Tourists bathing with elephants

The cruelty involved in elephant bathing


Tourists are unknowingly contributing to elephant cruelty by choosing interactions such as bathing and selfies – but these involve just as much suffering as elephant rides and shows.

Top image: Nick Axelrod

Our new research shows there is a growing awareness among tourists that circus-style shows using elephants and elephant riding cause suffering.

But instead of driving tourists away from elephant entertainment altogether, it has led to a boom in the popularity of elephant washing venues in the last five years, with the number of ‘washing’ venues in Thailand more than tripling.

The ‘crush’

Whether taken from the wild or bred in captivity, all elephants used for close tourist contact such as bathing have undergone a traumatic training method known as the ‘crush’.

This involves separating young elephant calves from their mothers, keeping them in isolation, depriving them of food and water, and in many cases beating them repeatedly until they are broken and can be controlled by fear.

When tourists support bathing venues, they support this cruelty behind the scenes and help the industry thrive.

Venues offering these experiences are also falsely masquerading themselves as 'sanctuaries', 'rescue centres' and as 'ethical', duping well-meaning tourists.

Audrey Mealia, Global Head of Wildlife at World Animal Protection said:

“Elephant-loving tourists that want that ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity are fuelling demand for a mammoth sized problem that causes unthinkable cruelty behind the scenes, even if they don’t realise.

“These intelligent, sociable creatures are the victims of a trade that exploits them in their thousands. Tourists need to know the truth – any elephant that you can get close enough to touch is an elephant that’s been subjected to horrific abuse.

“It’s not just riding and circus-style shows that involve suffering – it’s the bathing and selfie opportunities that you might find at so-called ‘sanctuaries’, ‘orphanages’ or ‘rescue centres’. This isn’t innocent fun. This is cruelty.”

The elephant entertainment industry is part of the multi-billion dollar global wildlife trade, which we’re campaigning against.

Elephants. Not commodities  

Elephants are big business for tourism venues – offering interactions such as shows, riding, bathing or using them as photo props for selfies. Across Asia, there are over 3,800 captive elephants exploited for tourist entertainment in 357 camps.

Our Elephants. Not commodities report compares research into elephant tourism which spans a decade, assessing venues across Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

The findings are horrifying, revealing that 2,390 (63%) elephants are suffering in severely dire conditions at 357 venues across the countries studied, and of those just 279 (7%) elephants are kept in high-welfare venues.

Captive breeding must be banned

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the captive elephant tourism industry generated between $581 to $770 million (USD) per year on the back of elephant suffering.

As a sustainable, long-term solution, we’re advocating for a captive breeding ban on elephants to ensure future generations are spared this trauma.

Tourists also hold considerable power to turn their backs on unethical practices and can opt instead to see elephants in their natural habitat or support elephant-friendly camps.

Read our guide to being an elephant-friendly tourist here.

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