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Tourists Care, But They Don't Always Know Best

Tourists, while well-intentioned, may not be the best drivers of change when it comes to elephant welfare in Thailand.


Ensuring better treatment for elephants in Thailand has become a hot topic of debate, with researchers and animal activists alike exploring how best to action change. Some studies have explored the impact of tourists' preferences on improving the welfare of elephants in tourism. When tourists witness poor treatment of elephants, they voice their concerns on travel review websites, dissuading others from visiting those particular elephant venues. This exerts economic pressure on these businesses, encouraging them to align their practices with what tourists want. But is this truly in the best interest of the elephants?

Here's the Catch…

Issue 1: Tourists Don't Always Know What's Best

What tourists believe is good for elephants doesn't always align with the knowledge of experts, such as veterinarians and mahouts (elephant handlers). For example, some tourists may criticize the use of chains, pictured above, claiming it makes elephants "look like prisoners" and calling for the use of ropes instead. However, what tourists might not be aware of is that using ropes can actually harm elephants, causing painful lacerations, infections, and serious injuries. Chains, on the other hand, are a safe and effective means of keeping elephants secure and preventing them from escaping or causing harm.

Issue 2: Safety Is a Big Concern

A similar dilemma surrounds the use of hooks, another subject of debate. While the use of hooks may appear harsh, they are vital tools for safely controlling elephants when used correctly. Mahouts, who work closely with the elephants, believe hooks are necessary not only for tourists' safety but for their own as well. In a recent study* it was discovered that hooks served multiple purposes, including checking musth secretions and guiding the elephants by hooking onto their ears. However, it is imperative to acknowledge that there are instances of mismanagement of elephants in the tourism industry. Inappropriate use, such as forceful hitting on the elephant's head, can lead to painful puncture wounds, fueling welfare concerns.

Therefore, the issue isn't the tools themselves. It's akin to a hammer—you can use it to build a house or to harm someone. The tool isn't inherently problematic; it's the manner in which it is used.

The Bottom Line

So, what's the bottom line? Tourists often have the best intentions, but their opinions don't always match what's best for the elephants. Using tourist opinions to set rules and standards for elephant welfare might not be the right approach.

In the end, the key is finding a balance between what tourists want and what's actually best for the elephants. It's a more complex issue than it might seem at first glance.

*Note: This article is based on a study conducted in 2022 by research student, Georgina Ashby, in collaboration with University of Kent and Chiang Mai University.


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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