Why you should NOT ride elephants.

Featured Image: El Vaquero

Humans are drawn to elephants. Whether by their size, intelligence, beauty or any other coveted quality, people are willing to travel great distances just to lay eyes upon them.

This attraction is the foundation of a booming tourism industry in Asia.

Unfortunately, by virtue of their magnetism they are subjected to practices that threaten the survival of the species. When most people think of issues that have befell the elephant, few would consider more than ivory poaching.

However, in order to support a growing demand for elephant tourism, operators engage in cruel and systemic practices that transmute wild elephants into docile and submissive creature capable of being ridden.

The rising demands to outlaw elephant rides in Asian countries may seem excessive to those unaware of the situation. But, they have resulted from these practices.


It is common practice to ride elephants in most asian countries.

Image source: El Vaquero

The situation.

The Asian elephant is listed as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species. Most of the species native countries, except India, host less than a few thousand individuals – several nations have less than two hundred.

In total, their population is estimated to be around 45,000. (Several studies, however, suggest that this is only a crude guess and the true population level is much lower).

A slew of factors contribute to this hastening decline, including: environmental degradation, population fragmentation, human encroachment into habitat, poaching and skewed sex ratios.

Asian elephants are expected to be extinct in the wild in less than 10 years if intervention does not occur.


Poaching tends to sit at the forefront of peoples mind in this situation. But, poaching needs to be understood as a response to an incentive.

Tourism promotes poaching. In order to meet the growing demands of tourists to interact and ride elephants, you need elephants. And, year-on-year, more and more elephants are plucked from the wild to meet this demand.

So prevalent is this demand that in many countries, captive elephants outnumber wild elephants. In Thailand, for example, of the countries estimated 5,000 elephants, more than 4,000 are in captivity.

Supplying a constant need for elephants from a population diminishing at an unprecedented rate is one thing. But, how do you turn a 4-tonne wild animal into a submissive prisoner of your tourism venue?

Crush their spirits…

This title is not intended to fuel an emotion-driven sentiment. Rather, the process of domesticating an elephant is called Phajaan, literally translated to ‘the crush’.

Phajaan originates from Indian hill tribe communities. The traditional practice comes from the idea that shaman can physically separate spirit from body.

The process is rather simple, although macabre. As the name implies, you need to break the animal into submission.

“the brutal truth is that breaking these animals’ spirits to the point that they allow humans to interact with them involves cruelty at every turn”

– Dr Schmidt-Burbach

The process begins around infancy. The baby elephants are dragged from their mothers and place in a kraal or ‘crush cage’ – this often results in the killing of the protective and aggressive mother. Here, it is completely deprived of movement and starved for several days.

Phajaan begins. This involves brutalizing and torturing the baby for around 3 days or as long as needed, using methods of burning, stabbing and beating. Literally breaking the elephant into docile submission.

This stands as an introduction to the tourism industry. For the rest of its life, the relationship of elephant and mahout is one of master and slave – submission through fear.

Mahout continue to brandish a bull hook or some nostalgic weapon of fear when in the presence of the elephant to reinforce submission through visceral fear. The intentional use of these techniques to induce submission in an elephant is hard to view as anything but the most heinous inclination of humans.


An award-winning photo by Brent Lewin of the Phajaan process.

Image source: NBC News


A Bull Hook is the weapon of choice when ‘breaking’ elephants.

Image source: A Beating Heart

A lifetime of problems.

Beyond the torturous initiation into the tourism industry, any issues that follow seem banal. But, the life of such an elephant is filled with hardship. The biggest draw of tourism operators is elephant rides. An action elephants are simply not built for.

When considering the elephant in its simplest form, a creature of mass proportions, it is difficult to assume that riding such a creature would have any substantial impact. But, this is because we draw assumptions from other aspects of our life.

When we think of riding elephants, it is likely in the same light as horses? (Horses, however, have undergone selective breeding to achieve a specimen that can bare great weight on their back).

Unfortunately, the spine of elephants is distinct in the animal kingdom.

“Instead of smooth, round spinal disks, elephants have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine. These bony protrusions and the tissue protecting them are vulnerable to weight and pressure coming from above.”

– Carol Buckley, president of Elephant Aid International.

Elephant tours can total more than 8 hours a day and have up to 5 passengers, plus a saddle. In the immediacy, this can cause damage to the skin, promote the development of painful skin lesions and bring about general pain and discomfort. Over years, like most spines, improper posture and movement can cause degenerative spine conditions – an elephant that cannot perform profitable tasks is discarded in the cheapest manner.

YOU are the problem… and the solution.

It is the demand from tourists for entertainment that drives the poaching of baby elephants, their torture and a life of hardship. But, tourism in and of itself, is not a bad thing. There are many examples of the good that has come from an ethical and sustainable tourism industry.

For all those anthropocentrists, tourism could support the transition of those that rely on this cruel practice to an alternative where the welfare of the elephant and its carers are equal. For example, much of Africa’s elephant tourism industry offers non-invasive interactions and remains a highly lucrative industry for the economy.

“Elephants need to eat and mahouts—lacking any government financial support—need money to survive.”

– Chanantpha from the Elephant Nature Park

The Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand is a rescue and rehabilitation centre that operates on a caring ethos. While the elephants are rescued from the tourism industry, their indefinite care relies upon the continued operation of the Nature Park.

In order to support its operations, the park offers guests the chance to feed, bathe and simply observe the animals’ nature behaviours. For those particularly keen souls you are even able to volunteer your services for the nitty-gritty of elephant care – if you know what I mean. Elephant rides are vehemently opposed.

The Elephant Nature Park symbolises the development of a multi-national mindsight that emphasises the importance of ethical tourism. And, its sending ripples through businesses that continue to offer elephant rides. Nowadays, there are only two kinds of people that ride elephants – the ignorant and the cruel.

Will you be riding elephants in Asia?

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