Elephants Are Put Through Hell so Tourists Can Ride Them

19 min read

The only way to force elephants to give rides or perform tricks is through violence and domination. So it should be no surprise when they snap and strike back. Countless humans and other animals have sustained injuries and even been killed because of what cruel tourist attractions compel them to do. Take a look at some of the most recent and shocking incidents and learn how you can help end the abuse.

Update (November 7, 2023): In September 2023, news outlets reported that a man and a woman from Utah had sustained serious injuries due to a terrifying elephant ride in Thailand. They spent weeks in a Thai hospital with broken backs before they returned to the U.S. for further medical treatment.

The elephant was one of many forced to give rides to tourists. After the couple mounted his back with a trainer, he quickly became agitated. He threw the trainer off, then began to endanger other people. After he knocked over someone on a moped, the couple decided to jump down. They broke their backs in the fall, and he attacked the man, who was lying on the ground.

The couple’s injuries continue to require extensive surgery and physical therapy.

Update (December 15, 2022): On October 24 in Jaipur, India, an elephant named Gouri attacked Roop Narayan Koolwal, a local shopkeeper, leaving him with severe injuries, including fractured ribs. Gouri grabbed the man with her trunk and threw him on the road as people tried to rescue him.

Gouri was being taken to Amer Fort, a tourist destination where elephants are forced to toil all day hauling humans around on their backs, often in dangerous heat. Locals reported that she has a history of violence toward humans. A fact sheet from PETA India points out that this is only the latest in a string of incidents that have put tourists in harm’s way or caused human deaths around Amer Fort.

PETA India is calling on government officials to end the use of elephants for rides and instead embrace eco-friendly electric vehicles. All elephants used for rides need to be sent to rehabilitation centers, where they can live unchained in the company of other elephants.

Update (May 14, 2021): It’s not just rides that need to end—you should never interact with elephants at all. Case in point: A tourist in Thailand was killed while trying to feed one at a roadside attraction that’s apparently connected to the Jungle House Hotel in Pak Chong. The tragic incident was caught on camera.

Elephants at this tourist trap are exploited for feedings and other encounters, which PETA has repeatedly pointed out are dangerous for humans and elephants. Those used in direct-contact activities have been “trained” into complacency—they’re abused until their spirits are broken and they’re willing to obey their trainers in order to avoid pain. However, as this incident and the laundry list of others mentioned below demonstrate, humans who interact with the large, powerful, willful animals are often injured or killed.

In addition to avoiding elephant encounters, you can take more action for elephants forced to participate in feeding interactions: Speak up for Lou, Carol, and Patty.

Update (March 24, 2021): On Monday, spectators at a circus in Russia panicked as two seemingly distressed elephants rushed the crowd, creating chaos among audience members and provoking a subsequent outcry from animal rights activists—including those at PETA.

This video footage shows one elephant knocking the other to the ground—and a persistent, aggressive conflict ensues. “[T]he pandemic and the lack of socialising with viewers have of course affected the animals,” the circus’ staff tried to claim, but we know better. “Science tells us that the complex needs of animals can never be met in a circus environment, so it’s hardly surprising when they ‘snap’ after years of being restrained and abused by cruel trainers,” PETA U.K. Director Elisa Allen said in response to the incident.

In addition, an eyewitness at a different Russian circus reported constantly hearing the sound of “slaps, hits, screams, groans and shrieks of animals in pain” while walking around the circus’ grounds. PETA President Ingrid Newkirk has also shared her own observations, including seeing animals in circuses with cigarette burns and others being beaten with metal bars.

We don’t need more tragic incidents to remind us that forcing animals to perform is exploitative and unacceptable—we’ve known this all along. Join PETA in speaking out for these animals, who have always deserved to be left in peace:

Update (March 2, 2021): An elephant at a Spanish zoo fatally knocked a male worker’s head against the bars of her enclosure—another tragic, avoidable reminder that elephants are dangerous animals who should be left alone.

“We’re talking about unpredictable animals,” admitted local tourism chief Javier Lopez Marcano. “The force of the strike was tremendous, of a magnitude that one could not survive.”

The fatality serves as an important warning to anyone considering visiting a roadside zoo or any exploitative operation promoting itself as an animal “rescue” or “sanctuary”: Never ride, bathe, paint, take photos with, or otherwise interact with elephants or any other wild or exotic animals. If a business uses bullhooks, breeds animals, or offers rides or any sort of close contact between humans and animals, it’s surely not a true sanctuary. Learn more about telling the difference between real elephant sanctuaries and abusive exhibitors.

