The truth about elephant riding

01 March 2019

Bakas Elephant Tour, Bali 2014 (1)

Every year, tourists from around the world ride elephants while on holiday in Southeast Asia. Here’s why you should never take an elephant ride. 

In Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, it is common to find elephant riding experiences at tourist hotspots. Such trips are listed on prestigious travel websites and images of global tourists taking part are ubiquitous on social media.

But in reality, taking part in elephant riding is encouraging both animal cruelty and wildlife crime, which, in tandem with other factors, is driving the Asian elephant to the edge of extinction. Here are the facts: 

Trapped in the wild

Breeding elephants in captivity is notoriously difficult and requires very high standards of welfare. In Vietnam, no elephant has successfully been born in captivity for 40 years.

So in reality, the vast majority of elephants providing rides for tourists have been poached from the wild.

Elephants are very social animals and live in large herds in the wild. When being poached, young elephants are torn – violently – from their family and friends who they will likely never see again.

Elephant Jun had been caught in a wire trap


In order to make elephants compliant, they must fear humans. This is typically done in a process known as a “crush”. Young elephants are tied up and savagely beaten by groups of captors until their spirit is broken.

Elephants have long memories and this barbaric abuse is usually sufficient to ensure they remain petrified of their captors for the rest of their lives.

Worked to death

Once sold into the tourism industry, elephants must work to earn their keep and turn a profit for their new owners. Elephants used for rides are typically available to give rides all day, every day.

When no tourists are present, the elephants are tied up to wait. When the tourists appear, the elephants must work for up to eight hours ferrying large groups on their backs in the tropical heat.

The welfare of elephants in the tourism industry is poorly regulated and over-work is a common form of abuse. Media in Vietnam have reported numerous cases of elephants dying from exhaustion and malnutrition in recent years as they are literally worked to death.

Unable to express natural behaviours

In a captive environment where the elephants’ welfare is secondary to the goal of financial gain, the animals inevitably suffer.

In the wild, elephants will roam for many kilometres every day in search of their preferred food. They constantly interact with other elephants, either bonding through physical touching or communicating over large distances using sub-sonic rumbles.

Elephants are fond of play and will bathe in water before giving themselves a “dust bath” which prevents attacks from parasites.

Yet in the captivity of tourism camps, none of this is possible.

When not giving rides to paying visitors, the elephants are restricted by short chains tied round their ankles. They have no opportunity to roam, to forage, to bathe or to interact with their own species. Keeping elephants in conditions which do not meet their basic welfare needs causes suffering and is a form of cruelty.

Tourist money encourages the cycle to continue

Tragically, the global tourism industry is fuelling the demand for elephant rides. As long as global tourists are willing to pay to ride and interact with elephants while on holiday, then the animals will continue to be poached from the wild. They will continue to be sold into lives of misery and servitude, and be beaten to break their spirits. 

Asian elephants are endangered

The situation for Asian elephants is now critical. The species is listed as endangered in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and their numbers are falling.

The biggest threats to their continued survival in the wild is killing for ivory, and poaching for the entertainment and tourism industries

The truth is undeniably clear: by taking part in elephant riding, global tourists are complicit in extreme animal cruelty and pushing the majestic Asian elephant to the edge of extinction.

Take action

Here’s how you can help: