To Ride or Not to Ride? – Should that even be a question?

There is thought to be an estimated 9500 captive elephants across Asia. Approximately, 3000 of those are currently being used for entertainment in tourism.

Thailand has the highest population of captive elephants in the whole of Asia and a shocking 77% of those elephants are ‘living’ in inadequate conditions.


Basically, this means that elephants being kept in these facilities are chained to the ground on short chains, sometimes only 1 meter in length. If they are elephants that are known to play with the chain, they will also have their front feet shackled together or be secured by a back foot, as well as the front. There are several other factors that result in a captive elephant showing signs of distress: Lack of water, poor diet, being overworked, restricted movement, not being allowed to socialise, vocalise or display natural behaviours such as dirt throwing – the list goes on.


And how do elephants show that they are stressed? Just like we do… Some elephants pace, rock, self harm, develop anorexia, cry, lash out, give up.

In 2005, Dr Gay Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. confirmed that elephants and chimpanzees were displaying signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She established that African elephants were exhibiting psychological symptoms. These included, inter- and intra-species aggression, depression, mood disorders, and emotional dysfunction, including infant neglect. All were related to a series of human-caused trauma: mass killings, translocations, social disruption, and habitat loss and degradation. Her findings were further supported by neuroscience research stating that the brain structures affected by trauma (cortical and subcortical areas of the right brain) are highly conserved across species.  (Bradshaw, G.A., Slotow, R.,Balfour, D. & Howison, O.Mahwah, N.J.: Erhbaum. )


Over the past ten years, BLES has rescued 27 elephants. Each of these elephants have expressed various signs of long term psychological and physical strain. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the video of sweet Sontaya, swinging left to right, non stop, with so much vigour, she had inflammation around her shoulders. Permpoon had trust and aggression issues, Tong Jai, refuses to allow any other mahout, other than Anon, to get close to him – these are just three examples of elephants being wrecked by captivity and destroyed by tourism.

When release from abuse does occur, the road to recovery is not easy. Elephants coming to sanctuary experience tremendous improvements, yet they still carry the scars and burden of their past. Similar to human prisoners who survive, captive elephants are diagnosed with Complex PTSD, as well as other trauma-induced conditions.

The 14 elephants living at BLES are the fortunate ones. They have been removed from the torturous life of circus shows and back breaking rides. We are proud to be able to provide true sanctuary to our small family of elephants, but what about the remaining thousands that are still trapped?


This is where YOU come in!

World Animal Protection – WAP, recently released a well researched document that revealed the frightening facts and figures behind elephant tourism in Asia. The study claims that 54% of people surveyed found it unacceptable to watch a show or performance involving wild animals.

The first time I read this, I was relieved to see that the percentage was over half. Then, it dawned on me – ONLY 54% of people surveyed – why so few?

In todays world, I passionately feel there are no excuses for contributing to the cruelty of captivity. We have so many resources available now, mostly Wifi and good old Dr Google, as well as TripAdvisor, to name a few. We can type in any question and within a fraction of a second, have the answer. There have been a number of documentaries made, highlighting what happens behind the scenes of elephant tourism. Articles, blogs, papers, but most importantly conversations, take place, all around the world, explaining why riding elephants is now not the number one thing to do, when you visit Thailand.

In the past ten years, there has been a visible increase in the number of elephant friendly facilities. These venues allow the elephants in their care to interact naturally, do not offer riding as an activity, allow tourists to observe the elephants and encourage visitors to gather food for the elephants, muck out sleeping areas, plant trees – lots of eco positive activity that is rewarding and does not encroach on elephant welfare.


I guess the key thing in all of this is that we have to be prepared to put the animals, in this case, the elephants, first. We have to accept that we might not get to touch them, stand next to them, take a selfie with them, because despite what we have always been conditioned to believe, we, humans, do not have the right to invade another being’s (elephant’s) space.

I take a very firm stance on this controversial matter. I have always said that captivity is about compromise – there is no black and white approach to elephant tourism in Thailand and honestly, I do see both sides of the never ending arguments.

Mahouts and elephant owners are fed up of ill informed tourists, blaming them and wagging their fingers, accusing them of abusing their elephants. These tourists, of course, have the best of intentions, but often, behaving like this can end badly and mahouts end up resenting foreigners and ignoring their underlying message of compassion.

On the other hand, I can understand why tourists would be upset by seeing an elephant on a chain and jump to the wrong conclusion.

The simple fact is, if you want to get close to an elephant, throw buckets of water over it, feed it, touch it – nine times out of ten, those elephants will be stressed and will need to be controlled, either by being tethered or by a mahout carrying a hook or worse, hiding a nail in his hand.

The point I am trying to make is that you, as individuals, travelling to Thailand, have the power to really make a significant change for the captive elephants of Asia.

You are the ones who decide where to spend your money. If you continue to pay to watch elephant shows, the elephants will have to keep dancing. If you chose to sit in a bench, balanced on the back of an elephant, the elephants will continue to suffer. The camp owners and mahouts are meeting the demand that tourists are creating and now is the time to change that.

To be clear, I am not boycotting the hundreds of elephant camps in Thailand. Quite the opposite actually. I encourage people to go to the camps and instead of riding the elephants, pay to walk with the elephants. Imagine if every tourist did this? How quickly the face of elephant captivity would change?


Instead of being critical, I urge you to try and relate to the hardships the thousands of mahouts face daily. The mahouts, like the elephants are victims and are often unfairly represented. It costs nothing to be compassionate. To be humane, not human.

The power to create change is within all of us and our gestures do not have to be grand or impressive. A simple, ethical choice to walk, not ride an elephant could start the ripples we need to end the cruelty once and for all. Every single one of you can make that move, take that step and be a part of ending the suffering.

As Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, Global Wildlife and Veterinary Advisor, World Animal Protection so eloquently puts it, “Once tourists understand the suffering, they will make the right choices. If you love wild animals and want to see them, choose to do so at a genuine elephant-friendly facility or in their natural habitat, through a responsible tour organiser.”


When we know better, we do better – if you are travelling to Thailand, you owe it to the elephants to educate yourselves and empower others to be responsible travellers.






  1. Kali Dragonslayer · July 21, 2017

    Well said!!! When I told people I was going to Thailand, my mind was blown with the “OH are you going to ride an elephnat??” response. That response quickly evoked a quick but hopefully educational lesson on why I would never ride an elephant… and why they shouldn’t either. Its a matter of simple education really, people just assume it is the same as riding a horse because they don’t know what is involved with getting an elephant to that point and the terrible circumstances they face in a tourism camp. Thank the gods for you Mz. Katherine and all you do to show the world compassion and teach those that there is a better way ❤


  2. Elizabeth Bishop · July 21, 2017

    So well written & thank you for all you do to help these elephants…x


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