Update (February 13, 2020): At least 17 people were injured after two elephants apparently got spooked and stampeded through a crowded religious procession in Sri Lanka, according to reports. Festivalgoers can be seen and heard running and screaming as one elephant charges through the busy street.

The person who’d been riding on the elephant’s back appears to have been thrown to the ground. Injured people—some bleeding, some seemingly unconscious—were carried to ambulances. But while the incident is indeed tragic, it’s hardly surprising: Many elephants kept in captivity become neurotic, unhealthy, depressed, and aggressive as a result of the inhumane conditions in which they’re kept. Please, if you travel to India, South Africa, Thailand, or any other country with elephants, never support any venue that forces them to give rides or perform tricks.

Update (January 16, 2020): Video footage has emerged showing a 15-year-old elephant named Myan Prince crying out while being beaten by his handlers, who used sticks that were reportedly sharp to inflict pain on him. The elephant can be seen chained and lying on his side in a pool throughout the violent attack, which occurred at a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. A handler also sat on the elephant—who was still chained and on his side in the pool—to pose for a photo, allegedly to taunt those who spoke out against the abuse.

Myan Prince belongs with his family in his natural home—he should be free. Instead, he’s chained to a tree and whipped mercilessly by his captors.

Update (September 24, 2019): Last month, photos showing a starving, elderly elephant named Tikiri caused outrage online—she was so emaciated that you could see her bones. Now, after decades of captivity, she’s reportedly dead.

In August, it was revealed that Tikiri’s owner put her in a costume to hide her emaciated body and forced her to walk in festival parades in Sri Lanka, sparking a public outcry. She was removed from the festival and reportedly received treatment. Tikiri’s suffering was the result of the exploitation and abuse that elephants at tourist traps and in temples are commonly subjected to.

Only in death is Tikiri free.

It’s too late for Tikiri, but it’s not too late to help other elephants like her. Check out these four simple actions that you can take to help countless captive elephants:

  1. Never ride, bathe, feed, or touch elephants.
  2. Boycott circuses that use animals.
  3. Don’t “like” Instagram photos of people riding elephants.
  4. Take a stand for these awe-inspiring animals with PETA’s rapid-action function.

Originally published on August 14, 2019: 

Photos shared on Facebook on Tuesday, August 13, showing a starving 70-year-old elephant named Tikiri caused a massive outcry, which led to modest progress for her.

Tikiri’s body was reportedly being hidden under a colorful costume, as seen above, so that folks watching the parades that she was forced to walk in wouldn’t witness her shocking gauntness. Her owner pulled her from the Esala Perahera—a 10-day festival of parades in the city of Kandy in Sri Lanka—following the backlash, and she’s apparently receiving treatment.

If you’re as upset about Tikiri’s treatment as the hundreds of folks who commented online are, there’s only one thing to do: Never support any venue that forces elephants to give rides or perform tricks.

In May, disturbing footage emerged showing a baby elephant collapsing, apparently from exhaustion, at a captive-animal attraction in eastern Thailand.

The video, which was reportedly taken by a tourist, shows that the calf was tied to his mother—via a chain connected to a rope around his neck and one around her neck—while she was forced to give rides to tourists. “He’s tired!” one spectator cried when the calf fell to the ground. According to the Daily Mirror, temperatures in eastern Thailand soared to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit on the day of the incident. “There are many more baby elephants tied with their mother walking around with tourists [on] their backs enjoying … the heat of the sun while these elephants are suffering,” the tourist who recorded the heartbreaking event told DailyMail.com.

In April, footage showing a malnourished-looking baby elephant being forced to perform tricks at a zoo in Phuket, Thailand, went viral.

At the zoo, the young elephant was made to kick around a soccer ball, twirl hula-hoops, balance on podiums, and do other demeaning, unsafe acts—often while carrying a handler on his back. On April 13, not long after the footage was released, the elephant’s back legs reportedly snapped while he was doing a trick. His legs were broken for three days before he was taken to a hospital, according to reports. While he was receiving treatment, it was discovered that he “had an infection that resulted in constant diarrhea, which caused other health complications, including the fact that his body was not absorbing nutrients as it should, which made him very weak,” reported a veterinarian. He died a week later on April 20.

Anyone who books an excursion involving captive elephants bears some of the responsibility for the merciless cycle of abuse that they endure.

Please, take a stand for these awe-inspiring individuals.

