Animals / Asia / Thailand / travel / Volunteering / Wildlife

Ethical Elephant Tourism: What You Need to Know

This post most likely contains affiliate links to things such as tours, accommodation, Amazon associates and products. This means when you use the link I may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you, this helps to keep this blog going.

Elephant tourism is a booming industry in many Southeast Asian countries. Elephant circuses, street shows, and riding camps are flooded with travellers from all over the world who want an up-close experience with nature’s gentle giants. As exciting as it sounds, the elephant industry holds a deep, dark secret that they don’t want tourists to know about.

Not all elephant activities are considered ethical and some of them may be putting the animal’s lives in danger. The sad part is, large businesses take advantage of elephants to generate income while neglecting their health and well-being. As a tourist, it is your responsibility to research the activities that you participate in to make sure you aren’t supporting any unethical tourism practices.

elephant nature park in chiang mai thailand, perfect for a 10 day itinerary

Here is what you need to know according to Trunk Travel about ethical elephant tourism and how you can make better decisions when interacting with elephants.

Ethical Elephant Tourism: What You Need to Know

What to look for in an ethical elephant experience

Having an up-close and personal experience with an elephant is something that most people want to check off their bucket list. While you have plenty of options to choose from,  how do you know if the elephant activity you’re participating in is ethical in nature?

Here are a couple of things you should look out for when looking to interact with an elephant:

1. The elephants must be free from cages and chains

Elephants require plenty of space where they can roam and socialise with other elephants. Keep in mind that these animals form tight, matriarchal groups and it’s this bond that enables the elephants to thrive.

They should be free from any cages, chains, and other forms of restrictions that hinder their mobility and social interaction.

elephant in the addo elephant national park on a self drive safari

2. The elephants must have access to shade

The elephants must have access to sufficient shade where they can rest and recover. Overexposure to the sun’s rays can cause dehydration and they may even develop blisters on their feet.

3. The elephants should not be used for harmful animal interaction

While elephants are intelligent creatures, they don’t understand the commands of their elephant keepers. They have to undergo a cruel process called phajaan which uses bullhooks and brute force to become trainable animals. The elephant keepers starve them and keep them in cages to break their spirit and submit to their every whim. It’s through this process that the elephants learn the various tricks that you see on elephant shows and circuses.

If you see any elephant camps that offer tourists to ride them, watch them perform circus tricks, or even walk alongside them on the street, do not participate in these kinds of activities as much as possible.

Other posts to help you be a more responsible traveller:
Animals in Bali: What is ethical and what to avoid
Wildlife Tourism: Being a responsible traveller
4 Types of animal cafes to avoid in Tokyo

4. The elephants must be cared for by experienced veterinarians

Elephants that live in captivity have unique needs and they require the attention of expert veterinarians to look after their health and longevity. Tuberculosis in elephants (TB) is a re-emerging disease and without the aid of an elephant vet, their health can deteriorate quickly.

Ethical elephant camps and sanctuaries employ elephant vets to monitor and protect the animals from diseases and other health issues.

wild asian elephant walking through jungle, an ethical way to see elephants in asia

Mahouts and the tourism industry

Elephants are cared for and protected by mahouts, which are some of the most understood people in the tourism industry. Traditionally, a mahout is an individual who takes an elephant under his wings and becomes his partner for life. They form a strong bond together and live in each other’s presence, day in and day out.

Unfortunately, these people have been wrongly mislabeled as animal abusers because they’re forced to work for companies that use elephants for unethical reasons.

Mahouts work for very long hours with poor salaries. They live in basic shacks on the elephant camps with unclean hygiene facilities and sanitary conditions. To make things worse, unscrupulous businesses employ the cheapest labour possible and hire inexperienced individuals who lack the knowledge and experience in handling elephants.

The mahouts aren’t the bad guys here. It’s the shady companies and businesses that make a living out of them and use their elephants to generate money from uninformed tourists.

One of the best exemplars of ethical elephant tourism is the Mahouts Elephant Foundation. It is a UK-based charity that focuses on educating tourists about the welfare issues that captive Asian elephants face. They also work with some of the most incredible mahouts that earn a sustainable living and come from generations of experienced elephant keepers who treasure the human-animal bond.

The compassion and understanding of these mahouts are second to none and they come from Thailand’s Karen hill tribe which is home to some of the most respectable mahouts around.

Doing your own research

Ultimately, it’s about doing your own research and examining which places you should visit for an ethical elephant interaction. The good news is, many animal welfare activists have raised awareness about the plight of Asia’s captive elephants.

The more tourists are informed, the more likely these unscrupulous companies will be running out of business. Hopefully, the information provided here will help you make an informed decision when choosing to interact with elephants in South East Asia and beyond.



This post is in partnership with Trunk Travel. 

1 Comment

  • Abigail
    November 7, 2019 at 11:07 am

    Another way to tell how ethical a place is because even places that call themselves ‘sanctuaries’ can be just as cruel, is if they let you get involved with bathing elephants. If they do they are not an ethical place. Another tell tale sign of somewhere unethical is if they let you touch the elephants a lot. A good place that cares about the quality of life for the elephants won’t let you touch them much, if not at all!
    It’s nice to see more posts like this pop up as people just don’t know what goes on!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.