Elephants in the Tourism Industry

Taking an Elephant Ride or having a Temple Elephant “bless” you may seem exotic, but in reality it’s just plain cruel.  

Having a big elephant carry a relatively small human on her back, or watching a majestic bull marching in religious festivities  may not seem debilitating, but the life endured by elephants used in tourism is one filled with abject cruelty and hidden brutality.  Stolen from their families, often confined without free access to food, water and rest, and forced  to undergo sustained and systematic abuse, trekking and temple elephants live painful, shortened lives and are just a suffering shell of what they used to be.

What elephants endure behind the scenes to submit to the demands of the Tourist Industry is something you’ll never, ever forget if forced to see it, and simply does not need to happen.The real battle here is awareness, for if people knew what it takes for the world’s largest land animal to be submissive to humans, we would never, ever ask for it.

Breaking Their Spirit: Inside The Crush

As long as it takes, until the baby either complies or dies, the young elephant will endure repeated beatings, stabbings, and starvation, all while being shackled and bound inside a small crate, without water,  rest, or any medical help.  If the baby survives this brutality, and many don’t, the broken little elephant will spend  her entire life a slave to the tourist industry, worked until death inside trekking camps, circus shows, religious festivals, and tightly confined in temples.

The true story of what happens before your innocent-seeming ride is hard to believe.  If you do need to see it to believe it, this is the common method of breaking an elephant’s spirit.  Please note that although this video doesn’t come close to showing the ongoing abuse elephants used for tourism endure, is still contains graphic content.


In mid-January 2017 I was spreading our Humane Tourism campaign for travelers and our Elephant Love Project for children throughout Cambodia.  One afternoon I was working in a small Khmer cafe in the southern part of the country when a broken and battered elephant pulls up, a wave of emotions overtaking me in no time flat.  I followed the elephant and mahout throughout the town, educating and engaging the tourists and locals alike the best I could to the reality of what they were seeing.  It was shaky ground to communicate in a foreign language to locals and especially encouraging the tourists to look past the exoticism of what they were seeing and peer in to the probable lives of both the elephant in captivity and the rider in poverty.

It’s easy to be paralyzed in depression when you see yet another animal’s wounds, to throw harsh words upon locals when you observe them pass their babies under the elephant’s belly in their belief in its’ blessing, and to explode in outrage when you witness tourists paying to take a selfie without seeing what damage their actions perpetuate .

And yet it is consistent education for tourists and locals alike, along with generating sustainable options for the elephants already in captivity, that can break the cruel cycle trapping elephants in tourism and temples. 

The work takes far more patience than what comes naturally. Habits and hearts are slow to change, true sanctuaries take time to build, and reforesting elephant habitat or helping elevate rural elephant “owners” up from poverty is usually not what people want to do when they say they want to volunteer to help elephants.

We work for immediate reduction in suffering, but also for the longterm systemic changes require openminded dialogues with locals, travelers, the wealthy, the poor. It’s easy to spew venom or simply turn away when what lies in front of us seems impossible to change, but with every passing week working across SE Asia, we’re witnessing the power of possibility as people learn the truth, change their minds, and work together for a future that exchanges a past filled with conflict for a future embracing coexistence.


How you spend your money when traveling is the clearest way to create change for elephants trapped within the tourist industry.

The sooner more people spread the truth about the cruelties endured by elephants used in Tourism, the sooner these inhumane practices will be allowed.  How you spend your money is the clearest way to communicate with the Tourist Industry!

Thanks to people like you, more and more travel agencies are no longer including elephant rides as part of their package tours, and the more people who speak up, the more we can change this. When people open their hearts to kindness and close their wallets to cruelty, again and again until somebody listens, a new future will be in store for these innocent animals.


More things to do to help elephants when you’re on the road:


* When choosing a sanctuary to visit, employ your Elephant Empathy–what might that rescued elephant want? Would the elephant want to always have to be exactly where visitors want him to be for that photo op? If you love elephants, could you love the elephant more than the experience you want to have with the elephant, supporting sanctuaries that allow elephants the space, physically and emotionally, to simply be with other elephants?

*If you find yourself in a group that is visiting a camp where elephant rides are offered, let the owner know you wish to walk with the group instead of ride.  Communicate that you want to support places in transition that will help captive elephants live in a more natural environment where their needs are put over the needs of tourists.

*If you go on safari or are viewing elephants in the wild, resist the urge to feed them or attempt to draw them closer to you.  Let the driver or guide know you do not want to disturb the animals in an attempt to take photographs.

*If you are visiting a temple that has chained elephants, don’t tip the mahout for any interactions with the elephant.  Speak with the head monk about the lack of compassion shown in keeping a chained animal.  Write letters or emails to the temple, tourist authority, newspaper, embassy, and university in any city where you witness elephants chained in temples.

*Consider volunteering with organizations that help rebuild elephant habitat.  To keep elephants out of captivity and in the wild, or to prepare for a day when some captive elephants might be returned to the wild, there needs to be a “wild” for them to return to!  Rehabilitating their forests and jungles is a necessary step to enable the elephants we love to ever go home.

And check out our ongoing Humane Tourism Campaign, #NotOnMyBucketList