Years of Tourists Riding on Elephants Is Leading to Disfigurement

It's high time we say goodbye to this "attraction" once and for all

an elephant with a disfigured spine.
After 25 years working in the tourism industry, this 71-year-old elephant is left with a disfigured spine.
Amy Jones/Moving Animals/WFFT

Is it okay to ride elephants? The answer is, unequivocally, no. And yet, in many Southeast Asian countries — Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia chief among them — the opportunity for tourists to get up close and personal with elephants is still one of the biggest draws.  So, despite what we know to be true about the conditions of many of the “sanctuaries” where the animals are kept and the myriad of campaigns denouncing it (back in 2016, TripAdvisor actually banned ticket sales to physical encounters), because of continued demand, it’s not uncommon to still find elephant riding experiences in many of them.

That said, per a report from CNN, you don’t have to look very hard in the year 2023 to see the impact that years of carrying tourists has had on many elephants. Pai Lin is a 71-year-old female elephant that, after 25 years spent working in the tourism industry, now resides at the Wildlife Friends Foundation in Thailand (WFFT) sanctuary. Being forced to carry as many as six tourists at a time for much of her adult life has left her with a very visibly disfigured spine.

Shark Tourism at Guadalupe Island Comes to an Indefinite End
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“Pai Lin’s back still bears scars from old pressure points,” WFFT said. “This continuous pressure on [elephants’] bodies can deteriorate the tissue and bones on their back, causing irreversible physical damage to their spines.”

Her previous owner ultimately surrendered her for being “too slow” and “always in pain,” though — if you can believe it — Pai Lin may be among the lucky ones. In other industries, including trekking and lodging, elephants are routinely worked to death.

But that doesn’t mean tourists are off the hook. For the uninitiated, elephants are not built to be ridden. “Their spines extend upwards,” WFFT’s project director said. “Constant pressure on their backbones from tourists can result in permanent physical damage — which can be seen in Pai Lin.” And, in case anyone needs to hear it: no amount of Instagram-worthy shots is worth literally disfiguring an animal for.

Fortunately, wildlife wellbeing is becoming increasingly more central to the eco-tourism conversation. Guadalupe Island, an area largely dependent on shark-related tourism, just banned it altogether, for example. Of course, the argument could be made that if a picture of a deformed elephant isn’t enough to dissuade you from riding one, a little legislation likely won’t, either.


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