How to Interact Ethically With Elephants When Travelling

by Forever Wanderers
December 9, 2021 | 7 min read

How to Interact Ethically With Elephants When Travelling

Today I’m sharing with you one particular cause that matters to me the most since I’m a child : Animal care and the respect of the wildlife.

As someone that decided to be “a traveler, a globetrotter“, there is something that counts so much for me : Avoiding every touristic activity that generates animals abuse or suffering.

We, unfortunately, could talk about many different topics regarding this matter, but today I will open the discussion around Elephants Riding.

I also got motivated to write this article with the recent banishment of this cruel activity in Angkor Wat Temple, one of the most touristic attractions of Cambodia. You can learn more about it by clicking on the link.

The purpose of this article is to put in light what elephants riding involves, what’s behind the scene of this exotic activity. The reason why this practice still exists is mostly because of the tourist’s unawareness. There are so many ways to improve animal conditions around the world, unfortunately, we can’t erase all the flaws, traffics or abuses that exist.

But avoiding elephants riding, while you are traveling in Africa or Asia, is something that everyone can do, right ?

The Phajaan process, what is it  ?

Phajaan, or literally translated : “crushing the spirit“, is a cruel process of intensively conditioning the elephants to obey and allow people to ride them.

This, since their early ages as baby elephants. It’s a brutal and distressing process where they are kept in a tiny “cage” to prevent movement, with their legs tied tightly.

They are severely beaten with sharp objects, starved of food and water, which can last for several days or even weeks, depending on the animal “resistance”. Half of the elephants don’t even survive through the process. And all of this, to make them fear humans and to “behave correctly” around tourists.

How this industry is dangerous ?

Unfortunately, riding elephants is still one of the most popular tourist activities in Asia.

In 2017, a two-year study by World Animal Protection showed that 77% of the 3000  elephants in tourist venues across South East Asia, were living in  “severely cruel” and “deeply concerning” conditions. This includes being chained up when not performing, no interaction with other elephants, a poor diet…

The same study observed a 30% rise in the number of elephants in tourism venues in Thailand since 2010. Which leads us to a terrible conclusion : The prevalence of riding perpetuates the industry. It’s actually increasing demand for captive elephants to be used as tourist attractions, which means more baby elephants must be captured from the wild, or sometimes bred for a life in captivity.

Elephants are smart and sensitive creatures. They should be allowed to live naturally. If they are forced to display unnatural behaviours, such as being ride, this is done for tourists’s benefit and the enrichment of the businesses proposing those activities.

How to act ?

As a traveler, or just someone concerned by this cause, spread the word. People must stop this activity. Nowadays you can see them and enjoy their companies in different, but much better ways. For both: you and especially the elephants.

There are heaps of sanctuaries that are fighting hard to rescue elephants used for tourists’s entertainment. Be careful of how ethical is an elephant sanctuary though.

Check the reviews, the pictures, do some research… If you are on-site, ask the locals about it (receptionist of your guesthouse for example), if it is a “good” sanctuary not proposing elephant trekking.

And if you find out that a sanctuary is offering elephants riding, write a review, share it with the locals and other travelers you can meet during your trip.

Information here is our most powerful tool. We have a voice, let’s use it.

A day in an elephant rescue centre

In 2017, I’ve been spending an entire day in an elephant sanctuary while I was in Thailand and I can’t find the words to tell you how great this experience was.

Elephant Jungle Paradise is located a bit further up north of Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. They had 4 elephants over there that they rescued over the last 10 years from elephant trekking’s tours in National Parks. It’s a small family sanctuary, that’s why they had only 4. But they are working on “upgrading” their facilities to rescue more elephants.

The owner showed us his humble rescue centre, introduced us to his family and then to his elephants. We’ve been approaching them slowly, to adapt them to our presence. Then, one by one, we went closer to them. After half an hour, we could all come around to help the staff feeding them.

Later, we brought them into their own “mud spa”, which was simply a really muddy  playground. The owner explained to us how important it was to cover their injuries with the mud and let it dry to help the cicatrisation of their wounds. Plus, it’s a great way to protect those wounds against the flies that can infect it.

At this stage, the elephants started slowly to trust us, you could feel a bond. One was even willing to let us kiss his trump. Once the mud dried on their skins, we brought them down to a river, through an awesome walk in the jungle. There, we could rinse them in the water and that’s where they began to play with us.

That was one of the most emotional moments I ever lived while traveling.

At some point, we had to bring them up again and let them rest, while we had lunch all together. On the afternoon, the owner brought us in the surroundings of the centre and showed us some medicinal plants he was using to treat the elephants or even his family when someone was sick.

And then came the moment to say goodbye to our dear elephants. On the way back to Chiang Mai, we were completely astonished by the day we just had and those incredible moments we shared with the elephants. This feeling after this day in a sanctuary was priceless, on top of not involving any abuse, it’s also such a greater experience to live.

Ethical elephants sanctuaries around the world

↠ Thailand

  • Wildlife Friends Foundation – Recommended by another traveler that volunteer there.
  • Elephant Nature Park  – A retirement home for rescued elephants, founded by Lek Chailert, a renowned elephant conservationist.
  • Elephant Valley – The first-ever elephant sanctuary in Chiang Rai, with strict ethical animal welfare standards.
  • Samui Elephant Haven – The first sanctuary of Koh Samui Island, South of Thailand.

↠ Cambodia

  • Elephant Valley – A registered NGO offering a “watching elephants being real elephants” experience.

↠ India

↠ Laos

↠ Sri Lanka

↠ Myanmar

↠ Namibia

↠ South Africa

↠ Kenya

If you want to know more about it and get the name of other elephant sanctuaries, we will more than happy to share it with you.

Thanks for your reading this Gazette and don’t forget to share it around you.

Thank you for them. ?

Save to your trip

Any thoughts, tips or questions?

We are Camille & Pedro, a Franco-Brazilian couple. Currently starring in our own travel reality show, we would love to bring you along in our adventurous universe. We’ve been both experiencing solo traveling and are now keeping this nomad lifestyle as a couple. On our blog, we are sharing our adventures around the world, offering tips & creating travel guides for other wanderers.

You might also like to read these...