuse in SE Asia. I travelled to Phuket last year, and the abuse I saw of only one baby elephant was what drove me to educate as many as I could on the atrocities these magnificent beings encounter everyday at yeh hands of humans, for humans. I started a petition that got over 85,000 signatures and a Facebook page that has over 1000 followers that I educate with current news and information. I was able to have two siffernr oinw news stories written on my experience, and liaised with some amazing people who educated me so thoroughly on this topic. I am returning in October to ENP and BLES to meet Lek and Katherine, as all as WFFT, and I cannot wait to learn even more from them and help in any way I can in the plight of the Asian elephant. Once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart – this article missed nothing and gave such an amazing insight into the horrors this industry really hides, but also made clear that alternatives ARE possible! 🙂 thank you once again, from myself and the elephants…you truly are an inspiration

    • Diana August 15, 2015 at 6:36 am · Reply

      Jaime — you should be applauded for your work in raising awareness! What an accomplishment! Thank you so much for the kind words. I will be in Thailand in October speaking on responsible tourism at TBEX, and then will go up to Chiang Mai to ENP. Let me know your dates. It would be lovely to meet you!

  21. Sarah August 14, 2015 at 10:08 pm · Reply

    Great article Diana! A well written and informative piece that I hope gets shared extensively.

    My first trip to Thailand was similar to others where I wanted to engage with elephants but felt morally challenged at the idea of elephant trekking. It was here I learned about ENP and Lek’s mission and was very happy with my day trip excursion. I returned a year later to volunteer for a week. I look forward to doing more work there and with similar facilities in the future.

    I encourage others to exercise informed decisions concerning their tourism choices, not just involving elephants but other animals (tigers) and environmental or social impacts from tourism too.

    Thanks again for the article!

    • Diana August 15, 2015 at 6:35 am · Reply

      Thank you so much, Sarah! I am glad you spent time at ENP with Lek — she is doing amazing work! It is also wonderful to see other places which offer similar experiences becoming more and more common. It is definitely a step in the right direction.

      In regards to other animal excursions, people do need to take the time to learn. Tigers, monkeys, crocs … really most of the animal attractions are not good for the animals at all. One stands out — people go to a croc show then can go by croc products. Sad.

  22. Jaime Singleton August 15, 2015 at 6:49 am · Reply

    Hi Diana – I would LOVE to meet you! I am at ENP as a weekly volunteer from Oct 5-11 then still in Chiang Mai until the 17th. Feel free to add me on Facebook or email me at 🙂

    • Diana August 17, 2015 at 12:44 pm · Reply

      Responded to your email! I won’t be in town those dates, I’m sorry!

  23. Jeremy August 15, 2015 at 8:42 am · Reply

    Very informative Sarah! I finnished a volunteer project recently in Thailand. Part of the program was a homestay for four days north of Surin. We stayed with a local mahout. While there, we planted crops and cut down various crops (sugar cane, etc) to feed elephants. We also walked the elephants on two different days. We did ride them but only once we got next to the water so we could help bathe them.

    I’m still not entirely sure how it’s organized, but it seems all the local mahouts would bring their elephants for us to bathe. They would let them all “play” for a while, then we would walk them back to where we were staying.

    At our camp, there were three adults and one 3 month old baby. The adults were chained, but the baby was not.

    I really felt the elephants were well taken care of. It was explained to me that we help give the mahouts an income doing “responsible” tourism, so they don’t need to do other things like painting, rides, etc that would be harmful to the elephant. I don’t know anymore. What do you think?

    • Diana August 17, 2015 at 12:44 pm · Reply

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Jeremy. While most of it sounds OK, I have issue with the fact that the elephant were ridden. Why were they ridden to the water instead of simply walking with them? Was it because the camp thought guests would enjoy it more? Or for another reason? I also take issue with the adults being chained. I’d want to know the following:
      1. Why were the adults chained? Are they dangerous? Do they not have enough staff to monitor the elephants when they are not “working”?
      2. How long are they chained?
      3. How long are there chains?
      4. How close are they to other elephants when they are chained?
      5. Is this a temporary solution and is the attraction moving towards chain-free shelters?

      If the place could make tweaks to their program like not offering rides and not chaining the elephants, I would take less issue with it. Also, if they are using positive reinforcement (giving food for listening to commands) versus using hooks, etc., I’d like to know.

