Why you should NOT ride an elephant

Riding an elephant should NOT be on your bucket list. Here’s why…

As of a few years ago, I too wanted to ride an elephant. It wasn’t until I did a little research that I discovered the dark truth about riding elephants. In this post I have tried to gather as much information as possible to educate those that may not know about the cruelty behind elephant tourism and the importance of keeping elephants in the wild. I hope this article will change your mind on riding that elephant and that you try to help raise awareness in anyway that you can.

Elephants vs Humans

Elephants are one of the largest mammals in the world with the African elephant being the heaviest mammal. Due to their impact on the environment, elephants are considered to be a keystone species. A keystone species is a species that has a large effect on its environment because of its abundance. These species play a significant role in maintaining the structure of an ecosystem. Without elephants and other keystone species the ecosystem would struggle or even cease to exist.

Elephants are at an increasing risk of extinction yet they are still being captured or worse, killed. In 1930, there were 5-10 million elephants on the entire African continent and around 100,000 Asian Elephants. Now, there are approximately 350,000 African elephants and only 30,000-40,000 Asian elephants left. That’s a 90% decrease of African elephants in the past century and over a 50% decrease of Asian elephants over just 3 generations. On average 27,000 African elephants are slaughtered every year. In 2008, it was warned that the African elephant would be extinct by 2020.

Elephants have been used by humans for around 5000 years for various tasks, the military being among them. As the human population grows, unfortunately, more and more wildlife habitat is lost and sadly so are the number of living elephants. Due to habitat loss, poaching and increased tourism elephants have been on the endangered species list since 1976.

With all of this information it astounds me that people are still buying into the illegal selling of ivory and the more and more popular, elephant tourism.

Elephant tourism

Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals and therefor are sought after by humans to preform tasks, as previously mentioned. Nowadays, elephants are mainly used in tourism and the entertainment industry. Elephants are trained to preform tricks, such as, painting, playing football, being ridden and also used at the circus. Elephant riding is becoming more popular and tourists are often none the wiser to the cruelty this entails. Asian elephants are captured as babies and taken from their mothers, the mothers are often killed during this process. It is believed that 70% of baby elephants currently used in tourism  may have been poached from their natural habitat.

Is elephant tourism acceptable?

“Riding an elephant is one of the most popular tourist activities in Asia. World Animal Protection investigated the conditions endured by 2,923 elephants at tourist venues in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Laos and Cambodia, and found that 77% them were treated appallingly. Thailand is the main concern using almost twice as many elephants in tourism than all the other countries combined. Tourism to Thailand doubled from 15.9 million to 32.6 million visitors between 2010 and 2016, contributing to a 30% rise (1,688-2,198) in elephants held in captivity for tourist activities. The research also found that several venues in Thailand cater to thousands of visitors daily, generating estimated profits of tens of thousands of dollars per month from exploiting Asian elephants- an endangered species.” – via @backpackersintheworld

“In 2014, the International Animal Welfare Charity- World Animal Protection revealed that 53% of people felt it was acceptable to ride an elephant and only 40% found it unacceptable. In 2017, only 44% of people thought it was acceptable and 49% found it unacceptable to ride an elephant. ” via @backpackersintheworld

Dr Jan Schmidt- Burbach, Global Wildlife and Veterinary Adviser at World Animal Protection, said:

“The cruel trend of elephants used for rides and shows is growing- we want tourists to know that many of these elephants are taken from their mothers as babies, forced to endure harsh training and suffer poor living conditions throughout their life. There is an urgent need for tourist education and regulation of wildlife tourist attractions worldwide. Venues that offer tourists a chance to watch elephants in genuine sanctuaries are beacons of hope that can encourage the urgently needed shift in the captive elephant tourism industry.” via @backpackersintheworld

Riding causes harm

How can riding an elephant cause it harm?

The weight of carrying tourists, a trainer and a wooden chair on an elephants back can cause severe damage to an elephants spine. Not only does riding an elephant gradually cause wear and tear to the spinal tissue and bones but the chairs cause awful wounds which can also get infected if left untreated.

“Elephants are not anatomically designed to carry weight on their back. They have evolved to support a mass amount of weight suspended below their spine.

When you examine this skeleton you clearly see the spine is not like many mammals. 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.

This image is powerful and I feel clearly demonstrates why elephants can suffer when forced to wear a saddle and carry a load.”- Carol Buckley, President of Elephant Aid International.


Otherwise known as “The Crush,” this means to divorce the baby elephant from its spirit. What this is entails is absolutely heartbreaking. There are videos that document this but I will just briefly list a little of what happens so that you are aware, if you wasn’t already. This next section may be upsetting for you to read…

What is Phajaan? This is what it entails:

  • Baby elephants are captured from their mothers and families in the wild. The mothers are usually killed by trying to protect their babies.
  • Babies are bind with ropes or chains.
  • Captured elephants have their limbs stretched.
  • Mutilated by hooks, spears and other sharp objects.
  • Verbally abused by their trainers.
  • Often starved to maximise the pain and suffering.

This process of breaking the elephants spirits can last several weeks until the elephant learns to obey its trainer. Elephants who endure Phajaan often develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Sadly, the cruelty doesn’t stop there as elephants in tourism suffer poor living conditions and abuse on a day to day basis. Elephants are forced to work long hours of carrying tourists and heavy wooden huts on their back, whilst being prod with spears if they start to slack. According to World Animal Protection, “Between 2010 and 2016 in Thailand alone, 17 fatalities and 21 serious injuries to people were reported in the media. Unreported incidences involving local elephant keepers are likely to make this figure much higher.”

Due to being held in captivity, most captive elephants face a much shorter life expectancy. Increasing the risk of extinction dramatically.

Elephant ‘Sanctuaries’

Unfortunately, due to the public becoming more aware of the cruelty captive elephants endure, many tourist attractions have started to exploit the term sanctuary. By adding the words “sanctuary,” “orphanage,” “rescue centre,” etc they are deceiving thousands of tourists. If any elephant sanctuary etc offer elephant rides, encourage tricks, chain elephants or have any sort of sharp object, then they are NOT what they claim to be. A true sanctuary will not offer any of those things and will instead, educate you on the elephants. A quick look on Trip Advisor will help you make up your mind as that is how I discovered the truth behind riding elephants.

Thankfully, the worlds largest travel site, Trip Advisor announced that it would end all ticket sales to elephant encounters after a series of meetings with PETA. Over 100 travel companies have also taken action to stop ticket sales for elephant encounters, swimming with dolphins and tiger encounters.

I also have to mention because its becoming more and more popular due to social media that Pinawala Elephant Orphanage is NOT what it claims to be. I have linked reviews on Trip Advisor for you to see for yourself. It surprises me that so many reviews are positive. Are people really that naive or  do they just not care 🙁


Save elephants

If you wish to see elephants up close then the best way to see elephants is in the wild. There are many wildlife safaris you can go on across Asia and Africa where you can see elephants in their natural habitat. There are also some amazing sanctuaries out there if you do enough searching.

If you love elephants and other animals used in tourism, please do your research before visiting any sanctuaries. If you spontaneously visit somewhere please be vigilant. There are people risking their lives on a daily basis to save elephants in the wild and some have even been killed while doing so.

Do you want to break an elephants spirit?! Because by riding elephants you are potentially buying into another baby elephant being captured and taken from its mother.  If you pay to ride an elephant then you are supporting animal cruelty.

Please be respectful and loving to these magnificent creatures.

I wouldn’t normally ask this but if you have read this far please share this and help raise awareness.

Thank you for reading,

Hannah Jean x

*All images are sourced from Google.

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