Drona—a 37-year-old captive elephant forced to participate in religious parades—collapsed and died on April 26 at a camp in Karnataka, India. The heartbreaking moment was captured on video. In the footage below, Drona can be seen shivering and tugging at the chains wrapped around his ankles. Camp workers, who claim that they unsuccessfully called for veterinary help, doused him with water using small buckets. But the 4-ton animal fell to his side and died. Veterinarians will reportedly carry out a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

(Warning: graphic footage)

Sally G. had wanted to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand for some time. The nearly 70-year-old woman had been captivated by elephants’ “intelligence, empathy and strong family relationships,” according to her op-ed published in The Guardian in April. But when she finally visited a place calling itself a “sanctuary” just outside Bangkok, it was hardly the experience she’d anticipated. Handlers’ use of bullhooks was the first obvious sign that the facility she’d chosen was not a legitimate sanctuary. Then she was permitted to ride one of the elephants, Boonsri, who Sally described as “an old girl with a sad air.” There’s nothing natural about making an elephant carry a human on her back—abusive training methods and deprivation are often used in order to force the animals to let tourists ride, feed, touch, or bathe them. Then, on day two of Sally’s faux-sanctuary gig, Boonsri panicked and began shaking her head, knocking Sally to the ground and crushing her ribcage. The elephant lifted her leg from Sally’s body seconds after stomping on her.

“The commotion continued and I could see the mahout [handler] beating the elephant. I protested so he took her out of sight,” said Sally.

Ironically, Sally had wanted to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary after hearing of the heartbreaking reality that elephants used for tourism face. With perhaps a bit more research, she wouldn’t have supported one of these tourist-duping facilities. If you care about animals and want to support rescue efforts, be sure to determine if a place is a real sanctuary before visiting.

In April, two elephant handlers reportedly fell asleep after drinking alcohol during a temple festival in Kerala, India, and “forgot” to feed the captive elephant in their care. Rajasekharan, the elephant—who had been forced to take part in the festival—snapped, attacking one handler (who was hospitalized with serious injuries) before killing the second, according to reports. The horrifying incident was caught on video (warning: graphic content). “We suspect that the attacks were a manifestation of [his] anger [at] being subjected to starvation,” said a local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) spokesperson. Rajasekharan was reportedly tranquilized by SPCA staffers, but it was unclear what would become of the abused elephant.

A video published on Twitter in late March showing handlers in Kerala, India, abusing a captive elephant has sparked outrage online, and it’s easy to see why. In the footage (below), multiple handlers use long sticks to beat the chained elephant, who becomes so exhausted and injured that he or she collapses to the ground. The handlers continue the beating, jabbing the elephant’s legs, even as his or her head falls to the ground. Blow after blow rains down, even when the animal lies unmoving on the ground. This is the type of cruelty that elephants used in tourist industries endure. They’re forced into giving rides or performing tricks through physical and psychological abuse. But helping them is easy—never ride an elephant. And never book an excursion that involves captive animals. Click here to do more to help end this merciless cycle of abuse.

A mahout (handler) was “seriously injured” on March 23 at a captive-elephant camp in the Idukki district of Kerala in India. The owner of the camp reportedly told police that the mahout had been involved in a road accident, but officials have confirmed that he was injured after being attacked by an elephant. After the incident, he was rushed to a nearby hospital, according to a report. No details about the elephant have been released. In January 2017, a person was trampled to death by a captive elephant at the same camp.

On March 3, elephant handler Arun Panikkar died after beating a captive elephant and falling underneath the animal while trying to force the elephant to lie down. After Panikkar slipped and fell, the elephant sat, reportedly crushing the handler’s head. A nearby colleague forced the elephant to stand up (by beating the animal with a stick), but by the time he was able to drag Panikkar’s body out, it was too late.

Also in March, an elephant named Malti and another captive elephant—who were reportedly being forced to give illegal tourist rides—began clashing with each other, a sign of serious psychological distress. Their handlers whacked them with sticks and shouted at them in an attempt to break up the fight. In response to the incident, which was caught on camera, PETA India sent a letter to local authorities demanding that Malti—who has a documented history of being abused and neglected—be rescued immediately and is imploring people who visit India not to ride an elephant.

On February 19, two Italian tourists were thrown from an elephant’s back while at a tourist attraction in Phang-Nga, Thailand. One was gored by the spooked elephant’s tusk. The other sustained a broken leg and reportedly complained of chest pain. According to reports, the elephant’s mahout was also injured and has been charged with a reckless act causing serious injury. This is another tragic reminder that elephants—and other animals—are not ours to use.

