Ethical Elephants

Two elephants. Photo by Johanna Read

Close encounter in South Africa

Seeing an elephant in the wild is an amazing experience (see my safari page for more). I’ve been lucky to see wild elephants in South Africa, Namibia (including desert elephants!), and Uganda. I’ve also seen working elephants in countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.

On my first trip to Asia, I didn’t know very much about responsible tourism and ethical animal interactions.  I went on an elephant riding experience outside of Luang Prabang in Laos. While I sat atop the elephant’s neck, I grew increasingly uncomfortable (and not just because it is surprisingly challenging to say atop an elephant while they’re eating and walking downhill!). When the elephants did something the staff didn’t want, the staff raised a fist and mimed the beginnings of throwing a stone at the elephant. The elephants clearly knew what this meant and usually cooperated quite quickly.

I’ve since learned a lot more about elephants, about protecting them, and about how to have an ethical interaction with them. I wrote this article for Reader’s Digest: Eight of the most endangered elephants in the world. Information about helping elephants is at the end.

NEW DEC 2019: However, I thought I was well-informed about ethical elephant tourism when I wrote that article, as well as the info below. In December 2019, I went on a press trip to Thailand to learn more about elephant tourism. I was surprised at how much misinformation is out there and how I was contributing By sharing it. I have an article coming out in 2020 to correct some of these myths. In the meantime, some quick edits to my info below are in caps.


Elephants along Uganda’s Kazinga Channel

To note:

While I completely understand that tourism is an excellent (and often the only) way to help fund the very expensive upkeep of elephants, the best organizations allow their elephants to behave as naturally as possible and:

  • WRONG! Do not allow interactions of any kind with baby elephants. WRONG! If they do, it means they are using some form of phajaan (“crushing the elephant’s spirit”) so that the elephant will obey humans and so that the safety risk to tourists is reduced. WRONG! All elephants who interact with humans have experienced phajann, which experts call torture. But it’s one thing to rescue an older elephant who was “tamed” 30 years ago and has been working in forestry; it’s completely another to subject a young elephant to it just so tourists can get a cute photo. ALL WRONG! IN THAILAND AT LEAST, ELEPHANTS ARE NO LONGER TAKEN FROM THE WILD. ELEPHANTS BORN IN CAPTIVITY ARE TRAINED WITH POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT AND ARE NOT “CRUSHED”. MORE INFO TO COME.
  • Do not make elephants perform or do any unnatural actions. The only exception is training so that they can be cared for in captivity (assuming they can’t be re-released to the wild). For example, it’s ok to train an animal to move its body so that a veterinarian can safely assess and treat it, and ok to have the animal practice that behaviour while tourists watch.
  • WRONG! Do not allow tourists to ride them (it is ok for an older elephant to have its mahout ride on its neck — the two have formed a bond when the elephant was younger). IN SOME CIRCUMSTANCES IT IS OK TO RIDE AN ELEPHANT. PLUS ALL CAPTIVE ELEPHANTS NEED TO BE TRAINED TO TAKE A RIDER SO THAT THEY CAN BE MOVED SAFELY (EG TO AVOID TRAFFIC AND POWER LINES) AND FOR SOME MEDICAL CARE. MORE INFO TO COME.
  • Even allowing tourists to bathe or feed elephants is a grey area. WRONG The goal is not creating a future market so that more animals (especially babies) will be taken from the wild, subjected to phajaan, and kept in captivity). IN THAILAND ELEPHANTS ARE NOT TAKEN FROM THE WILD. HALF OF THAILAND’S ELEPHANTS HAVE DIED WITHIN THE LAST 80 YEARS (THE LIFETIME OF AN ELEPHANT) AND WITHOUT BREEDING ELEPHANTS IN CAPTIVITY, THE WHOLE SPECIES IS AT RISK.


For those of you who have encountered ethical elephant sanctuaries — where were they? What was the experience like?  

These elephants were clearly distressed, swaying repetively. Photo (small) by Johanna Read

Distressed elephants working at the Chiang Mai zoo

4 responses to “Ethical Elephants

  1. My wife is more of an elephant expert than me. On our India trip, I detected that the elephant keepers took advantage of the animals natural tame disposition. Why do they have to paint the elephants in India and force them to convey tourists uphill all day?


    • Actually … elephants don’t have a natural tame disposition. They have to be “broken” in a process called phagaan so it is safe for humans to be around them. I agree that it is wrong to allow tourists to ride elephants, but I’m ok with limited interactions between humans and elephants — tourist dollars are essential for the upkeep of expensive animals like elephants. However, we don’t want baby elephants broken to keep feeding tourists’ desire for entertainment. Decorating elephants with paint is an old cultural tradition in India, and I don’t know a lot about it. There are far worse elephant practices, though. It’s a very nuanced issue and there’s a lot to learn so we can help protect elephants in the best ways possible.


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