Elephant rides are cruel, advocates say. So why are we still doing them?

Elephant rides are cruel, advocates say. So why are we still doing them?

Outrage over the unethical treatment of elephants, camels and horses is forcing attractions to consider alternate modes of transportation

Pai Lin, whose back is sloped from enduring years of rides, now lives at the Wildlife Friends Foundation in Thailand. (Amy Jones/Moving Animals/Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand)


Earlier this month, a photo of Pai Lin made the viral rounds. The image of the septuagenarian female illustrated the dark and painful underbelly of elephant tourism in Thailand. The Asian elephant’s back sloped down like a ramp, the weight of countless visitors crushing her spine.

Pai Lin spent a quarter of a century entertaining tourists. She is now retired, living her remaining years at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand in Tha Mai Ruak, the sanctuary that released the photo. However, around the world, many elephants and beasts of burden are not so fortunate. New generations of animals have joined their elders in a trade that is still prevalent but has been gaining more vocal opponents over the years.

“Riding animals is high on the list of cruelty,” said Liz Cabrera Holtz, a wildlife campaign manager with the U.S. office of World Animal Protection. “I think attitudes are changing about the use of wild animals as entertainment, but we recognize that there’s no quick fix.”

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The issues are manifold and intricate. The concerns touch on animal welfare as well as cultural traditions, human livelihoods and the economics of tourism. There is no easy answer, but travelers can be part of the solution.

“When people stop paying for camel rides in Giza or donkey rides in Petra or elephant rides in Ayutthaya, then the [local businesses] stop using them,” said Jason Baker, senior vice president of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “We are trying to hold tourists accountable and make them empowered.”

You weigh less than 200 pounds, even after several bowls of mango sticky rice. An Asian elephant can tip the scale at five tons. How harmful can your comparatively light frame be to the largest land mammal in Asia? Very, according to animal welfare experts.

“Elephants’ bodies didn’t evolve to carry people in saddles,” said Cabrera Holtz. “It damages their spines.”

Animal rights advocates say the abuse is often in plain sight, barely veiled by a leather seat or blanket. Baker, who has investigated the living and working conditions of camels and horses in Egypt and Jordan, has seen animals suffering from saddle sores, starvation, dehydration and maggot-infested wounds. On the Greek island of Santorini, PETA Germany has documented the harsh treatment of donkeys, which are forced to carry heavy loads (including tourists) up and down 500 steps under a punishingly hot Mediterranean sun. Some of the animals wore sharp metal wire muzzles that jabbed into their faces; others were whipped or beaten and denied water, food and rest.

“You can see the cruelty in front of you,” Baker said. “The scars are the scars, the hitting is the hitting.”

At elephant attractions in Southeast Asia and India, trainers will often use a sharp object to prod the animal into performing. In Thailand’s historic city of Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage site, PETA filmed chained elephants and handlers intimidating the animals by waving weapons around their heads.

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“Even when a single tourist is riding on their back and everything seems peaceful, there is always a mahout hiding a sharp bullhook under his cloth and walking behind the elephant to control its behavior,” said Nutcha Ampai, chief executive and co-founder of Siam Luxe, a travel agency in Bangkok. “We can definitely confirm that they are painful to the elephants, despite any counter argument you may have heard.”

When considering an animal attraction, humane experts urge travelers to look at the larger picture. For instance, what happens before and after the activity, when sympathetic eyes are no longer watching. In Asia, some trainers still use an abusive system called phajaan (originally a ritual ceremony) to force the elephants to perform. Carol Kline, director of the hospitality and tourism management program at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, describes the technique as “breaking the spirit” of the elephant.

“The welfare concern about the phajaan is that the elephant is manipulated into performing non-natural behaviors through violence and domination tactics that include beating, starving, and solitude,” said Kline, author of several publications on the ethics of animal tourism.

When not entertaining tourists, the animals might be chained, tied up or locked away in enclosures. Their caretakers may feed them substandard diets and deprive them of vet care. They have no freedoms or choice in the matter, advocates say.

“If people saw the conditions and how they lived,” Baker said, “they would be embarrassed by their Instagram posts.”

Electric carts replace horses

All countries have some form of animal welfare legislation, though the laws may favor domesticated pets over captive or wild animals. World Animal Protection’s Animal Protection Index ranks 50 countries based on laws and policies. For example, on a scale of A to G (best to worst), Thailand received a C for “laws against causing animal suffering,” a D for “protecting animals in captivity” and an F for “protecting animals used for draught and recreation.” Egypt earned mostly F’s and G’s. Switzerland, Austria, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands ranked the highest, with an overall B score. The United States and Canada fell right in between, with a D.

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Growing attention on sustainability and environmental issues, plus a rising demand for accountability and transparency, has helped push the needle in a more positive direction. Tripadvisor was one of the first major travel companies to take a stand: In 2016, it no longer allowed travelers to book activities that involved physical contact with wild or captive animals.

The following year, Shore Excursions Group, which provides cruise lines with port activities, removed elephant rides from its slate of options; Royal Caribbean eliminated the activity as well. In 2019, Booking.com and Airbnb drew up animal welfare policies that banned a range of unethical animal activities, such as elephant rides. The same year, the Association of British Travel Agents revised its animal welfare guidelines to include a similar provision.

