Animals and tourism

Towards a brighter future of elephant tourism in Thailand

It is well known that elephants are extremely intelligent and that they have strong bonds, complex social structures, and intense emotions. They have a roaming, grazing lifestyle and require a lot of space; in a non-fragmented forest landscape, the minimum home range for the Asian elephant can reach 300 km. When you have the privilege to observe elephants in the wild, learning about their natural behaviour, you can’t avoid thinking about the lives so many elephants living in unnatural worlds. We owe so much to elephants, as engineers of the forest, boosters of the economy, the national animal of Thailand. We would like to challenge people to think deeply if it is really necessary to confine and dominate elephants. To take time to examine our justifications for disturbing treatment, like it is needed for education, science, conservation, tradition or economics. And to open our minds to new ways of working with wild animals, in which elephants are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve (Moss, 2001). Let’s think beyond current practices, and think about the basic needs of elephants and create models for tourism based on kindness, conservation and an unforgettable experience for all. 

It’s our belief that the best way for tourism to contribute to elephant conservation, and the most authentic way for tourists to experience elephants, is wild elephant tourism. Thailand has astonishing national parks, such as Khao Yai and Kuiburi, where tourists can have a true safari experience observing herds of elephants in the wild. The fee to enter protected areas can be used for habitat maintenance and improvement, the prevention of poaching and for research. Furthermore, local communities could be included as partners, benefiting from and helping to protect wild elephants in their natural habitats.

However, up-close elephant encounters are the highlight of many a visit to Thailand. Even though welfare concerns are increasingly recognized, the explosive mix of demand plus vast profits means this largely unregulated industry continues to boom. Since 2010, there has been a 30% rise of captive elephants in tourist camps, with the majority (75%) of them living in poor conditions (Schmidt-Burbach, 2017). We believe that elephants should be able to live full lives. Therefore, we can’t support the use of elephants in captivity when it goes against the animal’s nature, when it’s only for the pursuit of profit and does not contribute to the conservation of the species.

The bigger picture

Thanks to many campaigns, travelers are increasingly aware of the need to tread carefully and spend their travel dollars wisely. There is plenty of good advice on what to check before visiting an elephant park, to make sure your visit will contribute not just to the welfare of the elephants, but also to the conservation of the species in general. More people visiting elephant parks with higher welfare standards means more elephants will live happier lives. But what about the bigger picture? Of course improving animal welfare standards is an urgent priority in Thailand. However, this alone won’t fix the sad predicament of the Asian elephant’s imminent extinction in the wild. Releasing captive elephants to the wild is challenging and, in the short term, not feasible. So let’s take a look at what we can do to give them lives worth living.

Animal welfare

Elephants have never been domesticated or genetically adapted to living in captivity. Domestication means that human selectively breeds the species, to guide their evolution by honing desired traits and eradicating unwanted characteristics (Driscoll et al., 2009). This never happened with elephants. Captive elephants are tamed wild animals in full possession of their unpredictable temperament and behaviour. If we use elephants for entertainment, we have to accept the fact that human-elephant interaction will always have a negative impact on elephants, especially when a high level of interaction with people is demanded.

For an elephant, no matter how tame, riding is a profoundly alien and unnatural experience. In order to make close human contact possible, negative reinforcement training based on fear and pain is used to control the elephants. Many professional animal trainers say that elephants can be trained without cruelty with the “protected contact” method, where commands are taught through positive reinforcement. However, elephants tamed this way cannot be used for any activity that involves direct contact with humans. Camps that offer direct interaction, such as riding, must by definition use fear and pain to control their elephants and guarantee the safety of their visitors. Cruelty-free training techniques could replace traditional methods providing we are all willing to keep a safe and respectful distance from the animals.

To embrace more humane ways of working with elephants we must give up on up-close elephant encounters. But interaction with wildlife sells, so this would be a huge and unlikely concession for the captive elephant industry to make. As long as the tourist dollars keep flowing, change is highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. With a rapidly growing number of elephants in captivity, we also must question where these elephants come from. Between April 2011 and March 2013 about 80 wild elephants were illegally captured to fulfill the demand of the tourist industry in Thailand (Nijman, 2014).  