ร่วมกู้ชีพภูงา รับ นทท. 2 ราย ช้างสะบัดตกหลังช้างและโดนช้างเสียบ ไส้ทะลัก 1 ราย อีกราย ขาหัก ส่วนควาญช้าง เจ็บหลังเล็กน้อยพิกัดสองแพรก นำส่ง รพ.พังงา#หน่วยกู้ภัยวัดเก่าเจริญธรรม

Posted by บีคุงก์ พสกนิกร ราษฏรพังงา on Monday, February 18, 2019

On February 7, 19-year-old Nichanat Manucham tried to take a photo with Phan Thong, a captive elephant who was being used in a county fair parade in Surin, Thailand. The animal then wrapped his trunk around the woman’s leg. In the video below, the elephant—who appears spooked and agitated—can be seen running through a market with the woman clinging to his tusk. Another person can be seen riding on the elephant’s back during the entire incident. According to the Daily Mail, the weather was hot and the fair was loud, which could have contributed to the elephant’s distress. “I love elephants and I was standing close to the procession to take a picture,” Manucham reportedly said. But—as the long list of incidents below prove—elephants should never be exploited for human entertainment or any other reason. Please, if you love elephants, don’t support industries that abuse them.

A captive elephant was forced to take part in a housewarming party on February 8 in Kerala, India. During the function, which was packed with people, the elephant panicked and began to run. Two elderly guests were trampled and killed during the chaos that ensued, and nine others were injured. The elephant—Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, who is typically used in temple ceremonies—was reportedly brought to the function by the homeowner, who is believed to be associated with a nearby temple. Ramachandran is well known in India and is reportedly the tallest elephant in Kerala. He has been used in numerous festivals and ceremonies and was featured in the 2016 documentary Gods in Shackles, which exposed the “dark side” of Kerala’s exploitation of elephants. He has reportedly killed at least 10 other people since 1988, including multiple mahouts—yet the nearly blind captive elephant is still being forced to entertain.

According to reports, an elephant trampled a mahout on Sunday, January 13—”seriously injuring him“—at an elephant camp in India. The elephant, 9-year-old Karthik, was born at Dubare Elephant Camp in Kushalnagar, where he has spent his entire life in captivity. Two people reportedly died last year during similar incidents involving him, and the facility still allows tourists to bathe captive elephants like him. But this incident and the score of tragedies below are proof that forcing elephants to interact with people is dangerous—even deadly.

The month prior, a male elephant named Hope killed a mahout at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. The facility works to inform the public about the plight of captive elephants. Although it doesn’t allow people to ride or bathe them, it does allow tourists to touch, feed, and interact with them. This incident is a tragic reminder that when it comes to elephants, there is simply no safe way for tourists to touch, play with, or get up close to them.

Elephants are not ours to ride, but that didn’t stop one Canadian tourist from mounting Plai Benz—a 16-year-old male elephant kept captive at a camp in Chalong, Phuket, in Thailand in November 2018. The woman fell to the ground after the animal reportedly shook his body. He then panicked and allegedly pushed on her leg with his trunk and “crushed” it. According to reports, Plai Benz’s mahout was present during the incident.

In July 2018, an elephant handler was trampled to death by a captive elephant he was attempting to herd. The incident occurred at Wild Horizons in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe—a facility that had announced in late 2017 that it was making the compassionate decision to end elephant rides. Forty-year-old Joram Ndlovu and his two colleagues had herded a group of elephants to a spot for grazing—and when the men tried to herd the group back to the stables for “interaction activities,” one of the animals charged. The elephant was reportedly euthanized by Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority rangers.

In May 2018, a 12-year-old captive female elephant named Masini trampled her mahout to death, according to reports. The incident took place at a temple in India “in full view of shocked devotees.” The animal allegedly crushed the 42-year-old handler, stomping on and trampling him. According to one person, someone pulled hair from the elephant’s tail during a worship ceremony, causing her to panic and lash out, which made onlookers flee.

On April 15, 2018, in Tirunelveli, India, a 35-year-old woman reached out to touch a captive, tied-up elephant during a temple festival. According to reports, the animal snapped and attacked the woman, trampling her to death. Police are reportedly investigating the elephant’s mahout, while “veterinarians will check the health parameters of the elephant and conduct an inquiry with the temple authorities and persons available there.” The incident is the second of its kind at a temple festival in this region in less than a month.

On April 3, 2018, an elephant gored his mahout to death during “an annual nercha (offering) festival” in Kerala, India, according to reports. The incident reportedly occurred while the handler and two assistants were adorning the animal with ornamental coverings. According to Heritage Animal Task Force General Secretary V.K. Venkatachalam, “The elephant was forced to parade at various churches, temples and mosques during the last two weeks to add attraction to annual festivals without rest.” To make matters worse, this is apparently the second time this elephant has killed his mahout. “The first time was at Athirappilly in 2011 during the shooting of a Manirathnam film,” according to Venkatachalam.

