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Riding Elephants in Thailand is a popular tourist attraction, and it might sound like a unique and fun experience on first consideration. I know for me it did, at least. Unfortunately, like many attractions featuring animals, their welfare is rarely the top priority, as quickly trained animals, not happy ones, become the means by which companies profit.

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Elephants represent many things in Thailand, often viewed as symbols of the king’s divine right to rule, of good luck, and even religious icons. But their treatment does not reflect the respect such symbolism deserves, much less what a living creature does.

“The people believe that to control the animal they have to do something to make the elephant feel fear and pain,” said Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, a well-known Chiang-Mai-based activist who runs Jumbo Express.

As Matthew Karsten explains after his journey into an elephant nature park:

Wild elephants won’t let humans ride on top of them. So in order to tame a wild elephant, it is tortured as a baby to completely break its spirit. The process is called Phajaan, or “the crush.” It involves ripping baby elephants away from their mothers and confining them in a very small space, like a cage or hole in the ground where they’re unable to move.

It is unfortunate that most people who do participate in elephant tourism in Thailand are simply unaware of what truly happens. Like many other animal driven tourist attractions, what goes on behind the scenes is rarely pretty, and spreading awareness like this can allow us to make more informed decisions moving forward. For those interested, you can also look into why circuses should be avoided because of animal cruelty.

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The video below shows how elephants are treated in Thailand for both the tourism and logging industries.

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