Living among the locals

The elephant riding debate

elephant riding in sri lanka

Who wouldn’t want to go on an elephant safari? Roaming the jungle on the back of this magnificent animal is every novice traveler’s dream. And even if it doesn’t cross your mind, the opportunity will be right there, waiting for you, asking you, to seize it.

This is what happened to me. When I visited the Chitwan National Park in Nepal and Sri Lanka’s middle belt, elephant riding opportunities were almost unavoidable. So I went for it, and I enjoyed every second of the experience and of being surrounded by all the wildlife. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the plight of these gentle giants.

For fellow travel writer and photographer Penny Frederiksen, the prospect of elephant riding was too exciting during her first solo trip to Asia.

“I wanted to experience everything Thailand had to offer and it seemed that riding an elephant was one of those boxes to be ticked,” Penny told me.

Soon, however, travelers like me and Penny started hearing about the elephant riding debate. Some heard it from animal welfare organizations that started launching awareness campaigns, while other travelers noticed the discomfort of the elephants. This is what happened to my sister when she visited the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.

“I felt that the tourists’ behavior with the elephants was a bit intrusive. I even saw some people trying to force-feed the animals,” she told me

Current conditions

Recent research has shown the dire conditions of the elephants who work in the tourism sector.

According to a World Animal Protection report, 80 % of the 3,000 elephants living in tourist venues across Asia suffer from poor living conditions that involved insufficient diet and overworking. These findings have propelled tourists and tour operators around the world to avoid the practice.

In 2010, the German TUI Nederland was the first tour operator to stop the sales and promotions of venues that offer elephant riding and shows. Soon the Australian Inrepid Travel followed.

In 2016, TripAdvisor finally succumbed to public demand announcing that it would end the sales of tickets for any wildlife activities that involve direct contact between tourists and captive wild animals. By early 2017, more than 160 travel companies limited their options to elephant-friendly tourism activities.

“With age, travel and more information, I now realise many of these elephants are the product of a tourism industry which does not have the animal’s best interest at heart,” Penny said.

Domesticating elephants

The domestication of wild elephants started a long time ago. According to one account, it goes back more than 4,000 years.

“A long time ago, elephants were used to transport heavy things, clear jungles, and plough the lands for growing crops,” said Sri Lankan tourist guide Sarath Kandambi*.

During that time, mahouts in Asia, or the elephant keepers, were hired to train as well as maintain the animals. Through the ages, the traditional mahouts have passed on ancient ancestral knowledge of the best methods and practices of dealing with the elephants.

Like other professions in Asia, working as a mahout used to be passed on from generation to the next, with sons receiving training from a young age. Having spent their childhoods in the jungle around elephants, even novice mahouts understood their animals well and learnt which plants could keep them fit and healthy.

In the late nineteenth century, steam-powered machines – that had been used in the Industrial Revolution – penetrated the farming industry. When this trend reached Asia, many mahouts and their elephants were put out of business, leaving them with no option but to enter the tourism sector. Once in the domain of tourism, both elephants and mahouts became treated as dispensable commodities.

Changing Mahouts

“Large numbers of elephants are sold, separating them from their mahouts as they cannot afford to feed them. This raises another problem where people unfamiliar to the elephants are then put in charge of them,” Penny said.

Last year in Thailand, the warnings of a a bull elephant’s mahout about the animal entering a state of musth went unheard. Instead, the owner paired the elephant with a new mahout. When the tourists arrived, the raging bull snapped, killing the new mahout and disappearing into the jungle with the tourists on his back.

“In order to make elephants submit to rides and other human interactions, they are forced through a horrific training process that involves extreme restraints, separating calves from their mothers, inflicting pain and withholding food and water,” Sarath told me.

Alternative options

While the industry is unkind to elephants, some view it as a much-needed income source for the locals, providing employment for numerous workers and creating additional revenue streams. The industry offers jobs to tourist guides like Sarath, drivers who take tourists to elephant riding sites, and entire villages that supply elephant food.

A possible solution could be to offer training to teach the elephant owners and mahouts better ways to deal with their animals while maintaining a sustainable income.

“A little more thought needs to be done in actually providing a unique experience where tourists can learn about the vulnerability of elephants. I am not sure if tourists can fully understand the plight of the species simply by riding them,” Penny said.

* Sarath Kandami is a tourist guide based in the town of Mirissa in southern Sri Lanka | Cellphone: +94 77 111 7856, Email:

About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

10 thoughts on “The elephant riding debate”

  1. For me there is no debate. The elephants are abused and their spirits are broken in order for us to ride them. My fleeting moment if happiness is not worth their lifetime of suffering.

