Elephant Rides and Shows – Five Myths
We all love elephants and many of us have experienced an elephant ride or show as a tourist.
What you may not know is that there is a cruel reality that exists behind the scenes. Below we look at five common myths about elephants in the tourist entertainment industry.
‘Domesticated’ means that an animal species has been selectively bred by humans for many generations to have particular physical characteristic and behaviours. But even if born in captivity, elephants are still wild animals.
All elephants used for riding and performing have been ‘broken in’ to make an elephant appear docile and calm and accept human control. The process called “the crush” involves physical restraints, withholding food and water, and in many cases, severe pain is inflicted. This is an intensely stressful process for both wild-caught and captive-born elephants.
As well as the cruelty involved in breaking in an elephant their ongoing physical well-being is forever damaged by the jobs they are forced to do. Elephants may be large and strong but their backs are not built for heavy loads and the saddle and weight of passengers can cause pain and injuries. They are also not physically built to stand on their hind legs as they do in shows. These tricks are performed only because of being trained through pain and fear.
Most elephants are chained for long periods between shows and rides, very often in isolation. This causes stress and unnatural behaviours such as ‘weaving’, where they compulsively move their heads from side to side. Elephants are intelligent and social herd animals. In the elephant entertainment industry, their complex social needs cannot be met.
Reproduction rates of elephants in captivity are extremely low and do not meet the demand for new elephants in the tourism industry. Consequently, elephants are poached from the wild to fuel tourist entertainment. This is considered a major threat to the wild Asian elephant population which has declined dramatically over the last century.
Capturing elephants in the wild is a brutal activity and there are increasing reports of protective mothers and aunts killed in the capture of young elephants. Most of the captured elephants are born in Myanmar and then smuggled across the border to Thailand for use in the tourism industry, where an elephant calf can fetch around 33,000 USD.
Until 1989, elephants in Thailand were largely used in the logging industry, but a state-wide ban on commercial forestry left many elephant owners without a source of income. The tourism industry became a prime opportunity for them to earn a living.
But today, a quarter of a century after the banning of logging, these elephants are now old or have died. However the number of tourist venues with elephants has grown, while it is estimated that the number of captive elephants has remained stable. The animals now used in these venues are not old working animals, but are either captured from the wild or bred in captivity to spend their lives in chains. Across Asia, it is estimated that as many as 75% of the adult elephants used for tourist rides today have been wild caught, although the number is difficult to validate.
Many tourists see elephant rides as the highlight of their holiday. However, this wish often stems from a lack of awareness of the abuse involved. As soon as they become aware of the suffering caused by elephant rides and shows, their enthusiasm quickly wanes.
Raising awareness of the hidden cruelty behind elephant rides and shows is crucial. Tour operators and travel agencies are perfectly placed to inform travellers of the conditions which elephants in the entertainment industry endure and to highlight opportunities for people to see elephants in their natural habitat. Such breathtaking opportunities, responsibly offered, are highly appreciated by tourists.
The good news
We are working with travel tour operators in the UK such as Rickshaw Travel, Explore Worldwide and WildFrontiers, who have pledged not to sell elephant rides or shows and opt for more ethical experiences to encounter these wonderful animals responsibly and humanely, and we are calling on other companies to follow suit. To learn more, read our recent campaigning achievements for elephants.
How you can keep elephants away from this cruelty
- Always say no to elephant rides, shows, and close-up encounters such as selfies and washing. Remember: if you can ride, hug or take a selfie with a wild animal, the chances are it’s a cruel venue. Don’t go.
- If you wish to see these amazing animals when you're on holiday, do your research and be mindful that many low-welfare venues market themselves as "sanctuaries". Read our top tips for spotting an elephant-friendly venue.
- Help us end elephant abuse forever with a donation.