“When the big organizations took a more formalized stance, the governments paid attention,” said Paul Pruangkarn, chief of staff for the Pacific Asia Travel Association in Bangkok.

The momentum has continued, even during the pandemic. In 2021, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan replaced the horse-drawn carriages with a small fleet of electric golf carts. Locals transport guests from the Siq, or gorge, to the Treasury, about a mile-long trip.

“No more animals are going through the Siq,” said Malia Asfour, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board, North America. However, handlers with camels, donkeys and horses still hawk rides in the back half of the UNESCO World Heritage site. “It’s a process,” she admitted. “We can’t turn everything off tomorrow.”

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Last July, a New York City councilman proposed legislation to swap out the city’s horse-drawn carriages for vintage-style electric carriages. A month later, New Yorkers and online viewers watched in horror when an elderly horse collapsed in Midtown and was berated by his owner; the horse died in October. Ryder’s Law, which was named after the fallen animal, is stuck in deliberations.

“NYCLASS has been working on this issue for 15 years,” said Edita Birnkrant, executive director of NYCLASS, an animal rights organization. “Many of the horses working have lameness, arthritis and other untreated ailments. Ryder was worked to death, essentially. That is not uncommon.”

In the Indian state of Rajasthan, a federal committee announced its intentions to abolish elephant rides at Amer Fort in Jaipur, following reports of animal abuse and neglect and visitors’ waning interest. PETA India provided a concept for a royal substitute: an electric chariot dubbed the Maharaja. The switch is still pending, but travelers can rent diesel cars to explore the fort. Similarly, at the Great Sphinx of Giza, Egyptian authorities are considering replacing the horse-drawn carts that dangerously race up the slippery road with electric vehicles. Discussions have stalled, but Baker sees flickers of hope.

While walking up the road to see the pyramids in Giza, he ran into another traveler also on foot. “They made a comment that they weren’t going on a terrible animal ride,” Baker said. “That’s progress.”

Cultural sensitivities and economic impacts

Thousands of years ago, traders in Petra used horses, donkeys and camels to transport their wares. For centuries, elephants have been part of religious ceremonies, weddings and the local economy in Asia. Camels are as integral to the Bedouin culture as their tents and carpets. The history of animal tourism, of course, is much briefer.

Travelers must always be sensitive to their host country’s traditions and heritage. However, Kline warns that a destination may exaggerate a custom to attract tourists and fill their coffers. To illustrate her point, she turned to India, where former rulers — the Mughal emperors, the Deccani sultans, the Hindu Maharajahs — used elephants as a status symbol to flaunt their power, wealth or military might.

“If you were in a hotel in India, you might think, ‘Oh gosh, while I am here I should probably ride an elephant so that I can feel like I am ancient royalty.’” she said. “But they are putting that message in your mind.”

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One indisputable reality is that many people support themselves through animal rides. For impoverished locals, their scraggly donkey or knobby-kneed horse that provides rides to tourists might be their only income source. Shutting down operations and removing the animals isn’t a viable option for myriad reasons. “We have to find the right balance and move forward in a way that is going to be feasible for the animal and protect the livelihoods of the people who own these businesses,” Pruangkarn said.

A few venues have created a mutually beneficial arrangement for the animals and the humans. In Petra, the locals who ran the horse-drawn carriages now drive the electric golf carts. “We found an alternative stream of income for people who rely on animals for income,” Asfour said. At ChangChill, a Thai elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, the mahouts share their knowledge of elephants with visitors.

“The caretaker goes with the elephant to sanctuary,” said Alokparna Sengupta, managing director of Humane Society International India.

Though it might feel cold and callous, experts advise against giving money to the animals’ stewards. “You don’t want to fund the cruelty,” Baker said. However, if the sight is unbearable, he suggests donating food and water. “I once bought a bag of apples five miles down the road because I couldn’t take what I was seeing,” he said of a trip in Giza.

How to pick an ethical animal attraction

Animal welfare groups dissuade visitors from engaging in any activity that involves physical interactions with wild or captive animals. This category includes not just rides but also bathing, feeding, cuddling and selfie-snapping. To ethically engage with animals, observe without touching.

“If you really love elephants, please visit only the sanctuaries that emphasize observation,” said Nutcha, whose travel company stopped promoting rides about five years ago.

To determine whether a venue is a true sanctuary, check out its credentials, such as accreditation by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. If the attraction upholds ethical standards, the business will prominently share this information on its website — a point of pride and marketing tool. For example, Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife in Jordan, which rehabilitates and cares for animals rescued from illegal wildlife trafficking, displays its mission and partner foundations front and center.

When researching animal attractions, ask critical questions, such as how were the animals acquired, where are they housed and can guests touch the residents. Baker said many tour operators in Thailand have produced brochures proclaiming that don’t offer rides, but they might offer other unethical activities.

“It’s still not good because they are trying to greenwash,” he said.

The experts remind travelers of their power to make a difference in animal welfare. If you come across a disturbing sight, inform your hotel or tour operator. Share your comments on travel review sites. Post Instagram photos with the offending images. And remember that your wallet speaks volumes.

“In Petra, they don’t want to give donkey rides; they want to make money,” Baker said. “It’s not a tradition; it’s just economics.”