Elephants Facts and Myths

Elephants are majestic and easily captivate our imaginations and our hearts. Some people watch an emotional 30 second video of facebook and feel their passion makes them experts of elephants. But if we are to protect elephants it’s very important to understand facts such as their biological needs, history, legal status and cultural context.  In Thailand elephants are endangered and in a precarious uncharted situation between wild and domestic animals. This section of our site is dedicated to providing guests and volunteers knowledge to be effective elephant activists.  


WILD ELEPHANTS: Habitat Destruction

From Naka Elephant Foundation

The range of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) not so long ago covered a vast reach from northeastern China to nearly the shores of the Mediterranean. That range has diminished to less than 15% and within it the territory occupied by elephants is now less than the size of Spain. Numbers have fallen dramatically with no more than 50,00 elephants surviving. Habitat destruction is undoubtedly the greatest threat facing wild elephants throughout the region. Deforestation sometimes comes from logging, sometimes by rapidly growing human populations clearing land for agriculture, but the result is the same for elephants: the loss of their home. Most past logging was done by capturing wild elephants and then training them to drag logs, ironically forcing elephants to contribute to their own ruin. Clearing forests for agriculture by inevitably leads to elephants raiding crops and then to the farmers’ retribution, resulting in many dead and injured elephants. Habitat destruction also leads to fragmented, isolated populations and the subsequent danger of inbreeding.

Captive Elephants: Providing welfare

The capture and taming of Asian elephants began at least 4,000 years ago, and until recently captive elephants numbered many hundreds of thousands. Working elephants, nearly all of them captured in the wild, were so plentiful that they were often treated as if they were expendable. In several years in the 1930s in Burma, for example, teak wood was at an astronomical price, and during those years, the death rate of elephants — from overwork — soared. Today, however, Asia has only about 13,000 captive Asian elephants in 11 countries. Populations everywhere are in dire straits, and in some countries, especially Vietnam and Cambodia, they are in danger of extinction. The ideal solution from a conservationist’s and animal lover’s point of view would be simply to return all captives, or at least most of them, back to the wild. (While many animals, cheetahs and orangutans for example, are notoriously difficult to “reintroduce” back to the wild, many if not most captive Asian elephants would survive when freed into good natural habitat.) That elegant situation is impossible, however, simply because there is next to no intact natural habitat uninhabited by humans.


Ethical Tourism

Over the last few years, Western media have launched a glut of television shows and news stories implying or even flatly stating that to visit an elephant camp — particularly camps that offer rides, shows, or mahout training — is to be complicit in abuse or even torture. If that camp uses chains, hobbles, and saddles and if the camp’s mahouts use elephant hooks that crime is seen as even worse.

The media’s horror stories have been mostly about Thailand, but more can be expected soon from our neighbor Myanmar as it opens up to tourism. Other South and Southeast Asian countries have far fewer tourists so they suffer much less “bad press”, but those countries will soon attempt to encourage tourism as an alternative to the traditional work types, logging and transportation, as they are lost to the environmental destruction that inevitably comes with “development”.

Thoughtful tourists trying to decide whether visiting an elephant camp is ethically acceptable should consider the situation of elephants in Thailand today. The country is no longer the quiet backwater of fifty years ago sleepily continuing its age-old ways. In 2016 over 30 million tourists will visit Thailand, a country of only 67 million people. Many millions of these visitors will want to see an elephant, and there are a hundred or more camps of various sizes ready to accommodate them.

Many sensitive Westerners conscious of animal rights and welfare will jump to the conclusion that elephant camps are bad and that the only ethical response is to boycott them. The problem is that soul-searching Westerners probably constitute less than 5% of the tourists who will see elephants. They are greatly outnumbered by tourists from countries where very few people are animal lovers or conscious of animal welfare, much less animal rights. Examining the top 20 tourist arrivals in Thailand by nationality in 2015, the first country on the list is China, numbering 7,934,791. Over 16 million people from other Asian countries visited Thailand before you reach the first European nation, the UK with just under one million visitors. The vast majority of Asian tourists want to see shows — the tackier the better — and to take rides and feed elephants by hand. Most tourists also want their visits to be as cheap as possible, forcing many camps “squeeze” or “sweat” their elephants, working them far too hard.

So if people choose to boycott elephant camps (or even to visit one of the “boutique camps”) they are ignoring a larger problem. Boycotting elephant camps and feeling good about it provides no consolation or help to the vast majority of elephants in less than ideal camps. A further twist is that because tourism is basically the only legal form of work in Thailand — where over 95% of the elephants are privately owned — it is only tourism that can provide the money that owners need to care for their animals.

Clearly, the problems facing Thai elephants and their owners and handlers — and the thoughtful tourists considering visits — are exceedingly complex. Jumping to snap judgments (“All elephant camps are cruel and evil!”) is simplistic and not doing the elephants any good.


Most people who criticize and even vilify elephant tourism camps focus on two activities of traditional keeping, shows and rides, and two pieces of equipment, chains and elephant hooks. Most critics come from countries which have elephants confined in zoos, fortresses where the elephants are separated from the public by millions of dollars of walls and moats and where elephants are controlled by hydraulic gates and chutes. Clearly, massive enclosures are a luxury which Asian countries do not have and cannot afford. Further, zoo enclosures can be argued as worse for elephants then being on a long chain in a natural environment where they get lots of exercise and can feed on a wide variety of fresh wild plants.