  2. I’m glad this piece actually addresses that elephants have indeed been domesticated for thousands of years. One thing that irks me in this debate is ppl saying they’re wild animals that can’t be domesticated. They were also used in wars like we used horses, yet we don’t seem to be up in arms about horseback riding. That said, there are def places with awful conditions that could use the education suggested in the piece. Last note, there’s a Hill tribe Museum in Chiang Rai run by a highly respected nonprofit. I thought it was interesting that one of their signs is about elephant riding and actually encourages ppl to do so at sanctuaries and big park areas, bc if not, the mahmouts will be forced to take the elephants to crowded cities like Bangkok to do street tricks to earn an income (which includes money to feed and house them!). It’s not a black and white issue; it is a practical decision for the locals.

  3. While I respect the writer’s attempt to present an alternative argument, I can’t support elephant riding. I don’t support the way in which they are “trained”. Referred to as the “crush”, where they are forced into submission through force and pain. I don’t support the disruption in their natural behavioural patterns (elephants live in sophisticated, highly stratified social groups). I can’t support the argument that just because they’ve been “domesticated for 4000 years”, it’s justification to keep repeating the abuse. Arguing that they were used in wars is not a justification to repeat the abuse. If this was a discussion about whether horses should be used in warfare today, the answer would be simple. No. But we’re still on the topic of elephants. So no. Elephants should hands down, unequivocally not be ridden. Period.

  4. It’s a controversial item indeed. But I too believe strongly that elephants are working animals. I was in Bangkok in 1999! And I saw with my own two eyes elephants roaming around the streets, and causing havoc and chaos, because they had no owners and therefore, no one to be responsible for them. And they’re not pets that you can fob off with pieces of cake! Be happy that the elephant painting, drawing, dancing through hoops, and doing circus tricks is over. I saw that too! Everyone is entitled to their opinion whether you’re for, or against. Here’s what I wrote a few years ago:

    • Nice article Victoria Ade-Genschow. I do believe that it’s a personal choice but also I feel that it’d be nice to give the humans plight in this industry as much attention as we give the animals. In my country, Egypt, the street animals are in dire conditions, but so are the street children; but you only hear from travelers about the suffering of the street cats and dogs. It really makes me wonder; what about the children? Don’t get me wrong, I’m an animal lover myself and am the proud owner of 4 lovely cats, so I love to hear concerns about the animals, but let’s not forget the locals in the process.

    • Agreed! I love pets and have two wonderful adoring cats at home, but children are important too. I got into this huge argument with an Italian blogger who thought it was OK to take a naked photograph of an African teenage boy. Not only that it was unethical to do so but, she did not obtain permission from the parents of the boy, to take any photo at all, not to talk of naked! I was outraged, but she could see nothing wrong presumably because he was African, and wouldn’t admit he was a child under 13! 😡

    • These are valid points, but we could take that up in another thread. I could write all day about my work with war refugee kids in East Vancouver, or working with sex-trafficking workers in Indonesia, it’s not that I have to no respect for the human plight, I do. However, the article isn’t about naked teens in Africa or Egyptian children. It’s about elephants, and you guys are actually justifying their mistreatment. And since we’ve taken the topic outside of Asia, and there is so much concern for the livelihood of the handlers in Asia, Botswana, Namibia and parts of Southern Africa offer excellent examples of locals turning to conversation to put food on the table. Proper sanctuaries where orphaned, injured and traumatized elephants are cared for and nurtured by individuals. Not “crushed”, forced to do labour (what a cop-out argument – Have you looked at the evolutionary development of elephants??? They’re NOT a domesticated breed we created) I don’t get how you can possibly spend any time with an elephant or herd and actually accept or support their exploitation, in shape or form. You both need to spend more than a day or two at these facilities to understand how sentient they are. I spent two months tracking two herds across the Zimbabwean and Zambian borders, and lived next to an elephant riding facility in Livingstone. It broke my heart every day to see tourists on their backs. To see those babies regularly separated from their mothers. To see these beautiful matriarchs’s spirits crushed by men with hooks and harsh voices. Nope. Can’t support this. Not now. Not ever.

    • Fair enough Jord Ana. Back to the elephants. I’m a huge believer in allowing people to make their own choices. Freedom of thought n’ all that. 😊

    • Victoria Ade-Genschow I fiercely believe in freedom of thought and choice…just not when the choice involves the abuse of animals😏

  5. If you want to ride elephants they must suffer, they must be broken, do not do that.

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