Elephants in Thailand | The Ugly Truth & What Every Tourist Needs to Know

I’m going to tell you all about the ugly truth of elephants in Thailand but before I do.  If you are someone who has visited an elephant trekking businesses, rode an elephant or had your picture taken with an elephant;  I want you to know my intention in writing this article is not to offend or make you feel bad.  I am guilty of unknowingly contributing to the exploitation of animals in my life, so I am not perfect.   This this article is all about raising an awareness about the problem with elephants in Thailand.


In 1900 there were approximately 300,000 wild and 100,000 captive elephants in Thailand.  Compared to today there is approximately 2,000 wild and 4,000 captive elephants.  This is a tragedy!



Are you familiar with the elephant taming process known as “The Crush”?  The Crush starts when the elephants are just babies.  Taken away from their mothers and confined to space just large enough for them to fit into.  Usually a cage or a hole in the ground.  Trapped.  Unable to move for several days, the baby elephants are tortured in this tiny space by being stabbed, starved, beaten and deprived of sleep.  This is done until the elephant’s spirit is completely broken and they submit to the humans.  Once “The Crush” is complete, the elephant is now ready for humans to ride on top of them or be trained to perform tricks.

I must warn you this video of a baby elephant being tamed in Thailand is a very disturbing!



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An elephant entertaining the crowd with its soccer skills as the other elephants wait for their turn just outside the arena.

Before we went to Thailand, we were well aware there was a problem with elephants being exploited for financial gain.  And you know what.  We didn’t really give it much thought other than “we would not be riding any elephants on this trip.”   These sort of decisions are pretty clear cut for us being a vegetarian family.


Two weeks of our holiday was spent in Phuket and I can tell you it’s very difficult to avoid seeing this nasty business at work.  We first noticed the Phuket FantaSea show.  This theme park does not try to hide the fact that they have elephants.  In fact when you look at their website there are elephants dressed up in their show costumes all over it.  Get this.  When you go to make an online reservation they write “Our magic elephant, Iyara, will be happy to guide you through the reservation process!  So not only do they have elephants, but they have a “magic” elephant.  Please!

All over Phuket you will see pamphlets and flyers that have photos of the elephants that are ready to entertain you at Phuket FantaSea.  Phuket FantaSea call themselves a Cultural Theme Park, but to me it seems their main attraction is the elephants they parade in these shows.  What’s sad it this marketing strategy is clearly working as they continue to attract tourists every night to come see their show for a whopping 1800 Thai Baht (That’s $70 Australian Dollars).

To be clear, we did not go to Phuket FantaSea so you would be right in thinking I have made some assumptions about the place.  Here is a video on YouTube you can briefly see how the elephants are used in the show.

You can also see hundreds of comments on Trip Advisor with visitors that are disgusted with how they treat the elephants.  What’s probably more disappointing is the comments coming from people saying what a great show it was.  So as long as there are people ignorant to the fact that these animals have most probably been abused and are just used for financial gain, sadly Phuket FantaSea will continue to exploit these elephants.  Phuket FantaSea claim they are Cultural Theme Park.  I would like to see them cease using any elephants and other animals in their shows and find other ways to show visitors they are a cultural them park.



Now here’s what we did see while in Phuket.  While driving around the island we past several elephants chained up and standing on the side of the road.  We also drove past an elephant trekking business on the hill on the way up to the Big Buddha.  This did not surprise us at all.  We knew about it and expected it.  What was shocking for us was to see how many tourists who didn’t seem to give it a second thought and where quite happy to pay to take a photo with an elephant or ride one on an elephant trek.  It is really sad to see people do this with what seems to be an unconscious decision.


We know elephants are massive and it would be easy to think they can handle a few people riding on their back, but this is not the case.  Riding an elephant is very bad for it’s spine and groups of people sitting their backs all day long will cause serious damage over time.



If you are thinking of getting up close to an elephant or riding an elephant you should ask yourself is it safe.   Elephants appear to be gentle giants, but if things go wrong, I’m sorry to say you may not live to tell the tale.  They can weigh up to 5,000kgs.  So if you are somehow stuck in their path there is nothing you can do to stop it.  Here is an article about Scottish tourist Gareth Crowe thrown from an elephant and then trampled on.  Sadly, he did not survive.

This video of a women being flung into air by an elephant shows you just how much power they have.



While in Phuket I found it upsetting to see what was happening to the elephants.  Because so many people were taking part in these activities only meant this exploitation would continue.  In a way I felt helpless and kind of accepted that this is just the way it was.


It wasn’t until I watched a video from fellow travel blogger Lionel Swee that motivated me to write this article and contribute to raising an awareness on this issue. Lionel’s curiosity had him take a closer look at an elephant trekking attraction.  He sees an elephant tied up from it’s front and back legs.  Lionel found it difficult to continue to vlog after seeing this.  This is obvious to me after watching his videos for so long and then seeing his reaction in his video.  Lionel normally shares fun, light hearted videos.  But this experience was so shocking for him, he couldn’t include it in his regular vlogs.  He decided to make a short video dedicated to raising awareness on this issue titled “Stop Elephant Trekking!!! Please Spread the Word”.  So here I am Lionel. Spreading the word.

