Lately, a lot of news concerning the deaths of elephants who worked for the tourist industries in Vietnam is being reported.

A 43- year- old captive female elephant, Na Lieng, died last Thursday, while the ‘holidaymakers’ were riding on her. It is suspected that she died of exhaustion.  Not only that, but a 40-year-old male also died of the same reason in March. Same happened to a 30-year-old male elephant who dies in January, from overwork. Similar were the cases of two female elephants who died in 2013, again from abuse, exhaustion and hunger.

Dr Pham Vanthinh, a veterinarian in Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center (DECC), stated that there are around 55 elephants captivated in Vietnam, all suffering from dropping dead stress and exhaustion due to overwork that their owners and the tourists make them do.

Vanthinh explained, “Tourists go to Dak Lak [region] to see and ride an elephant. [They] will give lots [of] money to the owners, so domestic elephants in Vietnam have to work all day. All owners will [bring the elephant] into the forest at night and take them to work the next morning. But in the dry season, the situation gets even more troubling as they grow weak from lack of food.”


Captive Elephants

There are around 12,000 elephants in Asia and thousands of them are in Vietnam, who are struggling through harsh conditions. There are approximately 38, 000 to 50,000 Asian elephants all around the world. They are listed as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN Red List, and Appendix 1on CITES.

Elephants are used for tourist rides in other ‘elephant hot- spots’ as well. India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand are the most popular spots for elephant rides.

In their report on ‘Wildlife on a Tightrope (2010),’ World Animal Protection stated the condition of captive elephants in Thailand. They surveyed 1,688 captive elephants in118 places around the countries, most of which did rides and shows.

More than half of the elephants were in deplorable conditions, according to their report. Extreme restrains bounded them, making them unable to socialise with any other of their kind. Also, they were not receiving any vet care. The report even proved those who advocate the trend because of the educational perks it provides wrong. It turns out, only 6% of the venues offer such educational content in rides or shows.

The report reads, “Cruelly taken from the wild or bred in captivity. These elephants are separated from their mothers and family groups at just a few months old. Elephants destined for the tourist industry to experience great physical and mental trauma. Isolation, starving, hitting and beating are just some of the methods used to initially break their spirits and get them to behave and perform.”

Becoming a captive elephant

The Senior Wildlife and Veterinary Adviser at World Animal Protection, Bangkok, Dr Jan Schmidt, said, “Tourists may think activities like riding an elephant do not harm. But the brutal truth is that breaking these animals’ spirits to the point that they allow humans to interact with them involves cruelty at every turn.”

The breaking of spirit is an actual process. National Geographic aired in 2002 one of the first highly publicised accounts of ‘training crush.’ The video displayed a wild- caught baby elephant being beaten and terrorised by men in every few days so that his spirit is crushed to the point that he is ready to beat forever and live a life in the tourism industry.

According to ‘An Assessment of the Live Elephant Trade in Thailand,’ a 2014 traffic report, wild elephants are even forcefully captivated through the ‘pit-trap.’ In it, an elephant is attracted by a few domestic elephants to an already- dug pit. This results in profoundly painful injuries.

Also, mothers and female elephants who are very protective towards the calves are easily killed using automatic weapons. The infants are removed, and then, the slaughtered elephants are slain and their body parts, sold for profit.

World Animal Protection

Elephants caught from the wild

The Traffic report also disclosed that the market value for a baby elephant is $33,000. An unbelievable amount of removing these infant elephants from their natural habitat and forcefully captivating them takes place in Thailand, as per the saying of Simon Hedges, the co-chair of IUCN? SCC Asian Elephant Specialist group. He added, “one of the main threats to elephants in their main remaining habitat blocks in Thailand is … the illegal captures for the trade in live elephants.”

This brutal act thrives in Thailand because of a technical difference in the legal identification of the wild and captive elephants. The wild elephants are related to Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act of 1992 (WARPA), according to which elephants are given particular protection and people caught killing them are fined. However, once captivated, they belong to the Draught Animal Act of 1939. In Thailand, captive animals are considered as livestock.

The tourism divide

Despite all these brutalities exposed, the question remains: why do tourists still want to ride elephants?

