The Elephants of Southeast Asia

When I decided to visit Thailand, seeing Elephants was top of my wish list. But I was aware that many of the Elephant tourism opportunities were quite inhumane. I had no idea the scale of the problem. Before my trip I did a great deal of research and found one organisation that I believe genuinely has the animals’ best interests at heart – Elephant Nature Park. I had an amazing day experience there, which I cover in a separate post. I only wish I’d had longer to spend there. Here I would like to briefly explain what I found out about the Elephant industry in Southeast Asia. The Asian Elephant has suffered at the hands of humans in Southeast Asia for centuries. However, in recent years, as tourism in this region has boomed, things have taken a new twist. Countless tour agencies offer day trips and longer where you can ‘learn to be a mahout’, an ambition no welfare-conscious tourist should have. The trade of the Mahout is unbelievably cruel.

In the early 20th century, there were around one million wild Asian Elephants. Now they are listed as Endangered by the IUCN, and it is thought there may be as few as 25,000 left in the wild. In Thailand, a population of over 100,000 elephants has been reduced to just 2000 individuals. This shocking population collapse has been caused largely by loss of their forest habitat due to logging and human population expansion and illegal capture and trade to feed tourists hungry for that ‘authentic SE Asia experience”. Unfortunately, enough tourists out there want to ride elephants and watch them perform tricks. The elephant tourism industry is booming in Thailand.

The Birth of Elephant Tourism


Perhaps it began in 1988, when the Thai government banned commercial logging. Elephants, captured and domesticated to be put to work in the logging industry, were left ‘unemployed’ and their Mahouts struggling to make ends meet. Some Mahouts took to the cities, particularly Bangkok and Chiang Mai, where they forced their elephants to beg from tourists who took pity on the scared, drugged animals. Elephants are not well adapted to city life, either. They are often injured or killed in car accidents, they are left malnourished by their mahouts to reduce unpleasant excretions in the streets, they are denied baths that keep their skin healthy, and they are kept in horrible conditions. Other Mahouts found another way to extract money from the tourists – they trained their elephants to do tricks, and forced them to carry tourists around on their backs all day. The picture is similar in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, but on a much smaller scale – they have just tens or hundreds of elephants, not thousands. In Myanmar, until very recently wild elephants were being captured, tamed and smuggled into Thailand for the tourism industry. The capture process is unbelievably cruel. Tamed adults are used to herd wild individuals into pit traps. The old, tame elephant is often shot afterwards. New legislation brought in by the Thai government in 2012 curbed this trade, but smugglers continue to capture wild elephants and hold them in horrific conditions in the hope of resuming their former business. A recent study estimated that 81 live elephants were captured for sale into Thailand between 2011 and 2013, to be used primarily for tourist trekking camps. Tourists apparently prefer younger elephants, which has caused the value of calves to sky rocket. A single elephant calf could be worth nearly £20,000 – it’s no wonder so many people are willing to smuggle them. But it is us – western tourists craving that close-up elephant experience – who are creating that demand. Despite the ban, some elephants are still getting across the border into Thailand. Although captured animals can be seized if they are found attempting to cross the border, once the animal is in the country it becomes legally very complex. Elephants don’t have to be registered until the age of 8, either, providing a window of opportunity for smuggled baby elephants to be “laundered” into the legal population.

Other threats facing Asia elephant populations include habitat loss, ivory poaching and logging. Asian elephants have been used for labour across Southeast Asia for centuries, and to this day, elephants form a major part of the logging industry, particularly in countries like Myanmar. And as huge areas of forest have been cleared for timber, the elephant’s forest home has disappeared. Elephants need a great deal of space to roam, and shrinking forests have increased the frequency of elephant-human interactions. As elephants encroach on human settlements in search of food and water, they risk being shot or poisoned by scared locals.


A wild elephant would never let a human ride it. They must first be tamed. Tamed, in this case, is another word for having your spirit broken, for being psychologically damaged beyond repair, for having lost the will to live. The taming process in southeast Asia, known a Phajaan, or ‘the crush’ involves taking a baby elephant from it’s mother and confining it to a small space (often a cage or a hole in the ground), starving it, depriving it of sleep for days on end and beating the baby elephant with bull-hook covered clubs. Many elephant camps continue to use bull-hooks to control the adults, as well. Here, the Elephant’s fear of the bull-hook, based on it’s experience during Phajaan, is sufficient to force obedience and motivate them to work.


Captive elephants in southeast Asia also often suffer very poor health. The animals are overworked, underfed and beaten if they refuse to work. This can cause severe psychological damage to these intelligent beasts and they are frequently seen performing repetitive movements and displaying tics that indicate depression and are akin to self harm in humans. Riding Elephants is also very bad for them – their spines aren’t strong enough to carry a human and over time they sustain permanent and debilitating damage. Elephants forced to live in the city and beg can develop respiratory conditions from the pollution, and skin conditions from poor hygiene.

Not Too Late to Save the Asian Elephant

Although populations of the Asian elephant have declined by over 70%, it is not too late to save them. But we have to act now. Current projections suggest that wild Asian elephants will be extinct by 2020, unless we act to protect them. As tourists it is our responsibility to do the research and make the right decisions about what experiences to embrace, and which to let go of. If we can reduce this pressure on the Asian elephant, they stand a better chance of bouncing back.

Have you visited or volunteered at an ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Southeast Asia? If so I’d love to hear from you! Please tell me about your experiences in the comments section below :)

2 thoughts on “The Elephants of Southeast Asia

  1. Pingback: Travel Tips » The Top 100 UK Travel Blogs

  2. I’ve spent many hours observing Asian elephants in the Nilgiri Biosphere in southern India. They are such social creatures and, wherever you have a chance to see them in Asia, I reckon it’ll be highly rewarding. Here’s hoping people take steps to address the threats to their habit and existence.

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