This picture has convinced thousands in Vietnam that elephant riding and circuses must end

17 July 2019

Image of girl riding exhausted elephant goes viral attracting outrage, widespread media coverage and finally, when the truth emerged, respect.

When the image of a tourist riding an exhausted elephant in Thailand appeared on Vietnamese social media, society was quick to judge.

Nearly 1,000 people expressed their disgust that a defenceless animal could be so cruelly abused and called on others never to ride elephants or watch them perform in circuses.

The post was widely shared garnering an audience of millions.

With elephant riding and performance a hot topic in Vietnam since Animals Asia began opposing both activities, dozens of media outlets picked up the story spreading awareness of the inherent cruelty still further.

The social media post which started it all was published by Nguyen Ngoc Quynh Anh who wrote:

“This elephant is exhausted because it has to service people and cannot rest or eat and drink enough. It has to lean against the wall to rest.

“Please, end the riding of elephants, horses and ostriches and circuses. End animal abuse. Animals do not deserve to suffer violence. They deserve to be loved.”

Compassion for the young elephant, who appears physically exhausted with its eyes closed while resting against a mud embankment, followed while many also condemned the tourist posing on the suffering animal’s back in the strongest terms.

But the tone of the comments changed completely when social media user Vuong Ai Phuong confessed that she was the girl riding the elephant. Phuong wrote: 

“Hello everyone, I am the girl on the elephant’s back and this is a photo which I uploaded. If I was scared of being insulted then I wouldn’t have uploaded it.

“This is a photo my friend unintentionally took when I rode an elephant in Phuket, Thailand. After looking closely I saw the elephant was exhausted, leaning against the mud wall with its eyes closed. I promised myself I would never take part in an activity like this ever again. I will never go to an animal circus or ride an elephant.

“Truly, look at animals in the circus, despite being outside, their eyes show they are exhausted and scared of humans. They always thirst for freedom.

“If anyone would like to share this image, please do so politely and with the correct information.”

Phuong’s comment won the hearts of thousands as nearly 3,000 reacted positively through the social media site. 

Thanks to Phuong’s willingness to own up to her mistakes, her bravery to accept the insults she knew would follow, and her new-found compassion for animals in captivity, millions more in Vietnam now know about this huge issue.

Animals Asia Animal Welfare Department Manager Nguyen Tam Thanh said:

“Animal circus, exploitation and elephant riding remain huge issues in Vietnam with abuse widespread in the tourism and entertainment industries. Raising awareness to reduce demand is absolutely vital and Phuong’s bravery has shown millions that treating animals this way just isn’t fair.

“The way to solve this situation isn’t to never make a mistake, it’s to accept our mistakes and change our behaviour accordingly. Once we know, we have to change.”

An Animals Asia report into animal circuses in Vietnam revealed that protected species including elephants and moon bears are widely abused across the country.

The report found that 100% of facilities failed to meet the animals’ basic welfare needs.

According to data from the Vietnam Administration of Forestry, Vietnam’s wild, Asian elephant population is believed to have fallen to between 100 and 150, a figure conservationists say is not viable to ensure their survival, while 88 individuals live in captivity, many providing rides for tourists in Dak Lak province.

Animals Asia launched Vietnam’s first ethical elephant tours in 2018 which allowed former riding elephants to freely roam a vast national park while tourists trek through the forest to observe them behaving naturally in their native habitat.

Earlier this year, Animals Asia was praised by the Vietnam government for long-term work to protect Asian elephants, particularly through the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) where the charity provides animal management expertise and veterinary care.

To tackle the issue of animal cruelty in Vietnam’s tourism industry, a working group has been established comprising Animals Asia, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Buon Don district People’s Committee and the ECC.

The group is tasked with finding solutions that will protect the welfare of captive elephants, the livelihoods and traditions of people in local communities and preserve wild elephants. 

While less than 150 wild Asian elephants are believed to roam Vietnam today, around 2,000 are thought to have been present in 1990.

H'Nol has just had a mud bath