The Elephant in the Room

Imogen Payne (Liverpool)

Thailand is a wonderful country to explore, full of temples, markets, food, music and much more. But anyone who thinks of Thailand’s culture soon thinks of elephants. Elephants in Thailand are as common as horses in England and I was excited to see these magnificent creatures up close.

I had been advised by vet school colleagues and documentaries to avoid camps that used elephant hooks or offered elephant rides. The initial process of taming an elephant involves abusing the young animal to break its spirit. This process is called Phajaan, or ‘the crush’. Even after this traumatising process has been completed, riding elephants will cause long-term pain and suffering. Although seemly strong and powerful animals, they have surprisingly weak backs and riding them can cause spinal injuries.


I visited a sanctuary advertised as ‘No rides, no hooks’ and, for the most part, I enjoyed the experience. We began by preparing food and hand feeding the elephants before taking them on a jungle walk, finishing with a dip in the river. It was great to see these elephants in a natural setting, dust-bathing themselves, in family groups. However, when I questioned the mahouts, I found out that, rather than having been rescued from the exploitative logging/tourism industry as I had believed, the elephants were instead simply owned by the villagers. This was their way of making money. I couldn’t help feeling somewhat deceived by the name of this elephant ‘sanctuary’.

What’s more, the eldest of the four elephants (in her 50s), was pregnant. As nice as it was to see a family structure, the volume of elephants still in need of rescue throughout Thailand made me feel uneasy about the casual expansion of their population. Furthermore, I noticed that one of the elephants looked overweight, which made me wonder how many people were enjoying the feeding experience on a daily basis. Were these elephants getting too much ‘love’ from tourists?

This was my first elephant encounter and even though in many ways it wasn’t perfect, the environment these elephants enjoyed was, I felt, better than many zoos could offer. I later discovered that places like this are shining beacons of hope for elephants everywhere in Thailand.

Seeing the Other Side

As part of my tour, I moved on to the capital of Thailand, Bangkok. This was quite a contrast to what I had experienced in the north. The wealth divide was incredible, with luxury skyrise apartments and ultra-modern houses only metres from shanty towns.

This was my experience of the darker side of Thailand. We went on a day trip to visit some temples and, as we arrived, my heart sank. Chained elephants were being used in a circus set up and for giving rides to tourists. I also saw a mahout beat his elephant, striking the spiked hook onto its head. This needless treatment appeared to be because the elephant simply wanted to eat, stretching its trunk out for food on the floor. It was heart-breaking.


When I reviewed Tripadvisor, I saw negative comments about this place dating back as far as 2013, with reports of abusive beatings of elephants seemingly out of public sight. I contacted several charities and rescue organisations to report what I had seen but, due to the scale of the welfare problem in Asia, many were unable to help the elephants I saw.

Most people are ignorant of the elephant abuse that precedes the riding of these animals. To tackle this problem, the message must get across to tourists visiting countries with elephant tourism: do not support this industry. Do not ride elephants.