Elephants are enormous animals that are an enormous business for tourist destinations. Offering interactions such as shows, elephant rides, bathing or simply using them as photo props for selfies. World Animal Protection, an international non-profit animal welfare organization, has surveyed the tourism industry throughout Asia and counted over 3,800 captive elephants across many countries. The reality is, most of these elephants are kept in severely inadequate conditions, many with crippling medical conditions.

Thankfully, a shift has begun among informed tourists that have started to understand the deplorable nature of this industry. Research has even shown a growing awareness among tourists, that now believe practices like riding elephants and attending shows causes suffering.

Captive elephants put on a show. Credit: Milo Anderson / Milo’s Wildlife.

But instead of reducing the demand for elephant entertainment overall, this awareness has created a shift in popularity towards activities that are just as detrimental to elephants. Now the tourism industry is booming with options like bathing elephants or painting with elephants. Though these practices seem ‘softer’ than riding or performing – at their core they are just as exploitive and cause severe elephant suffering.

Together we can become elephant aware and learn how to avoid elephant abuse and help to end these barbaric practices. Additionally, we will identify elephant-friendly practices and organizations to support. Together we can work towards a better tourism industry for all wildlife!

Together we can work towards a better tourism industry for all wildlife!

Why is most elephant tourism so inhumane?

A common misconception about Asian elephants is that people think they have been domesticated, and that somehow, it’s alright to dominate control over them. The truth is elephants have never been selectively bred like livestock or dogs, they are NOT domesticated, even elephants born in captivity are still WILD animals.

In fact, many elephants in captivity have come directly from the wild, some even captured as babies. The indoctrination process for captive elephants is extremely brutal. Often the animal is caged and restrained for weeks while handlers beat it and force it to obey commands. This practice of elephant crushing, an effort to break their spirit making them submissive to humans, is a long-standing tradition in Thai culture. This cruel training method is often what elephants undergo to become part of the tourism industry.

However, this is not the only reason you should skip cruel elephant attractions. The reality is any facility that offers close contact with elephants must keep them controllable while paying tourists are near. This is done using a range of techniques, including the use of a bullhook- a metal tool used to jab sensitive areas, and by restraining them with chains. This is true both for captive Asian elephants, and the growing number of captive African elephants used within the safari tourism industry.

Captive elephants put on a show. Credit: Milo Anderson / Milo’s Wildlife.

4 tips to avoid supporting elephant abuse

1. Don’t Be Fooled by Names: Tourist venues might go by the name of sanctuary or rescue center, but do not automatically assume this means quality welfare. Be sure to “look before you book” to ensure the venue has the best interest of elephants at its center.

2. Natural Behaviors: Wild elephants spend their days roaming long distances searching for food and socializing with other elephants. If the elephants at the venue you are considering are not allowed to express natural behaviors in natural spaces, then go elsewhere.

3. Baby Boom: True elephant-friendly destinations do not allow breeding. Baby elephants are tourist magnets. If you can see or touch a baby elephant, especially without its mother, this operation does not value ethical care.

4. Keep Your Distance: Elephants are wild animals, and can be unpredictable and dangerous, make sure they are treated with respect. If you are allowed in close contact to touch and feed the elephants, ensure that these interactions are limited and not exploitive. Most elephants are cruelly trained to allow close interactions like these. Strive for elephant-friendly destinations that encourage guests to enjoy the elephants from a distance.

Nothing beats observing elephants in the wild!

Where to find ethical elephant destinations 

The best way to see elephants is to observe them ethically in the WILD. But there are a growing number of elephant-friendly options where tourists can help support an ethical shift in the industry. Some tour operators and venues that historically offered less humane interactions with elephants, have now evolved to a new model. Many now practice activities centered around visitors observing elephants acting naturally in humane settings.

To make finding these elephant-friendly options easier, World Animal Protection has developed a list of approved venues in Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, and Laos that are doing the right thing for elephants. These elephant-friendly venues provide quality care and respect for their elephants, while still providing jobs and a valuable income to local people, especially the elephant caretakers known as mahouts.


  • Elephant Nature Park
  • Following Giants
  • ChangChill
  • Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
  • Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary
  • Mahouts Elephant Foundation
  • Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
  • Tree Top Elephant Reserve Phuket


  • Elephant Valley Project


  • Tiger Tops


  • Mandalao Elephant Conservation

What can YOU do to help protect elephants from abuse 

Support only responsible tourism projects. Be elephant aware! Ensure the destinations you visit are reputable elephant-friendly facilities, or better yet observe elephants in the wild. Before, during, and after your travels identify places where tourists are educated about the importance of caring for elephants. Together we can work towards a better tourism industry for all wildlife!

Be sure to share your opinion! Help inform your friends, family, and colleagues of the importance of supporting ethical elephant care. Spreading awareness is the key to reducing exploitation and abuse of animals.

As an eco-tourist YOU have the power to make change for wild animals. When travelers like you decide to support only humane treatment of animals, the wildlife tourism market will change for the better. 

For more on elephants and ethical ecotourism, you can check out World Animal Protection’s complete Elephant Friendly Tourist Guide or learn 6 easy ways to be an ecotourist. Love African elephants? You might enjoy The day the elephants came to tea, a story from a wildlife reserve in Malawi.

About the Author

Milo’s Wildlife is a guide for worldwide travelers wanting to connect with nature. From years as an Environmental Educator, Milo has continued to help spark life-changing experiences with people and wildlife. He works to inspire and engage travelers to discover the natural world and help protect it in the process. During Milo’s travels, he has been able to connect with nature all over the globe and now he wants to guide others in their own wild journey for wildlife! Find out more at www.miloswildlife.com or follow @milos_wildlife.

Main image credit: Milo Anderson / Milo’s Wildlife.