      The idea of mahouts making money from more responsible options is a fantastic notion, and I certainly think the lives these elephants get to live in this program are far better than trekking, painting, etc. However, there is still work this program can do to improve in terms of helping the elephants. I hope this helps!

  24. Cheril August 22, 2015 at 10:27 pm · Reply

    What a great article. It’s perfect timing for me too, as I’m planning a trip to Thailand January 2016. I was already leaning against an elephant ride, but it is a definite NO now. Thank you!

    • Diana August 24, 2015 at 3:42 pm · Reply

      I am SO glad the article helped change your decision! Thank you for letting me know. Enjoy your time in Thailand!

      • Cheril August 26, 2015 at 10:09 am · Reply

        You’re welcome, and thanks!

  25. Dave from Daves Travel Pages August 23, 2015 at 1:42 pm · Reply

    This was a very thoughtful and well presented article. I genuinely hadn’t considered some of the points you had raised into ‘breaking’ the animals spirit in order to make them docile. Far better to enjoy elephants in their natural environment!

    • Diana August 24, 2015 at 3:41 pm · Reply

      Thank you, Dave! Many people don’t realize the torture the animals go through in order to become captive working elephants. It is a very sad reality for these animals. You are right, it is far better to enjoy them in their natural environment!

  26. Marie @ To Europe And Beyond August 23, 2015 at 8:28 pm · Reply

    I am going to share this on every platform I know. This is such a heart-breaking post, thank you for writing it Diana. Hopefully more and more people will become aware of this ludicrous industry.

    • Diana August 24, 2015 at 3:41 pm · Reply

      Thank you so much for your support, Marie! I truly hope this post can influence people to make a more responsible decision when it comes to the way they experience elephants. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  27. Arianwen September 1, 2015 at 12:59 am · Reply

    This is such a comprehensive post and it’s obvious you’re really passionate about it. I’m going to add a link from my article about the Elephant Nature Park so that people can find out more info. I’m excited at the prospect of maybe visiting another elephant sanctuary in Cambodia now!

    • Diana September 1, 2015 at 12:09 pm · Reply

      Thank you so much for adding the link. I really appreciate it, and appreciate your help in spreading the word! Definitely check out the sanctuary in Cambodia. It is fantastic! I was on the rescue which brought the two girls there!

  28. Götz A. Primke September 6, 2015 at 9:50 am · Reply

    Hi, thank you very much for such a long and detailed article. Unfortunately you don’t mention any elephant camp in Sri Lanka. I have recently been at the Pinawala Elephant Orphanage and also the Minneriya National Park, where elephants are living completely wild and free. Do you have any detailed information concerning these both sites?

    Some 5 years ago I have been elephant riding in Sri Lanka too, not far from the Pinawala elephant orphanage. It has been amazing but reading your article I now look at it somehow different, wouldn’t do it again, I guess.
    But the Pinawala elephant orphanage really is a very interesting park to visit. There they host elephants that got injured during the lots of years of civil war in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. They got injured by shots, by landmines or just got orphan as the parents got killed. Wonderful elephants – even though they also have iron chains. But they are wild, so how to handle these huge animals…? A question I couldn’t answer myself yet.


    • Diana September 9, 2015 at 10:02 am · Reply

      Hi Gotz, thank you for taking the time to comment. I have been to both of the places you mentioned. I do not support Pinawela for numerous reasons. You write that they are wild and free, yet they are not at all. Babies are put into tiny areas so people can bottle-feed them. The rest have a caretaker with a hook (and the hook is used). They are forced each day to walk with chains from the park down to the river so people can watch them. They are chained and controlled. In addition, I have seen proof that elephants there are actually put through the crush. I won’t address rumors regarding where the elephants are brought in from, but I do have sincere doubts that all of these elephants are actually orphans versus being captured. In regards to handling the elephants — the best answer is that if they are truly “wild and free” they wouldn’t need to be handled. They would have free reign to roam and do what they wish and people would be kept at a safe distance to observe. Lek and SEF, as well as a few other reputable places in Thailand, have been leading the way in terms of using positive reinforcement to get to the elephants to recognize and acknowledge basic commands for medical treatment and for safety. Hooks are not allowed, and it shows that these animals don’t need violence — or the threat of violence — in order to listen. I hope this helps!