A life worth living

Whilst respecting animal welfare standards, we have to conclude that riding elephants or other forced unnatural behavior has a negative effect on the welfare of the animal. But shouldn’t we think beyond minimal animal welfare standards and aim for lives truly worth living?

If you visit captive elephant venues, observe carefully how the elephants are treated. Does the park stimulate the natural behavior of the elephants or are the elephants forced to entertain visitors?
As long as we have elephants in captivity, their management should be based on the needs of the animals themselves while understanding their biology and behavioral ecology. Captive elephants should at least live in an environment similar to their natural habitat where human-elephant contact is minimal, or even better, non-existent. They should be able to roam free and managed by a protected contact system with no restraints or hooks, and where positive reinforcement training is used. The danger arises when people share space with elephants and stress the animals with constant demands.

Advocates against free-ranging facilities argue that allowing unrelated elephants to share space is difficult or even dangerous for the elephants. Indeed, introducing a new elephant to a group of unrelated animals in a free-range facility does require careful planning and management. European zoos have been working with this model for years, with even less space at their disposal than an average elephant camp in Thailand. The danger arises when people share space with the elephants and stress the animals with constant demands.

Removing close contact with elephants is an important concession for all of us – travelers and the industry alike. The challenge lies in shifting the highly profitable captive elephant industry from that of a tourist attraction to ambassadors for biodiversity conservation. Captive elephant businesses should develop conservation campaigns around elephants as a flagship species aiming to raise public awareness and action for conservation (Skibins, 2012). Only then tourism can contribute to both the welfare of captive elephants and the long-term conservation of the endangered species.

A shift toward wild elephant tourism

Wild elephant tourism has provided huge economic benefits for many African countries but also in Nepal, India and Borneo. Thailand has many beautiful national parks, full of biodiversity and the potential for authentic wildlife observation. Compared to the elephant excursions currently on offer this would require a fundamental change of attitude and expectations from tourists. Patience, time and distance from the animals are required, and in the wild nothing is guaranteed. But the tradeoff is a true, authentic wildlife experience. Of course, the management of wildlife tourism should be sensitive to the scale and type of tourism (Barnes, 1992), in order for it to be sustainable and respectful for the animals.

Imagine a Thailand where tourists leave with photos of free-roaming herds of wild elephants in a tropical forest, instead of images of tame animals carrying people, painting senseless pictures, and forced to ride on bicycles. In the long run, the demand for up-close encounters with elephants – and for elephants in captivity in general – should end. With a shift towards observing elephants in the (semi) wild, we can aim for elephant lives that are truly worth living, and for the conservation of the species. The central question is how much are we willing to change our own expectations as individuals and how much of a role we’re willing to play to help bring that about.

If you are interested in visiting ethical elephant sanctuaries: check our interactive map
Sponsor wild elephant conservation by bike in Thailand! Our annual bike tour in the beautiful Thai jungle will be held at 6th and 7th of January 2018
Look for more information on page Bike for Elephants


Barnes, J., Burgess, J., Pearce, D. (1992). Wildlife tourism. Economics for the wilds. Chapter 6. p136-p147.

Driscoll, C.A., Macdonald, D.W., O’Brien, S.J. (2009) From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication. PNAS. 106 (Supplement 1) 9971-9978. doi:10.1073/pnas.0901586106

Moss, C. (2001). Elephant research in Amboseli: A perspective from 28 years. Recent research on elephants and rhinos. Scientific reports, Vienna.

Nijman, V. (2014). An Assessment of the live elephant trade in Thailand. TRAFFIC International. ISBN 978-1-85850-363-9

Schmidt-Burbach, J., Ronfot, D., Srisangiam, R. (2015) Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), Pig-Tailed Macaque (Macaca nemestrina) and Tiger (Panthera tigris) Populations at Tourism Venues in Thailand and Aspects of Their Welfare. Plos One.

Schmidt-Burbach, J. (2017). Taken for a ride. The conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia. World Animal Protection.

Skibins, J.C. (2012). The influence of flagship species on in situ and ex situ wildlife tourists’ connection to wildlife and pro-conservation behaviors. Academia. ProQuest. UMI 3526058.