Lonely Planet Writer

Animal welfare comes second to money-making in elephant tourism hotspots new report shows

Elephant tourism is an increasingly popular activity with travellers to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, but a new report is highlighting the negative impact this is having on the animals themselves.

Hugging elephants in river.
Hugging elephants in river. Image by Meinzahn/Getty Images

Seeing elephants in their natural environment is one thing, but these days petting, riding and washing these majestic creatures is all on offer in many destinations – and on many people’s holiday wishlists. Now the World Animal Protection (WAP) non-profit organisation has assessed 3000 captive elephants and issued a damning report on their use in the tourism industry.

Tourist bathing elephants by the river in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Tourist bathing elephants by the river in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Image by Getty Images

WAP looked at over 200 venues in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India, and noted that soaring demand for interaction with elephants, especially in Thailand which uses far more elephants for tourism purposes than all the other countries put together, has seen large numbers taken from the wild. Three-quarters of the elephants surveyed were found to be living in ‘severely cruel’ conditions: chained up all day and night when not in use; poorly fed; and subjected to beatings in order to train them to accept a human being riding on their backs, something they would never allow naturally.

Elephants in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand.
Elephants in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand. Image by Getty Images

Because it’s easier to train a young elephant, babies are often snatched from their mothers and forced to spend the rest of their lives in captivity, purely for the entertainment of tourists. All of this means that these elephants have shorter lives and have fewer offspring than their wild counterparts – a situation made even more alarming given that Asian elephants are classified as an endangered species.

Two young elephants from the herd play to test their strength.
Two young elephants from the herd play to test their strength. Image by Getty Images

So if you’re thinking about visiting elephants on your next trip, avoid any venue that exploits the animals and go for one of the growing number of elephant sanctuaries where, as the report says, you can still enjoy these wonderful creatures, but in a more natural setting that’s more conducive to their well-being.

For more advice you might like to read How to interact ethically with elephants in Thailand.