  29. cheryl anne tan September 7, 2015 at 11:17 pm · Reply

    Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been doing my research on elephant camps and such in Chiangmai because I’m planning on heading up next month and would like to help volunteer. And I was having my doubts while reading information off their individual websites.

    I was already planning on heading to the Elephant Nature Park, and Luckily I stumbled upon your website, it has given me such valuable tips and information and has assured me that going to the Elephant Nature Park will be the right thing to do.

    Thank you once again!

    • Diana September 9, 2015 at 9:58 am · Reply

      I’m so glad this was able to help you with your planning. So many websites just share what they think will get them visitors, without considering whether or not it is important. I hope you enjoy your time at ENP. It is magical!! 🙂

  30. Eliza September 12, 2015 at 4:25 pm · Reply

    Thanks Diana, this is really helpful inciteful post. My husband Chris and I had always wanted to see elephants but wanted to make sure that we didn’t in any way contribute to their exploitation. When in Cambodia we volunteered at the Elephant Valley Project in Mondukiri where they rescue and rehabilitate elephants, teaching them to be elephants again. The success of the project is in educating the mahouts. Many of them really loved their elephants and had learnt to work with them more postively which was inspiring to see.
    We learnt so much and wish to help others understand why you shouldn’t ride an elephant and to be extremely wary should an elephant be in chains or if the mahouts have a bullhook. Much better to visit a genuine sanctuary or observe from a distance in the wild.

    • Diana September 14, 2015 at 3:26 am · Reply

      Absolutely. I truly believe nothing compares to seeing them wild and free. Educating mahouts definitely is what can make a project successful. I loved seeing the new mahouts come in to ENP and learn about positive reinforcement and see them not only respect and love the elephants, but also the other animals at the park, too.

  31. Sarah September 17, 2015 at 7:53 am · Reply

    Diana, this is a brilliant and comprehensive article. It is often so difficult for tourists to know what really happens behind the scenes.

    If other readers feel compelled to take action, they can help by signing our petition. We are Save The Asian Elephants (STAE), a not for profit association of prominent professionals, experts and campaigners that informs public opinion on the brutal capture, beating, poaching, blinding, leg-breaking and other terrible abuse of elephants for use in festivals, tourism and temples; and on the plunder of the habitat of these wondrous creatures. We exert influence on governments, politicians and the tourism industry to adopt practical and coherent solutions.

    We are currently collecting signatures on a petition to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), the Prime Minister of India and the Prime Minister of the UK, as STAE enters crucial meetings with the UK Foreign Office and DEFRA when we need maximum visible public support to strengthen our hand for the elephants. Every signature counts!

    This issue, and STAE’s work, has been featured recently in the Mail On Sunday: and

    • Diana September 19, 2015 at 6:03 am · Reply

      I am so glad your organization exists. I know I owe you an email as well. I will definitely share this information. Thank you for all of the work you do!

  32. Sheila September 30, 2015 at 8:35 pm · Reply

    What about BEES-Burma &Emily’s elephant sanctuary in thailand ? Are they a true sanctuary?

    • Diana October 7, 2015 at 4:32 am · Reply

      Yes 🙂

  33. sheila bassett October 4, 2015 at 2:11 pm · Reply

    Do you know anything about Burm & Emily’s elephant Sanctuary in Thailand?

    • Diana October 7, 2015 at 4:31 am · Reply

      I mention them as one of the camps which I believe to be responsible. 🙂

  34. Sheila bassett October 7, 2015 at 7:44 pm · Reply

    Sorry about all the repeat questions! my phone was misbehaving and I didn’t think it was posting. I saw where you listed the responsible ones and saw Boon Lott’s, but don’t see BEES .

    • Diana October 11, 2015 at 10:17 am · Reply

      No worries! BEES is good! They were started by people who used to work with Lek! 🙂

  35. Andrea Leblang October 27, 2015 at 9:39 am · Reply

    Thank you for sharing this with the GWT group! I am an elephant lover, and I am dying to have close contact with one. I’ve done a few safaris, but have dreams of being able to pet them, walk with them or bathe with them. I would never ride one, that’s for sure, but your article made me realize that I need to be cautious of ‘sanctuaries’ that offer other activities as well. Headed to SE Asia for a few months next year and I really appreciate your recommendations for trusted sanctuaries. Thanks D!

