Tourists riding elephants

Riding elephants

With the few exceptions we discuss, we believe riding elephants should be avoided. For most elephants in Asia (where most riding takes place), domestication means fear during training and stress (and even abuse) during captivity.

Tourists riding elephants

© ©BHeys,Shutterstock

Elephants as entertainment

Elephants have been used for centuries by humans in Asia – for riding, for lifting and carrying heavy burdens, religious ‘duties’ and entertainment. So, if it’s such a long tradition, does this mean that there is nothing wrong with this?

In our view, no, it does not mean this. There is everything wrong with this (whether in Asia or Africa), and Tribes Travel made a decision not to condone or sell such interactions with elephants in most situations. We’d like to explain our reasons.

First, some positive elephant interactions . . .

We say above that elephant interactions should be mostly avoided but there are some exceptions to this that we should acknowledge.

  • There is a view that that riding elephants in some national parks in Asia should probably be allowed to continue (even though the elephants have still been cruelly treated to be trained) since they are integral to the protection of highly endangered species such as rhinos and tigers. We reluctantly agree, for the time-being – especially given that there are so many domesticated elephants out there who would potentially starve if they could not bring in an income for their owners - but on a personal level, members of our team choose not to engage in elephant-riding of the sale and promotion of any elephant riding activities.
  • Elephant poaching in Africa is, sadly, an enormous and ever-growing issue. This does mean that some baby elephants are orphaned and need human help if they are to survive. There are charities, such as the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, which does hugely good work for elephant conservation, including having an Orphan’s Project whereby the orphans are looked after with great kindness and sensitivity before their attempted return to the wild in stages. Also, in Botswana, the Living with Elephants Foundation run by Sandi Groves (and until his recent sad death, her husband Doug), is a remarkable project caring for two (there were three until 2017) rescued African elephants. And, also in Botswana, the small herd at Abu Camp is another good example of elephant interaction done sensitively, without any cruelty to the animals.

In all the above examples, tourists are able to get close to the elephants within certain restrictions, and more than that, the elephants are also ambassadors for elephant conservation. There are other examples, but these give you an idea of how elephant interactions can be undertaken positively.


ASIA: Asia is where the biggest problem is as regards the use of elephants in tourism. As the tourism industry’s need for entertainment by elephants grows, more Asian elephants are poached from the wild since elephant reproduction in captivity is understandably low. So, wild elephant populations in Asia are dropping dramatically, and tourism is playing a big part in this.

AFRICA: African elephants have never had a history of being used by humans. They are far wilder and bigger, and far harder to train. For this reason it is uncommon to find elephants you can ride in Africa. There have been instances where this is possible (usually baby elephants being hand-reared due to being orphaned by poaching), but the industry in Africa has, thankfully, mostly been turning away from this in recent years, so this is now very unusual to find.



Most Asian elephants (whether born in captivity or wild-caught) are trained initially by the horrendous system of ‘spirit breaking’ or the ‘crush’. This IS as bad as it sounds. A baby elephant is confined, usually in a crate, then often starved, beaten and tortured over a period of days, leaving them afraid of humans, and unwilling to bring on more pain to themselves by defying human orders. They become subservient (most of the time). This is the start of the life of a ‘domesticated’ elephant. Most people don’t know this. Any tourist elephant entertainment is usually based on fear and cruelty.


Heavy loads

Yes, elephants are large, and therefore quite strong. However, their backs were not meant for heavy loads (be it logs or people). Carrying often 4 people on their backs is damaging to them.



You might have heard that elephants love performing. You’d be wrong. They perform tricks because the cruel treatment at the start of their lives means that they dare not go against what their owners are asking them to do. - Standing on their back legs is not natural for any length of time (occasionally African elephants will stand on their backs legs with support from their front legs on a tree, to get tasty fruits) – it hurts them in the long run. - Painting, riding a trike, playing the piano, or anything else that seems unnatural … well, it is exactly that, unnatural. They only do it because of their training with fear and cruelty.



When a domesticated Asian elephant is not working, they are usually chained up, often (though not always) in isolation, often for long periods. This obviously means they can’t move far and this leads to stress behaviours such as rocking from side to side. If they are alone, this too is stressful for the animal as they are by nature very social creatures. Family is everything to them. Domesticated elephants have been torn from family.

How can you help?

  • AVOID: Please don’t ride or encourage the riding of elephants, or condone their use in entertainment (possibly with the above exceptions) when you are on holiday. Your entertainment is based on their fear.
  • TAKE ACTION: Take Action to encourage a ban on elephant rides.
    PETA India (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, India) has a campaign where you can help push for a ban.