Elephant walking

Elephants in need – dependency on tourism is endangering the well-being of captive elephants


Captive elephants are deeply ingrained in the tourist industry. Despite the fundamental ethical concerns of using elephants in tourism, it can be very profitable, and in normal times pays for their upkeep. But what if tourists stop coming all together?

This blog was written by Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, our Global Head of Wildlife Research and Animal Welfare.

Coronavirus and tourism

With the world struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, human movement is being restricted and severely impacting the travel industry. International flights are being cut down by over 50%, hotels and service industries are struggling, and holiday destinations no longer see any tourists.  

Thailand has been hit especially hard, with many tourist attractions empty. In turn, the tourism camps where elephants are kept have shut down, laid off thousands of staff and are struggling to care for their over 2,000 elephants. There is an urgent need to help right now – but many are wondering just how it came to this in the first place?

Elephant eating

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, captive elephants like these are at risk

The origins of captive-elephant tourism

Over 30 years ago, the elephant tourism industry was promoted as an alternative use for logging elephants. However, as we have revealeddue to rampant breeding for commercial tourism we see more of these captive goliaths today than in the 1990s after the logging ban.

Elephants are ill-suited for a life in the tourism industry. Their size, strength and intelligence results in inhumane management practices, such as chaining, cruel training and harsh punishment so they could entertain the flock of worldwide visitors who were coming to see them.

The risk to tourists

But there are risks for visitors, too. Elephants can contract tuberculosis from humans and can spread the disease to uninfected people through close contact. Just two years ago, ten tourism elephants at Amer Fort in India tested positive for tuberculosis. Reliable screening for tuberculosis is rare or inaccurate, so the actual health risk is hard to predict, but the results can have grave consequences.

There may be other diseases, too. It’s believed that about 70% of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases originate from wild animals and being in close proximity with humans elevates the risk of infection. If the COVID-19 pandemic has proven one thing, it is that we all should steer clear of handling wild animals.

The plight of elephant caretakers

Placing complex, intelligent and endangered animals such as elephants at the whim of a commercial industry vulnerable to economic fluctuations is unacceptable, inhumane and affects people too. Mahouts, the caretakers of elephants, are often disadvantaged through low-pay and high-risk employment. Our research has shown that over one third of mahouts have minimal financial savings, and receive minimum wage, while bearing significant risks of serious, sometimes fatal, injuries through elephants.

Ending this cruel industry

For years, our organization and many others have been advocating for a phasing out of elephant tourism. By preventing captive breeding, reducing the tourism demand, and strict prevention of poaching, this generation of animals should be the last one suffering in captivity.

A gradual phase-out will enable their owners and others to shift to other livelihoods, preserve traditions without relying on cruelty and to focus all efforts on protecting these beautiful creatures where they belong – in the wild.

Elephant feeding

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Elephants should not suffer because of an industry that prioritised financial gain over regard for the animals

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