    • Diana October 30, 2015 at 4:07 am · Reply

      I’m so glad you took the time to read it! Thank you 🙂 I used to want to pet them, too, but as my friend put it: imagine a bunch of strange creatures coming up to you and putting their hands all over your body. After that, I didn’t even want to pet them anymore. Enjoy your time in Thailand!

  36. Shayne | November 2, 2015 at 10:42 pm · Reply

    I am having a hard time finishing this article because it exposes a sad truth and it is heartbreaking! But thank you so much for sharing and for taking the time to study this subject. This is the trouble with using animals as a tourist destination. The same case happens in Oslob, Cebu, Philippines wherein they cater the whalesharks as a unique experience for the tourists but not taking into consideration the harmful effects it has to the poor animals. Although for these elephants, it is an extremely different case as the soul crushing rituals start during their early years. It’s a continuous cycle. Another sad thing was the response you got from media outlets. The world often turns a blind eye to depressing issues, pressing issues that need attention. This makes me so so sad.

    Thank you again for the awareness you’ve raised. Hopefully we could pay it forward so that little by little, we could change the old ways.

    • Diana November 5, 2015 at 2:41 pm · Reply

      Thanks, Shayne. You’re right — the world does turn a blind eye all too often. It’s sad. In terms of the whalesharks, that isn’t something which is talked about often. The more people know, the more things can change. Continue to speak out and educate visitors to the Philippines about the whaleshark issue!

  37. Josefina November 3, 2015 at 2:23 am · Reply

    Thanks for the detailed article! Do you have info on Chitwan, Nepal elephants?

    • Diana November 5, 2015 at 2:40 pm · Reply

      Hi! As far as I know, the offering is elephants rides into a safari to see wild animals. Not ethical or responsible, I’m afraid. That isn’t something I would support. However, as I am not familiar with other offerings, should there be one where you can visit the park and simply observe the animals without riding them or bothering them/exploiting, that is the option I would suggest.

  38. Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad November 12, 2015 at 9:27 pm · Reply

    Thank you for sharing this!! I volunteered at Elephant Nature Park for a week this year and I think it’s one of the most important things I’ll ever do on my travels. More people need to be aware of the tourism industry when it comes to elephants and I’m so glad it’s getting more exposure on blogs and social media!

    • Diana November 13, 2015 at 10:37 am · Reply

      Thank you for taking the time to read it! ENP is incredible and I’m glad you were able to experience it first-hand! Please, feel free to share!

  39. Julia November 15, 2015 at 4:00 am · Reply

    Dear Diana,
    Thanks for writing this article, I think it’s really important people know what’s going on in the trekking camps. I am currently a volunteer at Elephantsworld in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. We are a sanctuary for old rescued and disabled elephants. Where we work for them and the elephants not for us. So it would be amazing if you could also mention us, if you agree of course. Cheers, keep up the good work. Julia

  40. Dur Montoya December 2, 2015 at 4:42 am · Reply

    Thank you so much for this amazing post! As I have a travel blog and also I live in SEA, I´m always getting the same question like you about to ride elephants, but I´m not an expert as you are. Sometimes they ignore what we say against riding elephants and days latter the pictures on Facebook show our friends riding them, it´s so up set and sad

    I´m wondering if you have this articule into Spanish? I do would love to spread the true out through our blog linking to your blog, or we can send to you a few question as an interview, then we can translate it.

    I know, on internet is information in spanish but this is an epic article explains everything clear then we believe the colombians will follow this advise

    Our blog is so popular in Colombia and it will help them to plan a responsable trip : )

    Thank you so much for this value information!

    • Diana December 2, 2015 at 7:00 am · Reply

      Hi, I don’t have it available in Spanish, but would be happy to answer questions for you. Feel free to email me, Also, if you’d like to translate it, please feel free to do so! Thanks so much for your support and helping the elephants!

      • Dur Montoya December 2, 2015 at 7:26 am · Reply

        Ok! Amazing!!! Thank you so much! 🙂 I´ll send an e-mail now!!!

