One Tourist’s Dream, An Elephant’s Nightmare

Thailand & Cambodia 2013 787

A retired elephant at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Elizabeth Matthews

The first reaction people have when told I spent my summer in Thailand is excitement and curiosity. But the first question I am always asked burns through my core, conjuring a memory that I will never forget. “Did you ride an elephant?” I see a line of elephants parading up a steep hill. Part of the tourist industry, these animals just finished giving rides to giddy vacationers, and are now out of their line of vision. On their backs now ride the elephant handlers; in each hand the herders carry a spear that is held just inches from the elephant’s eye. When the elephant is not moving fast enough, or their attention is strayed, the handlers elicit a sharp stab to their eye. Covered in scars and wounds from previous beatings, each elephant stared straight forward, the pain reflecting out of their gaze as sharply as the knives held in their periphery. Holding up the rear of the line was a small elephant, whose pain was unbearable to watch. As he passed by, his handler’s hook rested below his eye ready to strike, the elephant shot a quick glance at us as we stood silent, in shock. As he continued to march, our eyes were drawn to the elephant’s rump. With a badly broken hip, the elephant dragged one of his hind legs, clearly unable to move it. But despite his disability, his handler continued to yell and kick the creature while his body struggled to overcome the steep incline.

Riding an elephant is a dream come true for many unknowing tourists. It’s understandable; who doesn’t want to climb on the back of the largest terrestrial mammal on earth with their selfie-stick while parading around the jungles of Asia? Exactly. But with a little education on the industry, no animal lover would ever consider riding an elephant again. The training of elephants for elephant trekking is a long time Thai tradition called “phajaan,” which in English translates to “crush” [2]. It consists of ripping baby elephants at the young age of six-months from their families, entrapping them in a small cage with little room to even lift a foot, and beating them with hooks, spikes, and nails, forcing them into human submission. Each and every elephant that tourists eagerly climb onto for a ride has undergone this horrific process. Not only does this training regimen clearly result in significant physical damage, but mental and behavioral impairment as well.

Elephants are extremely social creatures; they exhibit a highly complex social structure that is key to their survival. Elephant society consists of a high degree of mothering, adult cooperation, and care and interest for ailing members of their families. In addition, raising offspring is at the central core of society, and is therefore vital for full cognitive and behavioral development [3]. But when young elephants are torn from their families at a tender age, they suffer dramatic developmental consequences. This lack of development results in abnormal behaviors, such as extreme anxiety, which is often illustrated by rocking back and forth and swaying their body. This extreme anxiety has also been shown to cause aggression, putting both elephants and humans at risk. And not only is the tourism industry harmful for Asian elephants mentally and physically, but their numbers are declining.

Once upon a time, the Asian elephant occupied the vast majority of Asia, with thriving populations occupying regions ranging from Thailand to Iran. Asian elephants have now almost entirely disappeared from Western Asia, Iran, and most of China. The surviving population of Asian elephants is estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000, only about one-tenth of the population of African Elephants [3]. Although the greatest cause for the species decline has been habitat loss and deforestation from anthropogenic forces, the tourism industry is only exacerbating the decline [1]. The ultimate solution to put an end to the horrific methods behind the elephant tourism industry is to spread awareness. The Thai people are not the source to blame for the treatment of elephants; phajaan is an age old tradition that is encouraged by the interest of tourists. With knowledge of phajaan, and spreading the awareness of its detrimental impacts on elephants, we can take a step forward towards the conservation and protection of the Asian elephant.

– Elizabeth Matthews

Here are some sources I used for this post:



Caution – This is a video of phajaan, it is graphic but if you are interested, I would encourage you to watch it:

I volunteered at an elephant conservation center in Thailand that focuses on caring for “retired” elephants that were once in the tourism industry. The center works on providing the elephants with the best possible care for the remainder of their lives, assisting with mental and physical rehabilitation. Here is the website for the center:

16 thoughts on “One Tourist’s Dream, An Elephant’s Nightmare

  1. amajor

    Wow, the spear in the elephant’s thing ordeal is definitely new to me because I have a friend who has been to Thailand and was entitled to take care of a elephant. During her time there, she never described the ordeal of inserting a spear into an elephant’s eye as a punishment for disobedience. Now, it could be that the place my friend has went to was a different elephant facility than the one that you have went to and before now, I have heard of this sort of punishment to elephants only in rescue cases. But all the same, thank you for making me aware of this ordeal that the elephants are facing. But I must ask, along with spreading awareness of the phajaan, I think it would be great to also show other ways on how to help the elephants in Thailand. But other than that, I would have to say that you did a great job here.