What I love about Lionel’s video is that he suggests other options like taking an ATV or a boat if you want to see the jungles of Thailand.  Hell, I say go for a walk in the jungle if you want to see the jungle.  But lets be real.  If you are on one of these elephant treks, you didn’t do it to see the jungles of Thailand.  You did it to ride an elephant, one of the largest animals on the planet.

Subscribe to Lionel’s channel ‘Living Like Lionel’ here.


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One of my favourite vloggers on YouTube, Christian LeBlanc has become very knowledgeable about this issue and is very close to releasing a documentary titled “Black Tusk”.  UPDATE – Black Tusk has been released and can be watched here.

He has travelled through most of South East Asia and has already created several videos related to this topic on his YouTube channel.  His channel is called Lost LeBlanc and these videos are definitely worth watching if you want to learn more about what’s going on in Thailand in relation to elephant tourism.

In this video Christian visits the Surin province of Thailand to help rescue two elephants that need to be transported to Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.  Sadly he discovers a park that has numerous elephants tied to chains.  It’s appalling!


Christian has also created some positive videos that highlight what is possible.  Check these out these videos to see what they do at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.


Subscribe to Christian’s channel Lost LeBlanc here.



This issue is totally about money!  Tourists need to change their behaviour in order to change the behaviour of these business owners.  Tourists must stop spending money on elephant shows and elephant trekking!  Instead, they should visit and support responsible, legitimate elephant sanctuaries.  Over time there will be shift in what is the best way to  profit from elephants.  Yes, the Thai business owners will need to profit from the elephants.  You may think this is a contradictory idea.  But at the end of the day these business owners will want to take care of themselves and their families.  If it becomes more profitable to run an elephant sanctuary, we will see a shift from the current business models to ones that provide elephants with a safe haven.  As well as provide future elephants protection from the inhumane practices that have been the norm in recent history.


There are organisations in Thailand working to prevent this treatment and protect elephants.  If you want to see elephants in Thailand I encourage you to do some research before visiting.  There are actually sanctuaries out there scamming tourists.  Unfortunately some have captured wild elephants and tamed them to allow human contact.  Some organisations helping elephants in Thailand I am aware of are Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Conservation Network.

So it is my hope that after reading this you will not feel the need ride an elephant or to see an elephant show.  Particularly if you are visiting Thailand where the problem is so wide spread.  I also hope that you avoid other tourist attractions around the world that may be treating animals poorly just to make a few dollars.

If you know of any other legitimate elephant sanctuaries tourists can visit with confidence, please comment below.

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Finally, A big thank you to Lionel Swee and Christian LeBlanc for inspiring me to write this article.


9 Responses

    1. Thanks for reading Calvin! If you can share it please do. The more people that become aware of this the more chance we have to change it.

  1. First of all, A BIG THANK YOU for this write up Elisa. As someone who is absolutely AGAINST elephant tourism, this blog post is a ray of hope. The videos you have included show the gory reality of how these animals are mistreated for entertainment purposes. As a wildlife lover, I have NEVER been on an elephant safari and I hate to see them domesticated when they can be in the wild. Shared this on twitter and I thank you for encouraging people to NOT pay for such shows!

  2. Elephants are my favourite animals and hearing about the treatment these poor animals receive to train them for humans to ride them or perform tricks. The saddest thing to read is The Crush, those poor baby elephants taken from their mothers is bad enough let alone in a confined space, it is just horrifying.

    Thank you for writing this article, and opening our eyes up the atrocities which happen to these innocent animals. Unfortunately it doesn’t stop with elephants, there are also many other animals cruelly treated.

  3. I nearly cried as you were describing the crush. I know that animal welfare where it involves elephants is an issue in Thailand, though like you mentioned, my approach is pretty much just :I won’t ride them”. I’m sure it would be shocking to see in person. I agree that the issue is rooted in money from tourism, so if we can spread as much awareness as possible, and put a stop to people spending money on this type of tourism, it would hopefully completely change.

    I do want to visit responsible, legitimate elephant sanctuaries when we make it to Thailand, so thankyou for your list of links.

  4. The plight of animals throughout the world is now coming under the spotlight. It is so important to research what you do, as you did, if you are going to interact with animals on your holiday. I find it appalling how they are treated for the most part in the attempt to make money. I am 110 percent behind those facilities like the Elephant Conservation Network, who have rescued animals and are rehabilitating them. They need all the support that they can get.

  5. Posts like these are so important. I shared my thoughts about animal tourism on my blog recently. In the past, I made a lot of mistakes, and it was because I did;t have the knowledge. I hate that a Culture show is using elephants. That’s so sad. Tourists do these things because they love animals and want an experience with them. I feel like if everyone knew the darkness of it, they’d stop giving these people their money. Thanks for doing your part.

  6. Just like you I had known nothing about this prior to my visit to Thailand. When I visited Chiang Mai, my lovely guide did tell about the atrocities that were being done in the name of tourism. It is a sad state of affairs. We were lucky that they took us to a nice sanctuary where the elephants are never bound and tied up and the baby ones are left to hang out with their moms. I hope tourists take a stand and avoid places like the Phuket Fantasea Show. I’ve heard the Tigers also go thru such tortures. Absolutely painful to watch those videos. But it’s great that there are bloggers like you who have taken the pain to write this down and share this. I hope we as humans can change this world for the better.

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