Elephants in captivity are an ethical concern in the tourism industry. Rapid growth in tourism, coupled with inadequate regulations, can encourage poor treatment and practices that threaten the survival of these amazing wild creatures. Fortunately, hardworking and dedicated camp owners, scientists and travel providers are fighting back to provide excellent care and experiences.

Educationally elephant experiences, therefore, can be powerful learning activity assisting students to explore issues of animal rights, conservation, history, and local economy. As with any educational issue there are no cut and dry answers to complex questions.

Buffalo Educational Travel has been working with PATA, Travelife and ASEAN Captive Elephant Working Group to ensure we can give you the best recommendations when planning an educational elephant experience. To help you make the right choice, please consider the following questions when making your programme plans.

Are you willing to pay enough money?

It costs money to maintain a good quality of life for elephants. Food, land, medical care, specialized well-trained staff. It all costs.

The old saying applies “you get what you pay for”. The lower the entrance fee the possibility of lower standard care increases. Lower entrance fees may mean higher volumes of tourists, lower quality of experience and harder life for the elephants.

More expensive camps tend to limit numbers, giving improved visitor experience and quality of life for the elephant.

Is riding elephants ok?

This is a very controversial question, and you can get very different answers depending on whom you ask.

Before making your decision please consider that elephant rides “…often serve as the main attraction for elephant camps. The profit generated from rides is frequently used to purchase supplies for the elephants’ care, so banning them from camps could ultimately be detrimental to their livelihood.” (PATA)

If you do ride please follow the recommendations from elephant experts at Chiang Mai University, Thai Elephant Conservation Centre and ASEAN Captive Elephant Working Group.

  • rides should be short, about 30 minutes
  • the total workday for the elephants should be less than 5 hours
  • rides should be through a forest or other natural landscapes with shade (elephants can get sun burn)
  • elephant saddles should not apply pressure to the spine
  • elephant saddles should be adequately cushioned to prevent abrasions
  • two people maximum in a saddle
  • total weight on back less than 10% of the elephant’s body weight
  • elephants have time to rest, eat and drink between rides
  • rides are constantly supervised by trained mahout

Is it better to do other activities like feeding, bathing or walking with elephants?

Hmm, that is a tough question. We may feel that those activities are better for the elephant than riding, and properly done, they could be. But, we do need to be cautious.

First, please consider that you are likely reading this as you are planning an elephant experience for your students. As with any student activity we must assess risks.

Risks increase with more direct contact with elephants. Riding done right is the easiest for a mahout to manage and control. Feeding, bathing and walking beside elephants can be less manageable. If you do other activities please consider the following

  • if feeding, make sure there is adequate double fencing between you and the elephant and is strong and wide enough to prevent being pulled by the trunk
  • if feeding, make sure that the elephants are receiving a balance diet – not just bananas and sugar cane
  • if bathing, make sure there are not more than 5 people per elephant with a minimum 1 mahout to supervise
  • if bathing, make sure the amount of interaction time with tourists is monitored and limited to twice a day
  • if walking, with elephants make sure the animals have been carefully selected for the activity and that there are safety briefs about how, when and what to do when approaching the animals
  • if walking with elephants, make sure the mahout is properly trained for the activity and knows the elephant well

How can I learn more?

First, please get in touch with our BET team. Graham has been assisting PATA, Travelife and ASEAN Captive Elephant Working Group for many years, and is able to provide experienced suggestions.

Second, there is a good web article by Trip Advisor based on PATA research that gives a great deal more details. We suggest you read How to be a Responsible Traveler when Visiting an Elephant Attraction in the Asia Pacific Region

Finally, Travelife will be conducting audits of all the elephant camps we work with throughout Asia and provide in-depth reports on the conditions. Keep checking in with us and we will be pleased to share the findings with you to help make the most informed, and responsible decision.

Should I do an elephant experience with my students?

Yes! Done right it can be a powerful learning experience helping your students to connect a variety of competing issues. Responsible, well-managed elephant camps also provide excellent care and homes for these truly amazing creatures. In this way, you can ensure your educational travel helps your students, and elephants.