Elephant riding in Bali

Unethical Tourism: The Ugly Truth about Elephant Riding in Bali

In Activities, Travel Resources by Jenny Cavcic49 Comments

Elephant riding in Bali is an industry that thrives off uninformed tourists. As a result, it’s a very popular item on Bali’s bucket list.

Traveler’s go there to experience colourful Asian culture and to immerse in nature. For many, this means getting close to wild animals. Especially the elephants. And who wouldn’t want to do that? They’re beautiful, majestic and mesmerizing. But sadly, the companies that offer elephant experiences to tourists, are also destroying their livelihood.

I was an uninformed tourist in Bali. I rode an elephant because I lacked knowledge about the industry. But, this mistake opened my eyes to the ugly truth.

Riding an Elephant in Bali:

I climbed up on the elephant’s chair saddle. Immediately, I felt that I was doing something very wrong. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched the “mahout” (driver) repeatedly hit the elephant with an iron hammer. Following the hits, he dug into her head with a sharp hook. I hated every second of it and wanted to get off. I asked the mahout to stop hitting her, but he assured me that it was okay. He lied and claimed that it didn’t hurt her.

After we got off, I examined the elephant’s head. I saw blue/green bruises and scars from the sharp hits she takes daily. She looked beat up and very sad. The mahout took her away into a stable. He chained her up with all other elephants and went on his merry way. It broke my heart…

Elephant Riding in Bali

Notice the bruises and scars all over this elephant’s head.

Elephant Riding in Bali is Unethical:

Despite the unethical promotion of animal tourism, Bali is a beautiful island. It’s worthwhile visiting and experiencing. But it’s up to you to choose wisely which activities you take part in while you’re there.

I wish I could take back the money I spent on riding that elephant. Unknowingly, I contributed to torturing the most amazing animal I’ve seen in my life. This is why I’m sharing this post with you.

Backed up by my research, I made a list of things that I learned from my experience:

  • The elephants in Bali are not “rescued” Sumatran elephants.
  • They are stolen Sumatran elephants, taken as babies from their mothers for exploitation.
  • The chair saddles on the backs of elephants are extra weight that they can’t handle. The weight causes damage and sores to their backs.
  • Sitting on an elephant’s back also causes spinal damage and internal health issues.
  • Elephant trainers repeatedly hit the elephants on the head with bullhooks to control them.
  • A bullhook is an iron or steel tool. It has a hammer on one side and a sharp hook on the other.
  • Trainers force the Elephants to ride in high heat. The elephants flap their ears vigorously to cool down.
  • Carrying heavy weight in high heat environments distress the elephants. The mahouts claim that it’s natural, but it isn’t.
    Elephant Riding in Bali

    A very sad elephant.

    Elephant Riding in Bali

    The rope of the saddle goes around the elephant’s body and around its neck. Also notice the elephant’s sore feet and nails. This seems like a sign of being overworked.

Elephant Riding is Nowhere Near Natural:  

Riding elephants is an unnatural activity that aims solely at entertaining tourists. Anatomically, elephant bodies aren’t created to carry weight on their backs like some other mammals. They are forced and completely isolated from their natural habitats.

“Because all captive elephants are not domesticated animals, for them to be kept in captivity:

• They need to be restrained.

• Are vulnerable to sudden outbursts of human targeted aggression, leading to injuries and fatalities.

• They undergo a cruel and painful process to break the elephants will and accept human control.

• They are susceptible to the development of health and behavioural problems.”

So that’s the ugly truth about riding elephants. And now, more than ever, traveler’s like myself are questioning the ethics of elephant activities in tourism. This has raised global awareness about the issue. Yet elephant riding remains an integral part of Bali’s tourism. But Why?

Elephant Riding in Bali on the Web: 

The world-wide web is a great tool for educating travelers on unethical animal tourism. But I think it also largely contributes to promoting it. Many uneducated reviews convince tourists that elephant riding is fun. A must-do activity. Every time a tourist signs up for an elephant ride in Bali, it gives the company promoting the rides a reason to exist.

I’ll start with myself. Before I booked my trip to Bali, I had seen that one of my Facebook friends was there. He posted amazing photos of his elephant ride in the jungle. It convinced me that the activity was bucket list worthy. So I did a Google search on elephant riding in Bali. This is what came up:

Elephant Riding in Bali Elephant Riding in Bali

As you can see, Trip Advisor shows 4 – 4.5 star ratings on elephant rides and tours. High ratings on activities like these generally make tourists feel more comfortable about booking them. The sad part is that most of the reviews are from deeply unaware tourists. They rave about their entertaining elephant experiences because they don’t know better. Unfortunately, this basic web search doesn’t show any alerting posts with red flag warnings.

It’s your Responsibility to do your Research:

Many tourists rely on false information on the web and propaganda. Shockingly, the positive reviews on elephant riding in Bali are far more than the negative ones.

But that can’t be our excuse. We are responsible for researching and educating ourselves. Don’t rely on others to know what’s happening behind the scenes. Do the extensive research yourself. Start by asking the right questions rather than relying on reviews.

So if  you’re thinking of riding an elephant in Bali, please think again. As travelers, it’s our responsibility to be ethical on our travels. This means ethically treating animals, people and everything in nature. Make a conscious and informed choice. Don’t pay for the unethical treatment of elephants.

