The truth about elephant riding: 7 reasons not to ride an elephant on your next vacation


Are you considering riding an elephant on your next vacation? This popular tourist activity is not only ethically problematic but also poses significant risks to both elephants and tourists. Discover some of the many reasons why you should steer clear of elephant rides and consider alternative ways to experience these majestic creatures, such as visiting ethical elephant sanctuaries.

Riding an elephant remains one of the most popular tourist activities across Asia. While it may seem like an innocuous activity, elephants at these attractions typically endure harsh training and poor living conditions. Most tourists sign up for these experiences with elephants because they love wild animals, and simply aren’t aware of the cruelty behind the so-called “entertainment”.  

Know the facts: elephant entertainment is exploitation.  

1. Elephants are endangered  

All three species of elephants are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species as “Endangered” or “Critically Endangered”

Constant human encroachment into critical elephant habitat and poaching for the wildlife trade has contributed significantly to their rapid decline. Instead of investing in genuine conservation initiatives, such as protecting natural habitats, combatting poaching, and supporting local communities, attention is often shifted towards commercial ventures that exploit elephants for profit. 

While captive breeding programs often claim to fulfill a conservation purpose, our analysis suggests that the profit-driven elephant tourism industry may be contributing to the decline of wild populations instead of protecting them.  

2. Elephants are stolen from the wild  

Captive elephants are primarily sourced from the wild: it’s estimated that as many as 75% of captive adult elephants used for tourist entertainment across Asia have been captured from the wild, although the number is difficult to validate. This is perpetuated by the high value placed on captive elephants, which serves as a strong incentive for illegal activities such as the 'laundering' of wild-caught elephants into the tourism industry. 

Pictured: An elephant kept in chains.
A baby elephant chained on concrete. Elephants are cruelly trained from a very young age to make them submissive enough to be used to give rides, perform tricks, and be used as photo props.

3. Captive elephants endure cruel training methods 

At first glance, riding an elephant may appear harmless, but elephants are wild animals – they would never allow a human to ride on their backs by choice.  

To gain control over an elephant, trainers use cruel training methods on very young elephants, often referred to as ‘the crush’. Trauma from these methods leaves deep scars and has a significant negative impact on an elephant’s physical and psychological welfare for the rest of their lives. 

4. Elephants are social animals, keeping them isolated is harmful to their mental health 

Elephants are a lot like humans in that they socialize, have families and friends, feel pain, sorrow, and happiness. In fact, elephants are known to be some of the most socially developed mammals in the world. They have complex social structures, close family ties, and even grieve lost family members.  

When held captive for use for entertainment, they are usually removed from family members and can usually not engage socially or build social bonds with other elephants. In some venues, they live their lives essentially in solitary confinement, which can be extremely detrimental to their mental health and well-being.  

Elephant riding
Tourists take rides on elephants in Thailand.

5. Elephants can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)  

Recent research has linked the process of training (as well as other traumatic events, such as the capture from the wild and separation from the mother) to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in elephants. This is similar to that developed in people after enduring trauma. In a recent study, it was found that 74% of examined captive Asian elephants showed symptoms of PTSD

6. Elephants can spread disease and can cause serious injuries to humans  

Even if a wild animal looks healthy, they can still carry diseases and infections that can be harmful and transmissible to humans (zoonoses). Captive elephants have been shown to transmit tuberculosis to humans, with caregivers and those with prolonged or close contact most at risk. 

It is also important to remember that elephants are wild animals. They are not domesticated, and due to their large size and unpredictable behaviours, they can pose a threat to human safety. Between 2010 and 2016 in Thailand alone, 17 fatalities and 21 serious injuries to people by captive elephants were reported in the media. Unreported incidences involving local elephant keepers are likely to make this figure much higher. Ontario’s African Lion Safari announced the end to elephant rides at their facility after a trainer at the zoo was attacked and seriously injured by an elephant that had been giving rides to a line-up of people, including young children. 

7. It's easy to be an elephant-friendly tourist! 

With increasing public awareness about the welfare problems with captive elephants, many attractions are trying to deceive tourists by adding words such as “sanctuary” to their names. Yet, the abusive training methods and deprivation are often the same to make the elephants follow the trainers’ commands to let people ride, feed, touch, or bathe them. While the best place to see elephants is in the wild, if you are going to visit an elephant venue, please make sure that it allows elephants to be elephants, while educating visitors on their complex needs. 

You can be an elephant-friendly tourist by using our simple guide to avoid venues that don’t have elephants’ best interests at heart. If the venue lets you touch or ride an elephant, or the elephant is performing “tricks”, that should be a red flag that their welfare is likely not prioritized. 

Be part of the solution. Use our simple guide to find the right venue for you and for elephants. 

Rani, elephant working at Amer Fort
An elephant taking tourists up the steep slope to Amber Fort.

Don’t get taken for a ride

The most important thing you can do is never ride an elephant or attend a show with elephants. Instead, view rescued elephants in a sanctuary, where their welfare is a priority, or in the wild from a safe distance. Take our pledge and commit to never participate in elephant exploitation.

By taking our pledge, you will also help us influence more travel companies and tour operators to stop promoting attractions that profit from elephant cruelty.

Pledge to be elephant-friendly

Tourist demand for elephant rides and shows is driving these cruel activities. Elephants are suffering and it's completely unnecessary. We have the power to change this.

Further reading:

Why anyone can own a zoo in Ontario

A lemur in a Canadian roadside zoo

Join us in calling on the Ontario government for stronger provincial regulations, meaningful enforcement and making this year, the last year for roadside zoos