An elephant ride seems like a common enough activity. Americans for generations have taken such rides at county fairs, traveling circuses, petting zoos and other spots. Tourists also head to many destinations in Asia, including Vietnam, “India, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, which is arguably the hot spot for elephant tourism in the region.” (According to an article in The Dodo)
And yet, expert after expert says that an elephant ride may be one of the cruelest activities many will ever “enjoy”.
Is it bad to ride an elephant when so many have already done so? According to animal experts the answer is a resounding yes.
Why You Shouldn’t Ride an Elephant
A 2015 report noted that a handful of captive elephants in Vietnam had perished from exhaustion. Made to work in excessive heat and for long hours, the elephants were all part of the tourism trade and spent their days giving travelers rides on their backs. Yet, they perished due to over work and hunger in almost all cases.
As Dr. Pham Vanthinh, a veterinarian from Vietnam’s Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center (DECC) said, they died from suffering (as would many of the other captive elephants in similar conditions). “Almost all of them experience stress and exhaustion from overwork by their owners and tourist companies,” Dr. Vanthinh explained, “Tourists go to Dak Lak to see and ride elephants…domestic elephants in Vietnam have to work all day…But in the dry season, the situation gets even more troubling as they grow weak from lack of food.”
And though this is horrible enough, the process by which an elephant enters the tourism trade is worse. Whether bred or stolen from captivity (both cruel processes on their own), an elephant is not naturally comfortable with restraints and non-stop interaction with humans. To ensure they will behave, animals are psychologically “broken” to force them to perform or behave as desired.
A process known as crushing, it involves physical beatings and immense cruelty to young elephants, and can even include destroying wild adult elephants in order to obtain younger animals.
So, even an elephant ride on an elephant that has long been in the trade is the end result of years of cruelty, and even neglect.
That means, before asking “where can I ride an elephant,” you should ask if you even should take such a ride in the first place. This is true whether it is wondering where can you ride an elephant in Vietnam, considering riding elephants in India, or seeking a place where riding elephants in Thailand is possible. It also applies to a domestic location, such as the U.S. and seeking “elephant rides near me” on Google or another search engine.
Tourists to areas where elephant rides and parks are a huge part of the experience need to understand that elephants, as a species (and this is true whether it is Asian or African elephants), have a proven level of emotional depth that makes captivity particularly painful. As that report also said, they have a “cooperative nature, familial bonds and intelligence” that makes them poorly suited to a life of servitude and bondage.
Alternatives to An Elephant Ride
Rather than pondering the reasons why experts say it is not a good idea to take an elephant ride or argue that other people are riding elephants and the harm is already done, you can look at alternatives to an elephant ride.
For example, if you are traveling to Thailand and want to experience something with elephants, you don’t have to go to a park for a ride. There are several ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand where people are not allowed to ride the elephants and where, for the most part, the elephants roam freely within a significantly sized park or preserve.
At the top of the list for many is Elephant Nature Park in the Chiang Mai area. Home to around three dozen formerly captive elephants used for logging or tourism, it allows visitors to watch the elephants during feeding times and see them enjoying daily baths. Volunteerism is also encouraged.
Nearby is Elephant Haven where elephants also roam freely and is a former tourism spot that has reversed direction entirely, freeing their once captive elephants and turning the property into a sanctuary where elephants are never put on show or forced to do more than enjoy their lives.
Several hours south of Chiang Mai is Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary that houses elephants retired from the tourism and logging industries. They allow elephants to roam freely, and volunteers are welcome to help bathe, escort elephants to swimming holes in the forests, and observe.
There are also options like Elephant Hills, far in the south and part of Khao Sok National Park. This is home to 11 elephants and riding them is entirely forbidden. Instead, this luxury accommodation also allows visitors to help bathe and feed the elephants or watch them roam their enormous private grounds.
You can also help to reverse the cultural trends in what is known as the “mahout culture.” As one expert explained, this is a culture that “demands that generation after generation of men in certain families own elephants…[which] need 400 lbs. of fodder a day, families need to live, and so mahouts use elephants to make money – and currently tourism is the only option.”
Unfortunately, the way that these mahouts treat the elephants in their possession varies and is often based on what was learned from generations before. These men find themselves partnering with tourism providers, and may lose control over the way that an elephant is treated, or find themselves ill-equipped to help elephants properly.
The Surin Project in the Baan Tha Klang area was started to help reduce the problems mahouts face by taking them (and their elephants) off of the streets. As one article explained, roughly “200 mahouts and elephants live in the centre; the mahouts are given employment and the elephants are free from chains. Volunteers are essential to the project’s survival and positions are available for a week or more,” for those who wondered about elephant riding and would prefer a more human alternative, this is also a great option.
We now know the answer to the question of “are you supposed to ride elephants”? And the good news is that there are plenty of alternatives if you are planning a tropical retreat. You can also consider destinations where elephants may not be available to visit, but where there is plenty of wildlife to safely meet and greet, such as the sea creatures around Barbados, St Barts, and Turks & Caicos!