  41. Susana December 6, 2015 at 7:58 am · Reply

    Wow Diane… This is probably the best article i’ve read about the subject. Hopefully, this will make a lot of people rethink the “elephant ride” on their bucket lists. It’s shocking what those gentle giants have to go through, the years and years of constant abuse and torture, for purposes as superfluous as tourists entertainment. I would like to believe that most people who ride elephants (and go to questionable shows, like elephants dancers or playing football…), do it out of pure ignorance of the reality behind it. Thailand is amazing, one of my favorite countries, but the way animals are treated there… not so much. There’s a lot to be done regarding animal rights. And you and other bloggers / vloggers with the same mindset have a huge role in making those changes a reality. Your 2016 WSE Thailand tour is another step in the right direction for the future of tourism! Congratulations!

    • Diana December 8, 2015 at 6:54 am · Reply

      Thank you so much, Susana! I hope this articles does help change the minds of people considering supporting animal attractions, be it circuses, trekking, etc. I’m so excited for the Thailand tour!! Are you coming?

  42. Liia January 8, 2016 at 8:50 pm · Reply

    Thanks for this article. Do you have any reviews or thoughts on the Chai Lai Orchid outside of Chiang Mai? I have always been in love with elephants and this place seems to be doing good work. Do you know anything about them?

    • Diana January 20, 2016 at 3:14 am · Reply

      Hi Liia. I am against any place which offers riding of any kind, and Chai Lai Orchard does. I’m not discounting the work they are doing, but I feel this still exploits the animals and encourages abusive practices in tourism because there continues to be a demand for elephant rides. I’m not saying don’t go, but perhaps opt out of the riding and let them know why you choose not to ride them, and educate others about the realities of elephant riding. You also should not be engaging with them on a really up-close level. It’s not safe for you, and it takes away from the elephants freedom.

  43. Tiffany January 26, 2016 at 5:32 pm · Reply

    Diana – Thank you so much for writing this article. I’ve found this and your other posts about Chiang Mai incredibly helpful. Elephant Nature park does not have a full day visit available when I am in town. I was looking for alternatives, and I was wondering do you have any thoughts regarding Elephant Jungle Sanctuary? Thanks!

    • Diana January 28, 2016 at 2:58 pm · Reply

      Hi, I took a look and they look pretty ethical. While, in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be any human-elephant interaction/engagement, this seems above board and generally ethical.

  44. jamil February 11, 2016 at 11:39 pm · Reply

    What about Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary in Malaysia? Abandoned or severely injured wild eles are treated, care for, raised and then trained to become wild elephant rescuers to manage conflicts between wild elephants and farmers. Enroaching wild eles are sedated and then escorted by once wild elephants turned into rescuers towards waiting trucks before these wild eles are released in 3 huge national parks in Malaysia….almost 700 wild eles have been safely relocated and released to their new homes with the loss of one ranger.
    Even an ele that was mauled by a tiger was saved by the men @ this sanctuary….and they even have a 78 years old female ele with the youngest around 18 months old found trapped in a hole…
    Go to tripadvisor and search Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary…

    • Diana February 24, 2016 at 11:50 pm · Reply

      I am not familiar with this sanctuary. I do not believe in using animals and am concerned about how they are trained. That being said, I did a little research and it seems to skew towards more responsible with no rides being offered and a lot of education. Without knowing if weapons are used to make sure elephants listen and how much interaction tourists actually get (ideally, there should be none), it would be a better option than camps offering riding or using hooks.

  45. Michelle Weigold February 16, 2016 at 9:18 pm · Reply

    Thank you for this great post! I only wish I had known this information prior to my visit to this park in Bali back in 2012, but sadly at that point in my life I hadn’t done the research and didn’t think twice about it.
    They told me how they were rescued from the logging industry, and I didn’t know any better. Now that I re-visit their site I see they offer paintings, have rides on the wooden box, etc. and I wish I hadn’t gone 🙁

    • Diana February 24, 2016 at 11:45 pm · Reply

      You know now, and that is what is important. Use that knowledge and educate others 🙂

  46. Danielle March 4, 2016 at 5:03 am · Reply

    Thank you for an informative post.
    I was wondering if you had heard of Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park. It is claimkmg to be a sanctuary and offers no Elephant riding, however I have seen pictures of the mahout sitting on the elephants. If you have heard anything about Elephant Hills I would very much appreciate your opinion.
    Many thanks,

    • Diana March 23, 2016 at 11:09 am · Reply

      Hi Danielle – here’s the thing. Some camps do it right, some do it OK, and some don’t do it right at all. While I personally prefer zero interaction with the animals, that isn’t always the case. I look for the following: no rides, no shows, no hooks or instruments to make the animals listen, no chains (or off-chain except to sleep or for medical/vet purposes), and no interaction with humans. If it is only the mahout sitting on the elephant, while it isn’t ideal, it also isn’t random people doing so. I’d give it a good look on sites like Trip Advisor (start from the worst reviews) to see if there are things going on which their own website isn’t sharing.

