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The Thai elephant is the second largest land animal… a magnificent beast in the wild… and the symbol of Thailand...

The Thai elephant issue… Where can a visitor see and interact with elephants without ethical dilemmas?

I'll try to give a balanced view...



In 2006, I took a day tour that included rafting a river and going for a ½ hour ride on an elephant.

I’d done off-road activities when younger, and was impressed how well those pachyderms went up and down steep grades… a low-range four leg drive!

And no need to carry extra gas tanks… they “topped up” on nearby foliage as they trundled along.


Over the past decade, I’ve visited the National Elephant Institute several times, and watched the trained animals 

  • paint
  • act as ancient battle tanks in a mock war demonstration
  • demonstrate how they were used as “tractors” to help with teak lumber harvesting
  • carry tourists through the jungle, patiently and safely

I also saw that older, sick and injured animals were well tended to.

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In Chiang Rai, I went to a nearby Karen Village elephant park and the two Thai ladies with me went for a ride. They loved the experience.

Karen tribe village elephant park in Chiang RaiAs I think back... this was far more a negative experience. The elephants were nowhere as well looked after... IMHO...


My grandson has been to visit me in Thailand, twice [aged 5 and 10], and I think the elephant rides he's taken have been the highlight of his trips.

His mom wants to take him to a n elephant camp so he can learn more about what these animals are... and how they've been treated... but that will wait until he's older and more adept at trekking around to follow a herd.

Cousin Libby's Elephant Camp Adventure

Libby Jones and GarryLibby Jones and Garry in Bangkok.

My Brit cousin, Libby Jones, visited us in Thailand in early 2019. One of the highlights of that visit was two days at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, watching elephants roam free, and helping mahouts take care of their charges.

Mahout = elephant trainer and caretaker

Read about her experience.

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Thai elephants... domesticated, not wild...
should we be concerned about their treatment?

I’m at a loss to decide whether all “tame” Thai elephants are abused, or just some… I’m not close enough to their living, training and so on to make a decision… but there’s a ton of websites devoted to this. 

However, I’m unsure whether I can trust the viewpoint of these sites!
It’s the lack of documentation… verified documentation… that concerns me…

It’s very easy to find several admittedly disgusting, cruel and vicious examples of severe elephant abuse and generalize it to all domesticated elephants.

So, I prefer to rely on websites, such as Wikipedia, that insist on substantial documentation for their articles.

Here’s a few that I found that seemed to be thoughtful and well-documented.

Feel free to weigh in with your own arguments… there’s a form in the right hand column for you to use.

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Wikipedia article on cruel training practices.

Extremely graphic article about elephant abuse.

BBC article on abuse.

Wikipedia article on elephants and exploitation.

I’ve tried to summarize the arguments pro and con…

Those who are against the domestication and resulting abuse of Thai elephants make these points.

Training starts with extremely young elephants and is designed to break their spirit. This is done through several methods.

  • Forcible removal and ensuing isolation from their herd.
  • They are bound by heavy chains around their feet that they cannot break, nor pull away from.
  • They may be beaten with chains.
  • Fear of the mahout is through the intermittent, yet persistent application of pain inflicted by metal goads which are stabbed into their unusually tender ears.
  • They are physically abused throughout their lifetime as “beasts of burden”. 
  • Mahouts use pain to guide them
  •  “howdahs”… seating for riders… deform an elephant’s back.

OK... I have a major gripe about interlopers
who come to a foreign culture,
with their own traditions and agendas,
and insist that locals change their ways...
What alternative means of income and security do they provide for those affected by their suggestions?
The elephant
The mahout and his family
The village

However, there are many
social and economic considerations
that support the continuing domestication of elephants…
with a more enlightened approach to training… 


  • Many otherwise poorly off villages support themselves through the use of elephants as tourist attractions.
  • Mahouts use their elephants to earn a living. 
  • The forest industry in Myanmar still uses elephants to do the heavy labor, and many of these are Thai.


Forward thinking owners of elephant sanctuaries 

  • Rescue elephants in bad situations
  • treat the animals well
  • act as hospitals for the injured and sick
  • provide an environment as close to the “natural” one as is possible
  • support the sanctuary through funds raised from charging tourists for elephant interaction 
  • train them humanely
  • teach residents of “elephant villages” how to care for their animals so tourists are not horrified

I guess I'm just an old cynic... BUT...
I can see is unethical "sanctuary" owners
faking all the ethical stuff...
once you sniff out a "fake"
use all the Social Media you can
to let others know!

I cannot make up my mind here...
seems to me there's a place for elephants in Thailand
as a "draw" for the tourist industry...
but I hate to see any creature abused...

I await your comments and insights... use the
Elephant Ethics Form
in the right hand column.
at the bottom of a mobile page...

Warmest regards,

Garry says

p.s. I URGE you to see Thai elephants… in the wild for sure… and get closer to these magnificent animals in a park that is ethical and treats the animals well.