  2. leorah

    I’ve heard about the brutality of these situations, but I think it is worth noting that some facilities in Thailand are much more humane, and do treat the elephants well while catering to tourists at the same time to sustain funding.
    This article focused a lot on the animal welfare facets of the situation, but I’m curious — how much does tourism like this negatively impact conservation of wild populations? How many elephants are removed from the wild for this?

  3. Mackenzie Platt

    While I am completely on board with elephant conservation and elephants are my favorite animal I believe your article is slightly biased. Some people in Thailand do abuse their elephants and should be ashamed of how they treat their animals, however there are other organizations which care about the elephants and are doing good for elephant conservation. I spent time working with one of these organizations in Thailand, living with the elephants and taking care of a single elephant. The owner of this park started by rescuing elephants that had once been used by villages for work however were “out of a job” with the increased technology. She started the elephant camp to give these abandoned elephants a place to live and a job to do because releasing them back into the wild was not plausible. The hooks the mahouts have can be abused however they are also used to hook under the ear and give a tug when they are misbehaving or wondering off course. So while I do agree with you that there are horrible people in Thailand abusing their animals, there are also groups who are taking in elephants and caring for them.

  4. Lisa Angeloni

    I generally think of animal welfare issues as separate from animal conservation issues, because animal welfare deals with the health and well-being of individuals and conservation deals with the persistence of populations and species. In some cases they can be at odds (e.g., the feeding of feral cat populations vs. the conservation of native bird and small mammal communities). But I like that you intertwined them here with a situation that may have a negative impact on both welfare and conservation. Welfare and conservation could also be intertwined in the similar way we often place an emotional value on individuals (especially charismatic animals) and whole species. We may be able to use that to garner additional support for conservation programs, e.g., people may be be convinced to invest in elephant protection with campaigns that highlight elephant suffering.

    1. amajor

      This could be just me, but animal conservation is almost no different than welfare. What I mean by that is that by conserving the species, we make sure that their needs are met so that they can survive and thrive. Would the successful conservation programs of the world become successful if their welfare wasn’t met? At least, that’s me.

  5. mberne

    I also agree that animal welfare and conservation are somewhat intertwined. If the needs of the animals aren’t being provided because they are being mistreated, it isn’t really much of a ‘conservation’ effort. By providing a safe environment for these animals we allow them to success as a species. I would hope that not all rescues treat their animals this way, they might as well be left in their natural habitat if they are going to be suffering.

    Very interesting point, I have considered volunteering in programs similar to this, ill have to make sure that when I decide to go, they won’t be treating their animals in this sort of manner. I never even though about this side of things when most of them are ‘rescues’ you don’t think they would be treating their animals like this!

  6. Elizabeth

    In response to mberne, it was not actually the facility that I volunteered at that exhibited this treatment. The rescue center I was located at was to help retired elephants that had already participated in the tourism industry, so they were very well taken care of. However, because they had been in the tourism industry for so long, there was no chance of reintroducing them back into the wild.

    Leorah, while I was doing my research, I did find that the tourism industry is not necessarily the major cause of the declining Asian Elephants, but it is a contributor. Elephants are an incredibly charismatic species, one that people love and take interest in (exactly why they want to ride them). I think that showing the suffering that many of these animals experience in the tourism industry can act as a gateway to the larger picture; this species is declining. I completely agree with Dr. Angeloni when she said that “people may be be convinced to invest in elephant protection with campaigns that highlight elephant suffering,” I think that is exactly what we can do in this situation. Now the hardest part is figuring out how to convince the public to care for less charismatic and popular species that are at an even higher risk for extinction.

