Guest blog: Ethical alternatives to elephant rides

(Administrator’s note: The original version of this story by Steve Ford and Julie Jane first appeared on )


Seeing the northern lights in Iceland. Trekking to Machu Picchu. Swimming with dolphins in Mexico or riding an elephant in Thailand.

These and other popular adventures can often be found on people’s “wander lists.” Most serious travelers have one, whether it’s stored in the back of our brains or pinned on our fridge with magnets. But when making these lists, do we take the time to check if our dream experiences are actually ethical?

Most people who want to swim with dolphins or ride an elephant actually love animals. But many don’t realize that their once-in-a-lifetime thrill is anything but that for the elephant or the dolphin.

I’ve been there. I didn’t know better. I do now. Knowledge is a powerful thing, as they say. This article is intended to give you knowledge and power to make an ethical choice when picking an elephant experience for your wander list.


Ethical, or responsible, tourism means not only thinking about the impact of our travels on local environments, peoples, and economies, but also taking action to improve them.

We have a choice on how, when, and where we spend our tourist dollars. When it comes to elephants, choosing an experience which allows the elephant to exhibit its natural behaviour in a safe and non-threatening environment is paramount. This ensures the elephant has access to food, water, shade, and dust or mud.

Many TripAdvisor reviewers rave about elephant tourism experience — including circuses, zoos, trekking camps, shows, and street begging. Have you ever wondered how one small man can make an enormous elephant paint a picture, stand on its head, or allow people to ride on its back?

The answer is a well-hidden secret, something called “the crush,” or Phajaan in Thailand. Other countries have different names but the process is the same.

The vast majority of elephants you see in elephant tourism have experienced it. Stolen from its mother in the wild, the baby elephant, aged three to six years old, is confined in a small wooden frame no bigger than its body. There, it will be shackled by chains or ropes. Beaten with a bamboo stick embedded with nails. Bludgeoned with a bull hook (imagine an ice pick with a wooden handle). Deprived of food and water for at least a week, until its spirit literally breaks. Until it no longer recognizes its mother. And its mother doesn’t recognize her child.

The baby elephant is now ready for “training.” Again, this can be brutal, particularly when training an elephant to do something very unnatural, such as painting or circus tricks.

Heartbreaking isn’t it? I have tears in my eyes just writing this. I was sobbing when I saw a YouTube video of a crush. It’s not something you could imagine. But it happens to almost every single elephant you see at a circus, in a zoo, in a trekking camp, or at an elephant show.

However, you have the power to help save them, by choosing an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime elephant experience which is also ethical for the elephant.


Truly wild

The most ethical of all experiences is to watch wild elephants — those who’ve never experienced a crush — in their natural habitat. You will feel a vibrant energy, a “wildness” from them. There is nothing quite like it when a giant bull elephant strides straight towards your Jeep as you beat an adrenal-charged retreat!

When choosing this kind of experience:

  • Select a guided vehicle tour where you can watch from a safe distance;
  • Avoid so-called “safaris” that promote and offer elephant riding;
  • Carefully research “elephant orphanages,” as babies are often poached from the wild.

Next-best thing

Sanctuaries which rescue abused elephants from tourism or illegal logging are the next-best option. Genuine sanctuaries will allow elephants to live out their days in as close to a wild environment as they can. Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Thailand and its partner programs across Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar excel at this. Here tourists can feed and bathe elephants. There are no bull hooks, and training is done with positive reinforcement.

Depending on how adventurous you are, you can also volunteer for a week. We have volunteered at both ENPand Journey to Freedom. It’s a great way to give your love (and tourist dollars) to rescued elephants. You also get to immerse yourself in elephant life, learning about the herd, and watching intricate behaviours. The time six-month-old Kili tried to sit on my lap as she learned to climb a dusty slope still brings a broad grin to my face even now (More here.)

When choosing this kind of experience:

  • Look for camps that offer no elephant riding or performances;
  • Avoid camps that offer “mahout training,” as this often includes bare-necked riding;
  • Carefully research the use of bull hooks, as this isn’t always clear;
  • Ask directly how the camp trains its elephants.



Research shows that an elephant’s spine is not designed to carry a heavy load. It is not structured in the same way as a horse for example. The “howdahs,” or saddles, fully-laden with tourists can weight between 300-500 kg. Also, seated up there, how are you sharing a beautiful moment with such a majestic creature?

Instead you could be sharing moments like these:

Please avoid street begging, elephant painting, any kind of elephant shows. I know it is difficult to walk away, as you want to help the elephants, but the best way to help them is not to hand over money or food. This perpetuates the elephant’s misery and encourages more elephants to be used in this way.

At the same time, try not to be too hard on yourself. We have all been there. We don’t know what we don’t know. But perhaps now you know a bit more about elephants in tourism. The more we choose ethical experiences, the more it encourages non-ethical camps to change.

Enjoy your elephant experience. If it is anything like mine, it will be more than a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Feeding an elephant bananas by hand, hiking into the jungle to watch elephants devour banana trees… Elephant time becomes quite addictive, and it’s never too late to update your wander list!

The guest-blogging team of Steve Ford (photos) and Julie Jane (story) are husband-and-wife U.K. natives who now call New Zealand home. These days, Steve and Julie (pictured below) spend most of their time traveling the globe and caring for animals wherever they go. Follow their adventures at