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From Elephant Activist to Elephant Pragmatist: Navigating the Complex Reality of Animal Welfare

[CHIANG MAI, NOVEMBER 2023] — From Elephant Activist to Elephant Pragmatist

My perspective on the treatment of elephants in captivity underwent a significant transformation  from a passionate elephant activist to a pragmatic advocate for animal welfare. When I decided to apply for my Master's degree in Wildlife Conservation, I knew I wanted to dedicate my research and thesis to the topic of improving the welfare standards of Asian elephants. I sympathised with the plight of elephants kept in captivity. I saw the images, videos, and stories online, shared them and warned people to keep away from certain types of elephant tourism venues - even before I ever went to Thailand to see an Asian elephant in person. I felt it was my duty as an animal activist to raise awareness of how awful elephants in captivity were being treated.

However, it wasn't until I immersed myself in Thailand for my research that the complexities of the issue became apparent and the experience challenged my preconceptions. I conducted on-the-ground research, engaging with mahouts, veterinarians, and owners of elephant tourism venues and realised that my previous approach to welfare activism was, in fact, misguided.

As I prepare to publish my thesis in early 2024, I would like to share my experiences in Thailand and how they have reshaped my perspectives on advocating for elephant welfare. I hope this helps other individuals who are also passionate about animal welfare to understand just how complex this topic is and that certain approaches to such activism can cause more harm than good.

Understanding the Mahouts' Perspective

Mahouts, who dedicate their lives to caring for elephants, face criticism and misunderstanding from well-intentioned activists and tourists. During my research one mahout passionately expressed, "I want to speak the truth, show the truth to foreigners. The real way of raising elephants. One should not speak in a negative light to damage the country. I don't want foreigners to change the culture of raising elephants. Because for us, it's part of the family, not just a business." 

Their commitment to the well-being of these animals often goes unnoticed, overshadowed by misconceptions about elephant care practices. The recurring theme was the necessity of tools like bullhooks and chains for the safety of the mahouts, the elephants and tourists.  One mahout explained to me, “I just want people to know that the elephants are big animals. And these bull hooks and these chains, for example, are used for safety reasons. If they're not necessary, they're not used. It's only for safety reasons.”

The Complexities of Elephant Riding

Addressing issues such as elephant riding is crucial and my conversations with mahouts unveiled unintended consequences. The shift away from riding led towards the popularisation of elephant feeding, primarily involving bananas. However, this seemingly kind and harmless activity has had adverse effects - elephants staying in one place, being fed a high-sugar, high-carb diet, leads to weight gain, increased stress and agitation. 

Aspects of this are explored in Bansiddhi et al.’s (2019)* study which examined the relationship of management factors and stress hormones in tourist camp elephants in Thailand. The results suggest that providing opportunities to exercise may be good for elephants under human care, as the majority of elephants under study had body condition scores indicative of being overweight or obese, and that a no riding, no hook policy does not necessarily guarantee good welfare.

Contrary to common belief, well-managed elephant riding can be done safely, without causing harm or stress to the elephants. Kongsawasdi et al.’s (2021)** study examined the impact of weight on joint kinematics in elephants used for riding. It was found that carrying 15% of body mass of the elephant does not cause significant changes in elephant gait patterns, or in other words carrying two people does not cause elephant physical distress. In fact, in a related study by Norkaew et al. (2018)*** it was found that exercise in the form of riding was associated with lower stress hormones and healthier metabolic profiles. 

Addressing the Practical Consequences

The shift in tourist preferences, while well-intentioned, has led to new challenges.This highlights the need to think practically about the consequences of perceived "solutions" and understanding that it is too simplistic to assume that all tourist activities are universally bad for elephants.  Organisations like ACES play a crucial role in bridging the gap between the tourism industry and captive elephant welfare, allowing tourists to feel confident when choosing an elephant tourist venue to visit. 

My journey from an idealistic elephant activist to a pragmatic advocate has taught me the importance of collaboration, cultural sensitivity, and practical solutions in the realm of elephant welfare. As I prepare to publish my thesis, I hope to contribute to a nuanced dialogue that respects the dedication of mahouts, acknowledges the cultural significance of elephants, and ensures the well-being of these incredible animals in practical and sustainable ways.

* Bansiddhi P, Brown JL, Khonmee J, Norkaew T, Nganvongpanit K, Punyapornwithaya V, et al. (2019) Management factors affecting adrenal glucocorticoid activity of tourist camp elephants in Thailand and implications for elephant welfare. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0221537.

** Kongsawasdi, S.; Brown, J.L.; Boonprasert, K.; Pongsopawijit, P.; Wantanajittikul, K.; Khammesri, S.; Tajarernmuang, T.; Thonglorm, N.; Kanta-In, R.; Thitaram, C. (2021) Impact of Weight Carriage on Joint Kinematics in Asian Elephants Used for Riding. Animals 1 (2423).

*** Norkaew T, Brown JL, Bansiddhi P, Somgird C, Thitaram C, Punyapornwithaya V, et al. Body condition and adrenal glucocorticoid activity affects metabolic marker and lipid profiles in captive female elephants in Thailand. (2018) PLoS One 13(10):e0204965. PMID: 30278087


For media inquiries, please contact:

Georgina Ashby, ACES, 

About ACES

Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES) is the independent, reliable and transparent link between the tourism industry and captive elephant welfare. Our camp guidelines were developed in 2015 and after much consultation we developed in 2023 a set of over 225 strict camp criteria. All criteria have been independently validated by international specialists in elephant management, veterinary care and animal welfare. Our goal is to ensure Asian elephant welfare while meeting the needs of the community and tourism stakeholders.

For more information, please visit

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