      • Kavey Favelle September 2, 2017 at 4:32 am · Reply

        I’ve recently booked into Elephant Hills for January and am hoping that it is indeed as high welfare as the website suggests. I read on their website that they have been awarded a Thailand Green Excellence Award for Animal Welfare last year by The Tourism Authority of Thailand and Wanderlust Magazine. I have a very strong trust in Wanderlust Magazine in terms of its ethics and commitment to such, so this reassures me that Elephant Hills is one of the good places to visit. I wondered if you’d had any more recent information or experience on them since this comment last year? Thank you in advance!

        • Diana September 26, 2017 at 11:04 am · Reply

          Hi, I don’t, sorry!

  47. Sheila Andrea May 1, 2016 at 10:27 am · Reply

    Hi Diana,

    Thank you for this post. I couldn’t take watching the videos, but you described them well enough. I’m going to Chiang Mai later this month and I’d really like to visit one of these elephant-friendly places.

    I want to check with you.. Is Elephant Jungle Sanctuary a legitimate sanctuary for elephants? I checked the activities for a day’s visit and it’s pretty similar to that of Elephant Nature Park. But cheaper, I think. I’m just basing it off on memory, so I’m not sure.

    Would you recommend it? It’s not in your list. I hope I can get a reply by next week. Will be in Chiang Mai 3rd week of May. Thank you!


    • Diana May 25, 2016 at 1:53 pm · Reply

      Sheila – I’m so sorry for the delay. I was working on my business launch. You need to look for the things I mentioned in my post on their website. Give it a good comb through. Do they have rides? Shows? Chains? Hooks? If yes, then skip it. The cheaper the experience, the less likely it is a sanctuary.

  48. Rebecca Smith May 25, 2016 at 8:21 am · Reply

    Hi Diana,

    I am only a portion through reading your info above and it’s very interesting and makes me even more desperate to help. I will send you a separate email to see how I can help out.

    I agree that education is an effective way to get through to people about the tourism trade, and that the ‘breaking of the spirit’ is so barbaric. I posted a video on Facebook tonight of an elephant park in Krabi that I visited after hours. All the elephants were chained and separated where they weren’t allowed to socialise with one another. One question posed by someone who viewed the Facebook post was – why do they separate them considering they are herd animals? In the interest of more education for people, do you know why they do this? Is it to let them know who’s boss and to keep their spirits low?



    • Diana May 25, 2016 at 1:48 pm · Reply

      They shouldn’t separate them. Sometimes, for their safety, they have to be chained if the shelters aren’t good, but other even if chained, they should be chained with their friends, not alone. They ARE herd animals and social animals and not being together is emotionally distressing for them.

  49. Jo July 16, 2016 at 1:11 am · Reply

    Hi Diana,

    Thank you so much for all this information. It’s so so helpful! We are currently in Nepal and want to go to Chitwan. There is a lodge that is trying to encourage responsible tourism there that do elephant walking (not riding) and the elephants are unchained etc. What are your thoughts with walking with them, bathing with them etc. Thanks in advance!

    • Diana July 17, 2016 at 9:33 pm · Reply

      Hi! To be honest, the ideal situation for the elephant is one which does not include any interaction. That being said, there is no magic bullet to make this so, especially given that there is a demand for animal interactions. This is definitely a far more responsible option, although I still believe observation is the only truly responsible option. However, it takes time to get to this point, and an organization to lead by example quite publicly. Personally, I find the best way to be around elephants is in the background and simply watching how amazing they are!

  50. Em November 20, 2016 at 2:01 pm · Reply

    Hello. Do you know if Elephant Dream valley is an ethical sanctuary?

    • Diana December 28, 2016 at 3:22 pm · Reply

      Take a look and see what it offers. Rides, hooks, tricks, shows, chains, touching … then it isn’t.

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