The Dark Truth About Elephant Tourism

I love animals.  I always have.  I’m not sure there’s an animal that I haven’t wanted to ride – horses, giraffes, elk, ostriches, whales; you name it, I’ve probably wanted to ride it.  Coming to South East Asia you’d think I’d jump at the opportunity to ride an elephant, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to ride the world’s largest land animal! How cool is that? You can take some boss pictures and show off to your friends.

Well, let me explain why I didn’t ride an elephant, or buy a picture painted by an elephant, or go to a circus or event featuring elephants.

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Do I have your attention?

This is Phajaan, and it is inflicted upon every elephant that goes into the logging or tourist industry. It’s the “traditional” way to break an elephant’s spirit, making him malleable to man’s will.

Phajaan means to “Crush” or “Break.

Baby elephants are ripped away from their mother and family group and dragged into a tiny cage where they are tied and beaten, deprived of food, water, and sleep for three days. They are terrified and suffer physically, mentally, and emotionally.

These are babies we are talking about.  BABIES. Sometimes less than a year old. Elephants suckle up to 7 years of age.  Males are separated from their family naturally when they are in their early teens. Females stay with their mothers for life. These are herd oriented creatures, and I have seen first-hand how intelligent, caring, nurturing, and loving they can be. It’s disgusting that when confronted about the animal’s distress, the trainers will say they don’t feel pain.  Try telling to the elephant trying to commit suicide they aren’t feeling pain.

That’s right – elephants attempt to kill themselves during Phajaan by standing on their trunks, which is why the “trainers” tie their trunks to a post.  Infanticide is also a common trend among captive elephants – they don’t want their babies to suffer as they have.  I wouldn’t want my child to suffer this:

They use hooks, nails, ropes, and canes to torture the elephant until it no longer lashes out or screams in pain.

Until it accepts its future in the cruel, blood soaked hands of man.

The reason elephants are disappearing from the wild at such a rapid rate is because tourists are such a huge money market. I firmly believe if people KNEW what they were supporting when they rode an elephant, or bought an elephant painting, or took in an elephant show, the elephant tourism industry would be abolished. It boggles my mind that anyone would want to cause such senseless pain on an innocent, helpless creature all for the sake of an hour ride and a picture.

Street Begging

Before elephants are old enough to ride (usually around 6-7yrs old), they are used to beg on the street.  What tourist can resist a little baby elephant in the middle of a city?

The truth is that these are babies savagely ripped from their mothers, kept hungry by their mahouts so they are always eager for the food sold to the tourists to feed him.  Lek shared a story with us about a baby ele less than 1yr old who tried to suckle on tuk tuks and cars, whose mahout gave her Fanta to drink, and ended up dying after a short, painful life.

ele begging 2

Did you know that elephant feet are incredibly sensitive, and can feel minute vibrations from miles away? Now just think how much of a sensory overload it would be for an elephant to be stuck in the middle of a busy city like Bangkok w/ cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and construction. Not such a cute picture now, is it?


The most popular elephant attraction geared specifically at tourists is elephant trekking.  You sit atop a multi-ton animal and ride through the jungle, sometimes also playing in a river along the way.

An elephant’s back is one of the weakest parts of its body – it was not designed to carry several hundred pounds atop it. The chair alone is usually around 80lbs. Add to that two or three adult humans…

ele trekking 2

No way a giant tusker should passively let people ride on his back. Naturally, bull elephants are aggressive and wild – incredibly dangerous. To see one with humans riding him is just heartbreaking.

I’ve heard people argue that,

“Oh, the elephant was really well treated when I rode. He looked healthy and happy.”

The truth is: did you really know what to look for?

Even if the mahout wasn’t carrying a bullhook, most likely he had a nail hidden in his hand used to prod the elephant in the sensitive skin behind the ears, around the mouth, or near the eyes. Scarring can also be difficult to see if you don’t know what to look for – it can easily look like de-pigmentation or another crease in their wrinkly skin.


Something that’s relatively new to the elephant tourism scene is elephant painting. People are stunned to watch an elephant paint pictures of trees, flowers, and even other elephants! The elephant is expressing their artistic inner eye.

ele painting 2

When was the last time you saw a wild elephant painting?

Funny story – did you know elephants can’t see directly in front of them? That elephant you’re watching paint and “express itself” with brush and color can’t even see the canvas!

They’re not looking at the canvas – they’re eyeing the mahout with the nail, doing their best to avoid being punished. No one is looking at the man behind the elephant who is doing the real guiding of the ele’s trunk.


Circuses are a popular attraction throughout the world. While they seem to be slowly dying out, especially in recent years, often due to animal rights activists, they are still wildly popular in Asia.  Impressionable young children are taken to elephant shows as a school outing. They are raised thinking this is the normal way elephants behave.

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How natural is this?

The dark reality is that when these elephants aren’t performing these grotesque tricks for human entertainment, they are kept chained in small spaces – no room to roam or even move, apart from their distraught rocking back and forth.

ele training 2

Baby Ele learning tricks. In what world is this normal?

ele circus bullhook 2

Behave and Perform or get The Hook

ele circus sitting 2

Elephant cruelty is not just a thing of the past.

There have been many cases of severe abuse witnessed, which has slowly led to the closing down of circuses in the US. Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Bros recently vowed to phase out their elephant performances by 2018.

Here’s a video about Lucky the circus elephant who went blind from the spotlights, rescued by ENP.


Lucky and her new family today

In the two weeks at Elephant Nature Park I have heard the horror stories of these elephants’ pasts, and seen the damage inflicted upon them by human hands. I’ve seen the scars they will bear for the rest of their lives.

ele in chains 2

A picture is worth a thousand words. What words do you want to be sharing?

About juliamenn

Performer. Artist. Author. Lover of food and travel. Animal enthusiast. Avid reader. Globe-trotter.
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1 Response to The Dark Truth About Elephant Tourism

  1. grandpatim21 says:

    Jules – horrifying stuff. Makes me ashamed to be human, the havoc we reek!


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