Nature’s Slaves: The Dark Side of Elephant Tourism in Asia by Riley Forson

When we think of elephants we conjure the image of a gentle giant wandering free. For the Asian elephant that would be in its jungle habitat found in India, Thailand and the Malay Peninsula. As a species, many of us share a love, or at least fascination, for elephants. However, our desire to get up close and personal has fuelled a cruel and dark tourism industry, built on our interest and their suffering.

The behaviour of Asian elephants

Asian elephants form incredible bonds and raise their young via a system of allomothering (communal parenting). When they are under eight years old, calves spend 80% of their time within five meters of their mother and 91% of their time within five meters of another adult family member.[1] Female calves tend never to be separated from their mothers whilst male calves tend to remain with their mothers until they aged between 8-15 years old. As a family, the herd will walk several miles daily in search of vegetation and water whilst remaining in constant contact.

Position of the Asian elephant in Thai law

Asian elephants are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are also on the CITES list of endangered species. However, domestic Thai legislation fails to provide adequate protection to Asian elephants. Domestic elephants are primarily governed by the Draught Animal Act 1939. The result is that captured elephants fall under legislation where they are given no welfare protection and are essentially unregistered with the government authorities. They are ghosts in the legal system with only the same limited protection given to livestock. In comparison, wild elephants are covered by the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act 1992, which, although contains weak fines for poaching and capturing, does provide more protection than the Draught Animal Act 1939.

The elephant tourism industry

Tourism in Thailand has exponentially increased from 14 million visitors in 1997 to over 30 million visitors in 2018.  Research by World Animal Protection found that 40% of tourists of the top nationalities visiting Thailand said they either had or were planning to ride an elephant. Captive elephants in Thailand gave rides to almost 13 million people in 2016.[2] Many calves captured for such purposes are prematurely weaned, socially isolated or otherwise cruelly treated, and often die before they reach age five.[3]

Many Asian elephants are subject to the brutal ‘pajan’ system, also known as ‘crushing’. Pajan involves elephants being beaten with bull-hooks, electrocuted, left without water, isolted and chained up with only a 3 metre walking radius. The chains often contain many sharp hooks that dig into the flesh. Most spend virtually of all their lives chained to concrete posts which causes deep wounds and infections, as well as orthopedic issues.[4] These elephants are broken shells of their wild selves. Thai law enables this treatment and needs urgent reform.

What can we do to help?

A growing number of elephant sanctuaries now provide a better balance between the needs of tourists and elephants. Leading the way are the likes of The Surin Project (surinproject.org), Boon Lot’s Elephant Sanctuary (blesele.org) and The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (elephantnaturepark.org).[5]


Elephant abusers, like most owners of captive wildlife, won’t do the right thing until the wrong thing stops being profitable,[6] so be conscious and aware if you are travelling in areas where elephant tourism is common. If you want to see elephants up close and personal, research the best ways to do so that do no compromise elephant welfare.



[2] (https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-40501667)





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