The key misunderstanding is that elephants are not, in fact, 'domesticated' – they are captive, wild elephants. Due to the difficulty of breeding elephants in captivity, they have never undergone controlled breeding in the same way as other domesticated animals; all their wild instincts remain even if they have been born in captivity or captured as babies. There are no domestic breeds of elephant.
This means that all elephants must be broken in and controlled in order for them to work, be around humans – and give rides. One of the traditional ways of doing this is a process known as phajaan, or 'crushing the spirit', which originated in the hill tribes of Thailand and India. During this horrific ritual, the young elephant is kept in a cage for several days and tied to prevent it from moving. It may be deprived of food, water or sleep, and beaten, burned and stabbed to literally beat it into submission. Almost all captive elephants across Asia have endured some kind of breaking in process, and a newly broken in baby elephant can be worth thousands of pounds. This is a lucrative business.
Once the elephant’s spirit has been crushed, they are put through further physical abuse to teach them to perform unnatural acts: painting, dancing, pulling logs and allowing people to ride on their backs or necks. They are threatened with punishment if they don’t behave. Tourists may never see an elephant being hit or abused – but if they are giving rides or performing tricks, it is because they have been taught that they will be hit if they don’t.
Positive reinforcement training is being introduced – the 'carrot' rather than the 'stick' method of controlling an elephant – largely by conservation organisations and genuine sanctuaries. But this is still rare, and there is no way to know if positive reinforcement has been used at the particular sanctuary or camp you are visiting.
Sitting on an elephant’s back, rather than its neck, causes physical harm to the elephant. Elephants may be enormous, but they have not been bred to be ridden. Their spine is damaged, their growth stunted, and internal organs may be affected. The chairs used to carry tourists add yet more weight, causing more spinal pressure and sores.
Ironically, in Thailand, wild elephants are protected – yet their captive cousins have no laws protecting them at all. There are no welfare standards that elephant camps and sanctuaries have to adhere to, and no criteria for riding. This means they can be ridden all day, chained all day, they can carry as many tourists will fit on their back, and they can be hit with bull hooks to control them. In extreme cases, they may also be given amphetamines to suppress their huge appetites and make them work longer hours.
Information provided by Elemotion, Elephant Family, FAADA, Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary and our partner The Beyond Tourism Co.