Elephant Issues

Unethical Treatment of Elephants

Elephant Tourism 
There are so many issues related to elephant tourism it is difficult to know where to start.  But if you actually care about these animals, it is worth knowing the issues.  I will warn you, you are about to learn the ugly side of this industry.  The good news is there is a good side too, so you can have positive experiences and actually help the animal. 
Let's start by saying the ideal situation would be to have all of the elephants in the wild where they belong.  However, that is simply not a reality at the moment and even those still in the wild are facing issues of land loss, poaching, and human/elephant conflicts.  The reality is there will be captive elephants in Thailand and most things we talk about here are dealing with that and what we can do to improve the situation.  Even with captive elephants, there is the ideal situation that we, and many others, would love to see them living in and then there are the realities and limits that get in the way.  It is easy to have an opinion, but working with people in the field will open your eyes to the realities of the situation.
Some of this information we cannot prove it here, but we are going from our experiences and knowledge learned from working with professionals in the field over many years.  This would include sanctuary owners, elephant tourism managers, veterinarians, and activists.  These professionals have different backgrounds and varying opinions as well.   We are trying to best represent all of their knowledge, even if some of it was in conflict with our own beliefs as well.  Don't take our word for it. We strongly encourage you to dig deeper and do some of your own research.  
Many will say, if we don't have this elephant tourism then the elephants will die because no one will take care of them.  While it is true that your tourist money does pay for their 'care' (i'll use that term loosely), most if it is used as profit and the elephants wellbeing is usually far down the list of priorities.  We have seen positive elephant tourist experiences that work for the owner, the community and especially the elephants.  There is no reason to keep the cruel side of tourism alive when there are better alternatives.  While supporting a sanctuary that rescues elephants from a harsh and cruel life is helping, it is best to stop the cruelty at the source by not to supporting places which take animals out of the wild specifically for the purpose of tourism.  Without the demand, elephants would be able to stay in their villages and forests with their herd, rather than kidnapped to feed the tourist market.

Elephants in Captivity
Elephants used in elephant shows and trekking are usually being mistreated, their spirits are being broken with a crushing method so they understand that the human is in power, hooks are used when they misbehave and many tourists ride on the elephants back.  An elephant is big and strong but the back is a weaker area and the chair on the back does cause issues.  Riding on the neck (no saddle) is much better for the animal.

Phajaan 'Breaking their spirit' (Pain & Punishment)

Breaking their Spirit (Pain & Punishment) 
Target Training (Positive Reinforcement)

The phajaan is a traditional method of breaking the elephants spirit so that it can be tamed and trained.  It is very controversial and cruel. Many believe this is the only way to do it, but the truth is others have done it in animal friendly ways.  The phajaan involves caging a young elephant and torturing it for weeks.  Starving it, poking it with a nail on a stick, beating it, constantly pestering it until it finally gives up. Some die in the process, those who survive get to work in the tourist industry.  Warning: this video is tough to watch. 

This method of pain and punishment to learn still continues today, however, some places, such as The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation at the Anantara hotel in Chiang Rai use a more positive and animal friendly method called 'Target Training'.  For example, "The training that is performed at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is essential to providing the elephants with a healthy lifestyle rather than a new form of entertainment.  In order to perform veterinary checkups and administer medical care, we need our elephants to present us with different areas of their bodies, and to stand still for prolonged periods of time.  To this end, the GTAEF constructed a training "wall", a large enclosure where our veterinary staf

Target Training ‎(Positive Reward)

f can work safely with the elephants.  Once an elephant has been fully trained, she can enter the wall and present any part of her body for inspection, including her ears, mouth, and feet."

Why train an elephant at all right?  Well, it isn't for entertainment, although it could be used for this as well.  It is for health and safety reasons.  Elephants in captivity will suffer from health issues and need to be checked by a veterinarian.  This should be done safely and stress free. Elephants comfortable with this method have no issues with it. 
An untrained elephant around tourists can be very dangerous as well. Not training a baby elephant might seem like a kind thing to do, however, what I have learned is that when that elephant is older and perhaps a little more troublesome, it can be dangerous and will need to be trained eventually.  Training an older elephant is a lot more difficult and stressful on the elephant.  Therefore, training a captive elephant at a young age can be better for everyone if done in a positive way.  It also seems that this positive training builds more trust with the animal and the mahout can have a better relationship with the elephant.

Smuggling baby elephants

Baby Elephant Smuggling
It is hard to find something cuter than a baby elephant.  They are playful, curious, and just adorable.  It's no wonder tourists love them. However, you are likely to be fed lies (at least from what we've been told).  Here is the story as it was told to us from several people in the business.  Of course, we cannot prove this is true, but we trust these people.
To get a baby elephant you take it from the wild.  Only problem is the herd, of mother and several aunties, will fight to the death to protect the baby.  So they get killed; usually shot.  Then you take the baby away, typically to a village in the jungle near the Thailand and Burma border.  Here the baby is tortured and goes through the phajaan.  Once the spirit is broken the is baby ready to be trained and is put in a show or a camp and the paperwork is fudged to say that another elephant is the mother.  Then tourists show up and take 1000's of photos with the baby and the owners think 'we need more babies'.

