The truth behind the elephant travel industry (and why you must skip riding elephants)

When you are traveling the world, you inevitably will be exposed to many new experiences. New cultures, habits of people, exotic food, and natural environments and animals like elephants, all have an impact on you when you travel. Having all these new experiences sure asks for a lot of energy, but it also gives you an adrenaline boost. Being exposed to new things all the time can even be addictive. All your senses will pick up impulses from a new environment. That’s what travel does, it mostly teaches you about the world and about yourself.

One of those things you’ll learn when you travel is how to interact with wildlife animals. It can be quite overwhelming to see an elephant from up close for the very first time in your life. Touching the thick skin of this majestic animal gives an intense feeling.
But where does the interaction need to stop, taking into account that these animals also have a right to live in their natural environment and to be treated with respect?

The main message of this article explains how not to interact with elephants on your travels and what you ethically should know about the elephant riding travel industry.

Majestic Wildlife

Like I wrote before, getting close to majestic wildlife can be quite an experience.

Elephants are beautiful and intelligent animals. Wonderful to see. I understand the reason why tourism in Asia and Africa has incorporated them as a tourist industry. But I don’t support this industry at all.

Countries like Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, and Cambodia all offer elephant rides for a fee. It all looks very joyful and of course, it’s a unique experience, but the downside to it is a sad truth. Behind the scenes, cruel things happen to the elephants as they experience many years of abuse and torture. The people that ‘train’ these animals first have mentally break the elephants so that they learn how to accept submissions. A good example of such a submission is people riding them.

It’s a sad thing that many travelers are unaware of the torture and mistreatment behind this industry.

The tourist industry of riding elephants

A submissive elephant is not natural. In order to make elephants listen they have to be kept scared. In the tourist industry, these elephants are stabbed with sharp spears if they don’t obey their masters.d with fear of being stabbed by the sharp spears of the elephant keepers.

They have learned in the past that they will get hurt if they don’t obey the command of the elephant keepers. Often, they become mentally sick after years of mistreatment.

riding-elephants-unnavigated A tourist (not me) riding an elephant in Sri Lanka.


The illegal capture and trade of elephants is still a global issue. Many foreign visitors in Asian and African countries dream of a ride on an elephant. People have the joy of watching the elephants do tricks and some will even pay large sums of money for it. No wonder it’s a big hit in the tourist industry.

The nature of an elephant

So yeh, we also keep dogs and cats as our submissive pets, why not an elephant? The difference between a dog, a cat, and an elephant is that the dog is either dominant or submissive in the same way like wolfs live in a pack. It’s rather in the nature of a dog that it can be taught to obey for a reward, without hurting the animal.

A cat can’t really be taught to be submissive, but people usually don’t expect cats to obey them or to do tricks for them. People commonly rather accept a cat’s nature. But because a cat is rather small, it’s possible to be dominant towards it without hurting the animal.

An elephant, in contrary, can’t be taught to be submissive without hurting it. Only by scaring it and by many years of painful torture an elephant can be taught to obey humans and to accept that they will get rewarded for their obedience.

Endangered species

WWF estimates that there are about 40.000-50.000 Asian elephants left. Habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade, genetic threat and illegal ivory trade are some of the reasons why the Asian elephant has become an endangered species.

Protection of their habitat and reducing the human-elephant conflict can help the animals to be saved from extinction.


An elephant in a river that’s used for the elephant riding travel industry.

What happens in captivity?

Elephants who are born in captivity are taught to be submissive since a very young age. They are controlled by elephant keepers that use sharp hooked spears which they use for stabbing the elephants that disobey.

The abuse happens quite often in the beginning when an elephant doesn’t accept to be dominated yet. In that phase, the elephant is constantly stressed out by being forced to do certain tricks and other things against its nature. They are tortured until they mentally ‘break’ and obey, for which they will receive a small reward.

An elephant in captivity is often chained so that they only have limited movement and are not able to run away or attack someone. The metal chains are very tight sometimes and cause, together with the stabbing from hooked spears, deep wounds that leave scarred marks all over the elephant’s body.

In this form of captivity, elephants often develop mental disorders, health issues, and behavioral problems. They can become sensitive to losing their mind and to having aggressive outbursts towards people. Sudden outbursts by elephants in captivity have led to many injuries and deaths over time. As a result, the elephants are then often being shot to death.


An elephant in a river with an elephant handler.

The history of humans and elephants

Having to live together on the same planet for thousands of years, elephants and humans have always had their stories together. Even in ancient times, the old Maharajas and Southern kinds captured and tamed elephants as a token of power and influence. Elephants were used in wars, on the crop fields, in religious events, and for transportation.

The upcoming industrialization in the 19th and 20th century helped to replace the elephants with motorized vehicles. However, when colonialism flourished, killing wild game like elephants was considered as a popular sport. Every killer received a bounty for a killed elephant because the animals caused harm to the growing agriculture as they fed themselves on the crops.

Elephants in the world have lost enormous amounts of their natural habitat over time, which has been the major reason for conflicts between humans and elephants. Elephants get killed for many ridiculous reasons, of which the seemingly unstoppable ivory trade is a good example.


The conclusion of this article is up to you. Either you support the fact that riding elephants is a wrong thing to do, or you keep your opinion on the opposite side. Personally, I made the choice not to ride or wash them. I only fed one of the elephants a banana and I touched his skin. And yes, I did pay a fee for that, but I won’t do it again in the future. It was only because of that experience, I was able to write about the subject because it gave me a perspective on the reality of elephants in captivity. It made me realize how I feel about it, and I reflected that opinion in this article.

See more travel guides and articles about Sri Lanka.

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The truth behind the elephant travel industry (and why you must skip riding elephants)

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