Another survey, again conducted by World Animal Protection in 2014, found around 50% of travellers “pay for an animal experience because they love animals.’ We do not know how shocked those tourists would be to learn the reality.

Schmidt- Burbach says, “When you see a captive wild animal on your holiday, you often can’t see the cruelty. It’s hidden from view. And it’s important to remember that a captive wild animal in the entertainment industry can never truly experience a life free from suffering and cruelty.”

While some tourists are merely ignorant and only want to sit on top of world’s largest land mammal, others who are concerned about the animals can be left in confusion, because some magazines praise the elephant camps and their mahouts, while some travel agencies merely abolish elephant- rides from their services.

Intrepid Travel, which handles 250,000 tourists each year removed elephant rides from all of their 30 itineraries from January 2013. The company’s Deputy General, Christian Wolters said, “The decision has had enthusiastic support and as a result, 2,500 people per year no longer participate in elephant rides.”

However, there is a different perspective on elephant rides in countries like Thailand.

John Roberts, the director of elephants and conservation activities for Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort Thailand, with his team, manages a camp of 19 elephants, prioritising the welfare of the animals.


Robert has been working for 13 years and discloses the fact that it isn’t about choosing to ride or not ride. The mahout culture plays a distinct role in this. Generation after generation, individual families’ men own elephants. He says, “Elephants need 400 lbs of fodder a day, families need to live, and so mahouts use elephants to make money – and currently, tourism is the only option.”

“The way mahouts treat their elephants depends on what they predominantly learned from their fathers and grandfathers, and that knowledge inevitably transfers into the ethos of the camps.” Says Robert.

He further ex0pplained, “The tourist camps run the gamut from huge ‘factory’ camps with no thought for elephants’ needs and welfare, to camps where elephants are well kept, and the mahouts are provided with all the tools they need to help elephants.”

He says that the elephant trek industry is indeed actually growing in Thailand, but not necessarily like Anantara. He notes with concern, “New ‘camps’ [are] opening up almost weekly in the beach resorts and islands of Thailand as well as spreading to our Asian neighbours.”

He is worried about the mahouts being forced to work in the new factory- style camps.

Robert further questions, “How can we use tourism … to look after the captive elephants as best we can, while giving mahouts the tools and opportunity to treat their elephants well?”

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort Thailand

The mahout culture is also prevalent in India, another famous place for elephant rides. Geeta Seshamani, the co-founder of Wildlife SOS, an organisation dedicated to halting the abuse of wild and captive animals in India, said, A mahout can directly improve or deprive the welfare of elephants in his care. Being a part of the problem, he has to be a part of the solution as well.”

“In India,” she added, “the traditional methods of mahout training use the principle of beating the elephant to create ‘fear of the mahout’ so the relationship between the elephant and the mahout is one of master and slave where the elephant receives pain and lives in constant fear, thereby lashing out at his master seeking revenge at an opportune moment. Hundreds of mahouts have been killed by their own elephants.”

Christina M. Russo

Seshamani further explained that Wildlife SOS is establishing the mahout training school in India which will “help mahouts move away from the risky, inhumane and cruel traditional methods towards scientific, positive and safe methods of elephant management.” The organisation has already launched the Captive Elephants Welfare Projects, which volunteers to provide veterinary care for elephants and encourages mahouts to find alternative income sources.

Steve Koyle/Wildlife SOS

According to Sheshamani, the cycle of abuse will always remain, until demand for elephant rides decreases. There are around 3,500 captive elephants in India, and most of them provide the riding services for Western tourists. She adds, “And the conditions can sometimes be deplorable: Walking on hot, tar roads. Trained with spiked chains and “Ankush” (bullhooks). No veterinary care. Dehydration cracked feet and abscesses. Being shackled for long periods in the heat.”

“We believe that if Western tourists stop being customers for elephant rides, this will immediately change the scenario and improve the welfare and lives of elephants across India,” Seshamani says.

In the words of Schmidt- Burback, “ Our advice is simple: If you love wild animals, view them in their natural habitats.”

Let’s hope this ends before it is too late.

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