The Bull Hook

The Bull Hook 
Used to hit the elephant to control the animal.  Also has a sharp pointy tip that mahouts use to pull behind the ears and other sensitive places. 
Some mahouts ABUSE elephants with this and others just carry it to feel safer, but to the elephant it is always a reminder of who's the boss.
Personally, I hate the hook and i've seen first hand what a bad tempered mahout can do with it. A few places have banned the hook, which I first thought was a great idea.  However, I have heard from others this leads to other issues such as a mahout hiding a nail in their pocket to poke the animal when needed. I have never seen this personally, but I also never knew to look for it either.  As I said in the beginning, there is no perfect solution to these issues. 

Besides the obvious discomfort caused by the chains it has a far greater social and physiological effect.  Elephants are extremely social animals who develop complex social interactions.  It is very interesting to observe how they behave together if they are a family or act like a family; especially if a baby is in the mix.  However, many trekking companies will chain the elephants up and park them like cars when they are not carrying a tourist on their back.  This is one of the worse things you can do because you are not allowing for any natural behaviors.  Remember elephants learn from the teachings of the elders in the herd.  Parking them like cars doesn't allow for this.  A large free range set up with a fence would be best, but if you have to use a chain, have a long chain that allows the elephants to meet each other if they desire and also have the ability to be alone and untouched if that is what they want.  Short chains are obviously the worse and if using chains at all only use when necessary.  Limit the time on chains.


Elephant paintings have become very popular and it does seem cool that an animal can do this.  This is a controversial topic and some say the elephant enjoys doing it while others say it is unnatural. From what we were told (use your own judgement), unfortunately, it is riddled with cruelty as well.  Behind the scenes, elephants are trained to pick colors and paint, while the mahout, using a sharp nail on a stick will poke the elephant until they get it right.

Elephant Trekking
This is not the worse activity an elephant can go through.  In the past they worked in the forest in the logging industry and this was much harder. Trekking is like exercise for the animals and a sedentary elephant will develop joint issues, thus exercise (walking) should be encouraged.   However, many places don't get it right.  Elephants work long hours, in the hottest parts of the day, no shade, not allowed to eat on the route and are hit with the hook if they do.  Tourists (too many at a time) ride on their back using the chair (ride bareback on the neck instead), the trail is often the same old boring circular track day after day.  Some of the elephants are old, weak or even disabled.  Once the trek is all done the elephants don't socialize, but get parked liked cars again.  It's not hard to see how this can be improved.  Some places allow you to ride bareback on the neck, have set working hours at the cooler times of the day, allow more natural behavior, and use healthy, young, strong elephants.

Street Begging
Although you see a lot less of this in Bangkok now than say 10 years ago, occasionally it still happens.  It is illegal and you can let the police know.  In the past, the elephants were drugged to be calm around all the noise, lights, and business of Bangkok streets.  Tourists would pay to feed the elephants sugar cane.  I personally think Thailand has done a good job of getting the elephants off the streets.  

If you see a street begging elephant you can:
  • Call 1136 (forestry police) and/or 1193 (Dept of National Parks)
  • It helps if you can get photos, GPS location or street name, time, and date.
  • Obviously, consider your own safety in the situation.  But remember sometimes the mahout and elephant can be rescued in the long run and relocated to a better place.

Elephant Shows
Unnatural behaviors, silly tricks to entertain humans.  Lots of smiling and laughing humans who just don't know the real story or they haven't bothered to think about it.  Support places that allow the elephants to behave like... you guessed it... ELEPHANTS!!  See them behaving naturally.

Human and Wild Elephant Conflict
Wild elephants often come out of the forest into small towns to reach a water source and sometimes to raid farms to get food.  Obviously farmers don't like this and some have retaliated by shooting and killing the elephants.  Our experience with this in Kanchanaburi was very interesting.  Locals had tried various methods, including a strong electric fence.  We came back the next morning to see the elephants knocked over a large tree taking out the fence and then raiding the food again.  They are quite intelligent, perhaps too smart for their own good in this case.  There does seem to be some good results coming out of Africa whereby bee hives hanging on wire fences are being used and apparently when the fence is shaken and the bees disturbed the sound seems to turn the elephants away.  We also helped build check dams and plant trees in the buffer zone to keep the elephants away from the villages.

Ivory Trade

YouTube Video

We've all heard of the Ivory Trade, but do you really know how deep it goes?  It is actually growing and the demand is higher now than ever before.  Did you know that Thailand is #2 in the world for Ivory trade demand, behind China?  Ivory comes from African elephants simply because they grow much larger tusks than Asian elephants.  Thais and tourists buy trinkets and buddha carvings made from ivory supporting this horrible trade.

Both of these video are very well done, but I must warn you there are a few disturbing scenes.  However, we feel it is important to show just how ugly this trade actually is and how you may even be connected without even knowing. 

YouTube Video

Rescuing Elephants
At this point you might be thinking, "What?  How can rescuing be bad for the elephant?"  When a person or organization rescues an elephant they are of course doing it with the best of intentions and certainly do help that particular elephant by giving it a better home and better life. However, no good deed goes unpunished right.  Unfortunately, mahouts and others in the industry know they can fetch money and lots of it now by having a caring citizen or organization pay to rescue it.  So it has, in some cases, fuelled an unwanted trade.  The mahout sells the sick or injured elephant to be rescued, but then takes the money and gets another one, sometimes even from the wild.  So we are not saying that rescuing an elephant is a bad thing.  We have even rescued two ourselves, but it can lead to a worse situation overall.  My advice would be to don't just think with your heart, but find out more in the situation first and weigh the pros and cons.