Elephants: Separating Myth From Fact

Elephants at Chai Lai Orchid in Chiang Mai

Elephants at Chai Lai Orchid in Chiang Mai

Chai Lai is dedicated to providing guests and volunteers knowledge to be effective elephant activists. Instead of telling tourists only what they want to hear we engage openly and honestly with the public about our practices and struggles. 


There is very, very little natural habitat left for elephants that remains uninhabited by humans. Habitat destruction is undoubtedly the greatest threat facing wild Asian elephants. Deforestation from logging, rapidly growing human populations, and clearing land for industrial agriculture have destroyed the forests. Elephants natural homes are lost to the environmental destruction that comes with “development” Clearing forests for agriculture inevitably leads to elephants raiding crops and then to the farmers’ retribution, resulting in many dead and injured elephants. Habitat destruction also leads to fragmented, isolated populations and the subsequent danger of inbreeding.


Over the last few years, Western media have launched a glut of television shows and news stories implying or even flatly stating that to visit an elephant camp — particularly camps that offer rides, shows, or mahout training — is to be complicit in abuse or even torture. Many sensitive Westerners conscious of animal rights and welfare will jump to the conclusion that elephant camps are bad and that the only ethical response is to boycott them. The problem is that they probably constitute less than 5% of the tourists who will see elephants. They are greatly outnumbered by tourists from countries where very few people are conscious of animal welfare. Examining the top 20 tourist arrivals in Thailand by nationality in 2015, the first country on the list is China, numbering 7,934,791. Over 16 million people from other Asian countries visited Thailand. In contrast, visitors from the UK numbered just under a million. Most tourists also want their visits to be as cheap as possible, forcing many camps “squeeze” their elephants, working them far too hard, and exploiting their caretakers.

Boycotting elephant camps and feeling good about it provides no consolation or help to the vast majority of elephants stuck in less than ideal camps. A further twist is that because tourism is basically the only legal form of work in Thailand — where over 95% of the elephants are privately owned — it is only tourism that can provide the money that owners need to care for their animals. Without it, there’s no reason for owners to keep these animals alive, as their upkeep is very expensive.

The problems facing Thai elephants and their owners and handlers — and the thoughtful tourists considering visits — are exceedingly complex. Making snap judgments (“All elephant camps are cruel and evil!”) is simplistic and not doing the elephants any good.

““Elephants are majestic and easily captivate our imaginations and our hearts. But f we are to protect elephants, it’s very important to understand facts: their biological needs, history, legal status and cultural context. In Thailand, elephants are endangered and stuck in a precarious, uncharted gray area between wild and domestic animals.” – Naka Elephant Foundation


These activities and tools should be analyzed before condemning them. They are not the pure torture they are often painted to be.


The problem is not riding in general; it’s poor elephant care. Working elephants for too many hours means exhaustion and malnourishment. By far the largest traditional form of employment for elephants — was transportation, moving both goods and people. Thousands of elephants worked as draft animals in Thailand. Elephants were used here much like horses have been used in the West, and were particularly useful in the rainy season because of their uncanny ability to walk easily through mud in villages without roads.  Like other traditional practices, rides do no harm so long as they are carefully limited loads, limited hours, good shade and resting time. Just like the use of horses as ride animals in Europe and the Americas, it all depends on how it is done. A healthy elephant can safely and comfortably carry a human.


Chains are often presented as bad and sometimes as pure evil. In fact, things are not that simple. First, chains are needed to protect humans from elephants because there are no alternatives. Most people who criticize and even vilify elephant tourism camps focus on two activities of traditional keeping, shows and rides, and two pieces of equipment, chains and elephant hooks. Most critics come from countries which have elephants confined in zoos, fortresses where the elephants are separated from the public by millions of dollars of walls and moats. Clearly, massive enclosures are a luxury which most local people in Southeast Asian countries cannot afford. Unlike in Zoos in the West, Asia’s elephants are often on the move and often mingle very closely with people. Further, chains are often needed to protect elephants from other elephants who would attack them if left free. Chains also prevent elephants from raiding the crops of farmers, a boon to the elephants’ owners and even to elephants, since farmers may hurt or even kill an elephant that wrecks their livelihood.

Outsiders often misunderstand how chains are used in Asia. Many critics wrongly assume that chains always fix the elephant in one point and that therefore an enclosure would be better. However chains actually enable elephants to be constantly moved to fresh natural food sources and walk in the jungle. The chained elephant is much better off than a chain-free elephant confined in a small pen, because in a pen the only option is to throw in food — often stale and poor quality — and shovel dung out. The use of chains in Asia is very complex, and to condemn outright is to dangerously oversimplify. Skillfully used chains benefit captive elephants.

Enclosures can be dangerous to Elephants. Elephants in small enclosures have very little to do each day. Being intelligent animals, they become bored. Boredom itself leads to a variety of behavioral problems including heightened aggression and depression. Foot disease, caused by standing on hard floor surfaces for long periods of time is the number one source of elephant pain, suffering and premature death. Prolonged standing on hard flooring and lack of exercise causes arthritis and other chronic, sometimes fatal, orthopedic disabilities. When elephants stand on wet floors, foot infections may also result. Obesity is another dangerous problem linked to enclosures as in nature elephants walk Long periods each day, up to 18 hours a day and cover great distances.


Throughout much of Asia, mahouts carry an elephant hook, usually called just “hook.” In classical literature it was often called “ankus”, an ancient Egyptian word. The much maligned hook looks like a cruel and dangerous weapon, but if used by a good mahout, the hook causes no harm. It is a tool for guidance, not an instrument of torture.

The hook has two primary purposes. First, it can be used  to gently touch key pressure points on the elephant’s body, points based on the elephant’s nerve network and carefully refined over many centuries. Another use of a hook is simply to extend the mahout’s reach, effectively making his arm longer. When sitting on the neck he can tap the middle of the back, signaling the elephant to lay down on its belly. When the mahout is on the ground he can put the hook over the elephant’s ear and lightly tug to signal it to the ground. While harmless in the hands of a competent mahout, misuse of hooks is indisputably bad. In nearly all Asian countries today, the quality of mahouts is rapidly declining as the job is difficult, dangerous, and underpaid. In the past they would have had to work for many years as an assistant before getting their own elephant. We believe it’s so important to care for the elephants caretakers as well.


Threats to elephants separating myth from fact http://www.nakaelephantfoundation.org/

Best care practices for elephant owners and camp managers http://www.thailandelephant.org/en/caremanual.html

The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/05/elephants-tourism-thailand/483138/

Patara Elephant Farm  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Bc3pbBzbxk

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