  7. amccoy15

    I know very little about elephant conservation, this was an eye opener to read how badly some animals are treated. It’s unfortunate that you had to witness this brutality. However, I’am curious if anyone said anything to the handlers of the elephants, especially to the one that had a broken leg. I know that I would have said something, but that may just be me. Did you find anything about if certain elephant riding businesses get more or less business based on how they treat the animals? It would be interesting to see those statistics.

  8. Lacey Humphreys

    Every time I see tourists riding elephants or any other kind of novelty animal I feel really bad for the poor thing. Then I think about the kind of life this animal must have, especially for elephants who are highly nomadic and highly social. Although this article is really sad, it brings to reality the kinds of in-humane practices these trainers are doing to our beloved animals. I think that knowledge is the best form of power in this case, if tourists are more educated on these training practices they will be less likely to participate in these kinds of activities.

  9. emtemple

    I think this article was very well written, you blog was very charismatic and easy to read even though the subject matter made me cringe a little bit. I really enjoyed your point made that even though the tourist industry isn’t a major cause for the species decline that it can be used to grab peoples attention and make them aware. I think a big issue to conservation efforts is that the public is unaware and nothing grabs a persons interest and tugs at their heart more than an animal suffering. A comercial from the SPCA staring Sarah McLachlan comes to mind (“In the arms of an angel”). Sorry if that song gets stuck in ya’lls heads now I apoligize. Anyway I believe your article will make people focus on some big issues, well done.

  10. Amy D'Arcey

    Poor elephant. There’s no excuse for treating an animal like that. In the same region there are a lot of elephants used for logging that also undergo a lot of abuse. I agree with Mackenzie that it’s probably not every handler that treats their animals like this but it is a common practice. We also need to take into consideration that this is the mahout’s livelihood and they aren’t likely to stop just because a few westerners say so. I think what needs to happen is a massive scale education of training methods that aren’t cruel and abusive. I looked around online but didn’t find anyone exactly doing this, perhaps the government in Thailand could be convinced somehow to take action. Maybe this is naive of me though.

  11. sberg

    I wasn’t aware of the practices that happen to train an elephant to be ridden on. That is so sad. I’m glad you brought awareness with this blog! Well done. Also I think if we bring awareness to the tourist that are paying for that elephant ride it could also get the point across of what happens to the elephants, all in all I like this article!

  12. reneev

    My roommate also went to Thailand to volunteer with elephant rehab and she always tells me stories about their individual elephants and how they were abused before they ended up at the sanctuary. I never had a desire to ride an elephant, but I had no idea the kind of torture they go through in order for them to be okay with people touching them and riding them. Way to spread the word! Awareness is key (:

  13. vgarduno

    This sort of thing isn’t just confined to the East, either. I was at the renaissance fair in Larkspur a few years ago, and they had two elephants there that people could pay to ride. I don’t know what their treatment was like behind the scenes, but from what their area looked like that I could see, they certainly weren’t getting the best of care. I think that this is definitely a major case of people putting their own wants and needs above the welfare of the animal, whether it be to make a quick buck, or to have a great souvenir to show off to friends. Awareness campaigns can be effective in this case, like how people convinced Ringling Bros. Circus to stop using elephants in their acts, and this definitely calls out for one.

  14. ssteele1

    Well, your story turned my stomach. Being so far removed, I can’t imagine the situations these elephants are in. There are so many tourism-fueled stories like this. I volunteered at the Wildlife Sanctuary for several years and heard dozens of stories about rescued tigers. One of my favorites at the sanctuary had his claws attempted to be removed by hedge-cutters because he was getting to big to handle. Many of the large cats at the sanctuary are rescued from international side-road zoos, which often use metal bars or bebe guns to “control” misbehaving animals. I think you’re right that education is key. I can assume it would be very easy for tourists to accidentally support bad conditions for an “ultimate-trip experience”.

  15. Savimay

    I think that it would be great if we could put tourism money towards conservation instead of organizations like this. If people really want to see an elephant, they should want to see an elephant in a natural environment. Maybe we could rally people towards a more safari-type elephant experience that benefits their life in the long run. I think a person that cares enough about elephants to spend money on an expensive experience would also care about it’s way of life…hopefully.

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