Just a few days earlier, at a temple in Kerala, India, an elephant forced to give a ride to a priest snapped during a crowded festival. In the video below, the animal can be seen surrounded by a throng of chanting people before getting spooked and running off with the priest atop his back. At least 12 people, including the priest and the elephant’s mahout were injured, according to reports.

Earlier last year, a captive elephant snapped during a religious event at a temple in Kerala, India, killing a mahout. According to reports, four people—including the mahout—were riding on the elephant’s back when the incident occurred. In the chilling footage, men can be seen beating the elephant with sticks. Several bystanders were reportedly also injured.

In February 2018, 15 people—children included—were injured and admitted to local hospitals after an elephant “ran amok” at a temple in Kerala, India. During the frenzy, the animal appeared to be trying to get the mahout off his or her back by shaking vigorously. Other temples in Kerala have wisely stopped using live elephants during rituals and instead use models of the animal.

In January 2018, an elephant was shot and killed in Zambia after trampling and goring a handler. Witnesses claim that the now-deceased elephant, named Dojiwe, trampled animal handler James Tshuma after he and his manager attempted to reprimand her for going into a garden instead of grazing. Of course, for simply defending herself, the elephant paid with her life. Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority rangers killed her shortly after the incident. In addition to lugging humans around on her back, she had been forced to perform senseless tricks for tourists.

In December 2017, a tour guide was trampled to death by a captive elephant at a camp in Chonburi, Thailand. The 17-year-old animal, Plai Uthen, was reportedly being forced to give two visitors a ride when other tourists surrounded him to take photos. According to the Daily Mail, one yanked his tail, agitating him and causing him to charge.

Earlier in the month, horrifying footage was released showing that an elephant calf was beaten so badly that one of the animal’s hind legs broke. The abuse occurred while the elephant—who was being used for tourist rides—was tied to a tree.

According to reports, a German tourist was recently trampled to death by an elephant in Thailand while trying to take a photo of the animal, who lived in an “elephant village.” The animal was being forced to give rides at the time of the incident.

In July 2017, an elephant—forced to give rides at Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls National Park—was shot dead by authorities after crushing a seasoned handler. The enormous bull elephant, Mbanje, was grazing when Enock Kufandada attempted to corral him into a pen. The animal, who had been forced to give rides earlier in the day, charged after the handler and crushed him to death.

In June 2017, a group of American tourists visiting Jaipur, India, saw handlers beat an elephant  during a tour of Amber Fort. After two elephants tried to escape while being forced to give rides in extremely high temperatures, approximately eight men allegedly hit one of them with sticks for up to 10 minutes. Deeply disturbed by what they saw, the tourists began taking photos, which they posted on social media, and wrote to PETA India, which contacted government officials to urge that cruelty charges be brought against the abusers.

In May 2016, a Sumatran elephant forced to give rides at a zoo in Java, Indonesia, snapped and charged at a zoo veterinarian who was taking pictures. When the woman tried to flee, the desperate elephant reportedly picked her up with his trunk, threw her to the ground, and trampled her. She died from her injuries.

In April 2016, an elephant named Sambo was reportedly being forced to ferry tourists to the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. Temperatures exceeded 100 degrees, and there was no breeze. Overworked and overheated, she succumbed to the punishing conditions and is believed to have suffered a heart attack. She died after collapsing beside a road.

Just a few months earlier, a Scottish man vacationing in Thailand was killed and his 16-year-old daughter was injured when an elephant they were riding snapped. Thailand is the world’s largest promoter of elephant camps, where the abusive phaajaan ritual is used to break baby animals’ spirits and force them to submit to humans.

Captive elephants have long been subjected to cruelty, causing them physical and mental distress. This undercover footage from a 2014 PETA India investigation shows just how inhumanely elephants in Jaipur—who were forced to give tourists rides—were treated:

PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk dressed like an elephant and was “beaten” by a handler at a popular Jaipur tourist spot—a visual image so jarring that it literally turned heads:

You can join her in protesting the cruel mistreatment of elephants—no chains or costumes required.

Speak Up for Captive Elephants

Elephants are intelligent, self-aware animals. Those held captive in tourist attractions—even ones that are deceptively called “orphanages” or “refuges”—endure heartbreaking physical and psychological abuse that’s inflicted in order to force them to give rides, perform tricks, and  tolerate direct contact with the public. It’s little wonder that so many reach their breaking point.

Everyone who buys a ticket to ride an elephant or books an excursion involving captive animals is responsible for this merciless cycle of abuse. But you can make a difference. Click the button below to urge companies to end this violence:

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