These activities and tools should be analyzed before condemning them. They are not the pure torture they are often painted to be.

Shows and Performances

Shows and performances in Thailand are often targeted as cruel and abusive by the drama-loving media and by animal rightists. There are undeniably some bad shows where elephants are made to do headstands and to stand or walk on two hind legs. Insult is added to injury when elephants perform in “circussy” shows that make them appear comical. Some show — and hopefully increasingly more in the future — are educational. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center, for example, has a performance that skillfully demonstrates traditional logging techniques. Elephant painting has become common in Thailand and while some people leap to criticize it, if painting is properly taught and supervised, no harm is done. Ironically, in some US zoos elephants are taught and encouraged to paint as “behavioral enrichment.”

Not only Thailand has been criticized for shows. Some shows in Indonesia on the island of Java have provoked anger. In India circuses are being eliminated and in India and Sri Lanka many elephants are used in religious ceremonies and processions that often provoke elephants to go on a rampage.

The content and nature of shows cannot easily be controlled by laws and regulations so very little can be done to change them. Boycotts might seem a suitable response but the fact is that the sort of people likely to join boycotts are a very small part of the market.

Elephant Rides

By far the largest traditional form of employment for elephants — far larger than the more dramatic and publicized logging — was transportation, moving both goods and people. Hundreds of thousands of elephants worked as draft animals in Thailand, Myanmar and most other range states. Elephants were used much like horses in Europe and were particularly useful in the rainy season because of their uncanny ability to walk easily through mud or swamps. In modern times, rides take two forms: traditional rides on a saddle and a new innovation, “mahout training” or riding the elephant bareback.

Like other traditional practices, rides do no harm so long as they are properly supervised:  carefully limited loads, limited hours, good shade, and well-designed saddles harnessed by skillful mahouts. Just like the use of horses as ride and pack animals in the West, it all depends on how it is done. A healthy elephant can safely and comfortably carry two average adults over reasonable distances. The problem is bad camps. There are camps in Pattaya, Thailand, for example, where elephants are worked far too many hours. Nearly all the visitors are Chinese on very cheap tours, and the mahouts are paid low wages but receive a “bonus” for every ride given. Working elephants for too many hours means not just exhaustion but also less time for feeding — elephants feed as many as 18 hours a day — and that in turn leads to malnourishment.


Chains are often presented as bad and sometimes as pure evil. In fact, in Asia things are not that simple.  First, chains are needed to protect humans from elephants because there are no alternatives, such as expensive permanent enclosures. Unlike the West, Asia’s elephants are often on the move and often mingle very closely with people, including tourists. Further, chains are often needed to protect elephants from other elephants who would attack them if left free. Chains also prevent elephants from raiding the crops of farmers, a boon to the elephants’ owners and even to elephants, forestalling farmers’ retribution.

Second, outsiders often misunderstand how chains are used in Asia. Many critics automatically assume that chains always fix the elephant in one point and that therefore an enclosure would be better. In much of Asia, however, elephants are tethered with long chains of up to 25-30 meters, especially at night. Chains enable elephants to be constantly moved to new natural food sources and to feed within a large circle defined by the length of the chain. The chained elephant is much better off than a chain-free elephant confined in a small pen, because in a pen the only option is to throw in food — often stale and poor quality — and shovel dung out. Elephants become very adept at walking with their chains and thus long chains paradoxically provide a considerable amount of freedom.

The use of chains in Asia is very complex, and to condemn them as invariably bad is to dangerously oversimplify. Skillfully used chains benefit elephants

The Elephant Hook or Bullhook

Throughout much of Asia, mahouts carry an elephant hook, usually called just “hook.” In classical literature it was often called “ankus”, an ancient Egyptian word, and in US zoos and circuses it is called “bull hook”. The hook is a wooden stick with a pointed, curved piece of metal at the end. The much maligned hook looks like a cruel and dangerous weapon, but if used by a good mahout, the hook causes no harm. It is a tool for guidance, not an instrument of torture.

The hook has two primary purposes. First, it is used to gently touch key pressure points on the elephant’s body, points based on the elephant’s nerve network and carefully refined over many centuries. Touching the right point, often in tandem with a voice command, will cause the animal to turn left or right, kneel, stop, stand still and many other actions. The second use of a hook is simply to extend the mahout’s reach, effectively making his arm longer. When sitting on the neck he can tap the middle of the back, signaling the elephant to lay down on its belly. When the mahout is on the ground he can put the hook over the elephant’s ear and lightly tug to signal it to the ground.

While harmless in the hands of a competent mahout, misuse of hooks is indisputably bad. In nearly all Asian countries today the quality of mahouts is rapidly declining, and some countries, including Thailand, are plagued by totally inexperienced farm boys being hired as full mahouts. (In the past they would have had to work for many years as an assistant before getting their own elephant.) Violence often follows with frustrated mahouts injuring elephants and with elephants killing mahouts — and sometimes even killing tourists.

In camps where you do not witness active abuse of the hook, the best way to gauge whether the camp practices competent use of the hook is simply to look at the elephants’ foreheads. In Asia mahouts spend most of their time on the neck, so if the forehead is free of fresh, bloody pockmarks, hook use is almost surely acceptable. Read more