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The Complexities of Elephant Riding: A Balanced Perspective

Photo by Walter Lange


Elephant riding is a controversial topic. A quick Google search of ‘elephant riding’ will come up with disturbing photos of a disfigured elephant claiming “this is what years of tourist rides do to an elephant” and attention-grabbing titles, such as The shocking truth about elephant riding in Thailand. There are countless articles, forums, blogs, and media posts condemning the practice citing cruelty and welfare concerns. 


While there is no doubt that in some circumstances elephant riding can cause welfare concerns, as with any activity involving elephants, if not done in a closely managed and controlled way. However, elephant riding in itself is not a black and white issue and it's essential to consider a nuanced perspective that goes beyond emotive claims. In this article we will delve into the complexities of elephant riding to explain that, when properly managed, it is not a cruel or harmful activity. Further, we will explore that the shift away from elephant riding has created unintended consequences that have actively harmed elephants and those working most closely with elephants, the mahouts.


Welfare Myths and Truths: Physical Wellbeing of Elephants


One of the most important - and arguably the most emotive - points in this discussion is elephant welfare. This point goes back nearly a decade where animal rights activists and NGOs made claims of the harmful nature of the activity. One of the arguments is that elephants' spines cannot support the weight of people and can lead to permanent spinal injuries. However, looking at the studies conducted by veterinarians and leading researchers in conservation there is a consensus that does not agree with this assertion. In fact, scientifically speaking looking at the bone structure, joint and feet composition of elephants is a clear indicator that this is simply not true.

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. A common trope is that elephant riding is comparable to humans carrying heavy backpacks, however the weight distribution on an elephant's back is fundamentally different. Elephants, being quadrupeds, distribute weight more stably and balanced than bipedal humans. For instance, if the average US man weighs 90.6 kg (199.7 lb) and a female elephant weighs an average of 3,465 kg (7,700 lb), the weight on the elephant's back is 2.6% of its body weight. Considering recent research finds that an elephant can carry up to 15% of its body weight one or two grown individuals riding an elephant will not cause harm.


Riding Equipment and Training: Saddles, Phajaan, and Positive Reinforcement


In regard to the comfort of elephants proper riding etiquette and equipment is essential. Elephant’s spines are shaped in a peak, whereas in some circumstances riding saddles are flat. This could lead to discomfort, blisters, and infections. To ensure the welfare of elephants during riding activities it is crucial to use properly cushioned saddles that do not apply pressure to the spine or, as done traditionally, riding on the neck of the elephant. As stated in Kongsawasdi et al.’s (2021)* study, further research is needed to test longer durations of riding on different types of terrain to develop appropriate working guidelines for captive elephants. ACES focuses on all the latest research and discussions within the field to ensure our guidelines are in line with the most current available information to ensure welfare of elephants in the camps we audit.

There is a high level of concern regarding how an elephant is trained to be ridden. Firstly, it should be noted that for all elephants under human care and with any elephant activity - be it riding, walking amongst tourists, bathing with tourists - there needs to be training. If concern is held for training regarding riding, then concern should be raised for any and all elephant activities. That is why proper well-managed training and husbandry is essential to elephant welfare no matter the circumstance as there is a high level of danger for tourists and mahouts when in close proximity to and when interacting with elephants.


A lot of information online talks about Phajaan or the ‘crushing’ of the spirit of the elephant, citing that it is a “long-standing accepted tradition in Thai culture” and that this training method “is what elephants undergo to become part of the tourism industry.” This is simply not true and is seen by the majority of mahouts and elephant owners as not only an outdated practice, but one that is completely unnecessary given elephants in the tourism industry are born in captivity. 


Breeding programmes, as seen in camps that have capacity for this, do not have a need for Phajaan or any other cruel training methods as elephants born in captivity have human/elephant interaction from the moment they are born. The more widely accepted training technique being used as standard practice is positive reinforcement and food. Young elephants learn to trust and bond with humans and relationships form and grow with their mahout and the herd. 


Benefits of Elephant Riding: Socialization, Stimulation, and Exercise


Are there any benefits to elephant riding? Surprisingly, yes. And has the shift away from riding caused any unintended consequences that have actively harmed the welfare of elephants? The unfortunate answer is also, yes.

The push to stop riding activities has led towards the popularization of elephant feeding, primarily involving bananas, as its replacement. However, this seemingly kind and harmless activity has had adverse effects - elephants staying in one place, being fed a high-sugar, high-carb diet, leading 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. 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. 

Elephant riding provides socialization, stimulation, and exercise. In captivity, where elephants may not have the same need to walk long distances to acquire food and water, daily exercise becomes paramount. Regular physical activity is essential for skeletal, digestive, foot, and joint health, and it also serves as a form of enrichment, reducing boredom and aggression, ultimately improving the overall welfare of captive elephants. 


The Mahout's Role: Benefiting Elephant Welfare Through Human Welfare


Traditionally, mahouts held respected and well-compensated positions in society, reflecting the specialized skills, experience, and physical strength required to work closely with elephants who are large, intelligent, and potentially dangerous animals. However, since the shift from elephants used in the logging industry to the tourism industry, there has been a decline in mahouts’ status and income. The proliferation of tourist attractions has driven down prices, forcing mahouts into precarious economic situations, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic where lack of tourism due to travel restrictions caused reduced wages.


An often overlooked aspect of elephant riding is the opportunity it provides for mahouts to share valuable insights about their profession with riders. Through engaging with riders, mahouts not only impart knowledge but also have the chance to earn extra income through tips. This financial incentive helps retain experienced and skilled mahouts, ensuring the best possible care for the elephants.


Conclusions: Is elephant riding misunderstood?


We hope this article has provided a new perspective for readers, or at the least provided information that is useful when deciding on which activities to engage in when visiting elephants. While concerns about the welfare of elephants during riding activities are valid, it's important to acknowledge that well-managed practices can provide benefits for both the elephants and their caretakers, the mahouts. Ultimately, those who are against riding and those who see the benefits of riding want the same outcome: what is best for the elephants to ensure they are happy, healthy, and well-taken care of when working in the tourism industry. Responsible elephant riding, coupled with proper care, exercise, and informative interactions, contributes to their overall well-being. It is crucial for all stakeholders, including camp operators, mahouts, and tourists, to prioritize ethical and humane practices to ensure a positive and sustainable future for elephant riding.



* 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). https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11082423

** 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. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0221537

*** 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. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204965 PMID: 30278087



NOTES TO EDITORS


For media inquiries, please contact:

Georgina Ashby, ACES, georgina@elephantstandards.com 


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 https://www.elephantstandards.com/

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