The Hidden Reality Of Elephant Tourism

BY Nico

We’ve all seen the classic Instagram shots: grinning travellers sitting atop a majestic Asian elephant as it gently plods through the Thai jungle; bikini-clad backpackers frolicking in a river with the herd; a juvenile calf, paintbrush in its dextrous trunk, apparently happy to paint a picture for the crowd’s amusement. These colossal beasts are powerful and intelligent – and their status in Southeast Asia’s tourism industry is so embedded – that few visitors ever stop to question the ethics of it all.

But when you start to take a closer look, peeling back the dubious marketing and ethical greenwash, you start to see a very different picture: a hidden reality of elephant tourism that every visitor to Thailand should know.

At the heart of the issue is the basic fact that although elephants can be tamed to tolerate direct human contact, they remain fully wild animals, and have never been domesticated.

The distinction is vital. Domestication is a process that takes place over tens of thousands of years and results in genetic changes that make the animal species suited to living alongside humans. On the other hand, tamed animals are still fundamentally wild creatures that have been conditioned to suppress their natural instincts.

And for an animal as large, intelligent and independent as an elephant, the taming process can be unspeakably brutal. 

In Thailand, the taming process is called the “phajaan” or “the crush”. Young elephants are forcibly separated from their mothers and confined in a small space, usually a cage or a hole in the ground. Over several days or weeks, the elephants are subjected to physical pain and intimidation to break their spirit and make them submissive to humans. It is a horrifying ordeal, one that leaves elephants traumatised, anxious, and obedient to their human handlers.

In other words the creation of a submissive, obedient elephant demands an eye-watering degree of animal abuse. Almost without exception, any elephant that has been tamed and trained for direct human contact in the tourism industry will have undergone this process.

As if this alone wasn’t enough, a thriving trade in elephants for the tourism industry has caused enormous damage to the quality of life for captive elephants, and the protection of the few elephants that remain in the wild. Once within the tourism industry, many elephants are kept in subpar conditions. They suffer from inadequate diet, insufficient access to water, and are often chained up, unable to roam freely and socialise, behaviours that are innate to their species.

Fortunately, despite much of the tourism industry dragging its heels, word is beginning to get out about the ethics of elephant tourism. But even this brings a downside: there is now a growing demand for elephant orphanages and sanctuaries which, in many cases, is further fuelling a secondary market for captive elephants. Not all sanctuaries exist for their elephants’ best interests and it’s hard for visitors to discern between legitimate orphanages and profiteering businesses.

To help make things easier for our guests, Yonder has a number of simple, but cast iron, rules that we follow when it comes to elephant tourism:

Firstly, we do not offer any elephant riding tours, performances, or other direct contact experiences.

Secondly, we don’t visit any dubious orphanages or sanctuaries.

Finally, we carry out rigorous checks to ensure we work with the very best and most ethically run partners. For instance, visiting the renowned Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, which is one of the few sanctuaries you can visit with a clear conscience.

As organisers of tours to Asia, we recognise our responsibility to make the right decisions and advocate for ethical tourism practices. Our guests want to experience the very best of Asia, and that includes a world where our fascination with nature doesn’t compromise its inherent beauty and integrity.


By Nico

Some of our travel blogs have been researched with the aid of AI. Our travel specialists manually check and edit each article and add our own flavour of Yonder expertise.


Yonder is a specialist tour operator, including tailor-made, luxury holidays to Thailand which can include any of the must see places discussed in this article.

All Yonder itineraries are crafted on a tailor-made, one-off basis, so you can be sure that your holiday will be as individual as you are.