For further information on elephant riding in Bali, visit Bali Animal Welfare Association.

If you want to do more, you can donate to the Friends of The Asian Elephants Fund or the World Animal Protection Organization.

Other Noteworthy Reads: 

Intelligent and emotional. Elephants should never be ridden

Elephants are wildlife. Not entertainers

This is why we no longer ride elephants

Elephant Tourism

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  1. Just canceled my reservation at an elephant lodge (so-called “sanctuary”) in Bali near Ubud. As you mention, there are lots of great reviews from uninformed tourists but no accreditations.

  2. Hi Jenny. Thank you for your article and research. We were explained by the mahouts in Bali, that it takes 1-2 years to train the elephants and the training is indeed harsh.

    The mahouts also said it provides $300/month salary to feed their family members. The elephants in Taro village are looked after well, otherwise in the wild they are struggling to survive.

    Sumatra is part of Indonesia and they have to national health care OR welfare, people need to survive every day. In Sumatra, there has been a growth in Palm Oil Plantation and reduction in the rainforests. The employees has been ordered to shoot, trapped and killed these elephants if they are near the plantations as they are considered pests.

    As Indonesian, I think riding elephants in Bali, for tourism is a win win for the people and the elephants.

  3. What applaud me the most is they have ganesh statues in which they pray too and they still treating the elephants in this way. This honeslty needs to stop.

  4. Thanks for writing this. And yes, no legitimate elephant sanctuary permits riding or shows nor do they use coercion (through bull hooks or food) to force the elephants to interact with visitors. There are zero accredited elephant sanctuaries in Bali and it breaks my heart to see so many photos of people interacting with baby elephants who have been taken from their mothers.

    1. Author

      It breaks my heart as well Samantha! It’s so sad and so unnecessary. I truly hope that more and more travellers will become educated on the topic before deciding to ride. Thanks for reading!!

  5. Oh boy, it saddens me to read your points as to why elephant riding in Bali is unethical. This is cruel man seeking to make a living at all costs, even if it means hurting animals. I would never ride an elephant in Bali after reading this and i hope this post makes a difference to those who read it and intended to do so.

    1. Author

      Hi Brian, I completely agree with you and it’s not fair. I really hope it does, that’s definitely my intention. Thanks for reading!

    1. Author

      Thank you Mallory! I think that the more people know about this, the more of a chance we have of closing places like this down. We can only do our part but educating others. Thanks for reading xoxo

  6. How sad, these beautiful animals need to be free and living happy lives!

  7. My friend told me about this for her trip to Thailand! An absolutely horrible practice so thank you for writing about it! Go to a reputable sanctuary instead to see them and provide for their care!

    1. Author

      Absolutely! That’s the best way to see them. There’s not need to contribute to their suffering. Thank you for reading Cameron.

  8. Oh how sad! I rode an elephant in Thailand, but from what I could see, they weren’t chained up and instead roamed the area freely, however they did not treat them as great as I wish they would have. Definitely would love to look into sanctuaries to wash them instead. Thank you for this!

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for commenting! I’m glad you’re looking at different alternatives. I think it’s best to stay away from riding them altogether. I wish there were more sanctuaries available. I’d love to visit one myself!

  9. I hear you – I rode an elephant in Thailand and while it was truly an incredible experience for ME I wonder how those elephants were treated otherwise. What’s the alternative if you still want an elephant encounter?

    1. Author

      There are sanctuaries that do not do rides. They are for saved elephants that were part of the entertainment industry at one point. You can play with them and wash them. But it doesn’t involve riding them because it isn’t what they are made to do. I believe Thailand has some sanctuaries that do this. Some say that it is okay to ride them at their necks but I’m not 100% that it is the way to go. I’d have to do a little more research on that. I think the general consensus from what I’ve seen in my research is that riding is wrong.

  10. Oh this is just heartbreaking. I never partake in any animal related activities in Asia. thank you for highlighting this terrible issue.

    1. Author

      Thank you for commenting Kathy. I’m glad that it left an impact on you. I hope it does for everyone considering the activity.

  11. Thanks for sharing this. This is so sad. I’ve seen tweets about this and signed petitions. Keep being a voice for the voiceless.

    1. Author

      Alicia, that’s amazing! I’m glad you’re doing your part to help these animals out. I will do my best. Thank you for commenting and for your support 🙂

  12. This broke my heart as I’m typing this I cant help but cry this is horrible I love animals I never rode a elephant it never felt right and I’m teaching my daughter to be kind to animals I hope more tourists would look into the ugly side of the animal ridings thanks for sharing this amazing post!


    1. Author

      Hi Mona, thank you so much for commenting. I cried too while I was writing it and looking back at my photos. It’s so sad and just heartbreaking. I’m glad that you’re teaching your daughter about this! I saw many people bring their children on these rides and they looked like they were having fun. I hope that more people like you will teach their children the rights and wrongs of animal tourism.

  13. Thank you for sharing this important, eye opening post! People need to know what their dollars are supporting, and hopefully you have educated some people who will now decide to make the compassionate choice to NOT support cruelty!

  14. Thanks for posting this! Elephants are one of my favorite animals and I did ride them in Zambia. While they didn’t hit them in front of me, it does leave you to wonder. Your story reminded me of a great true story: “Moduc: The Greatest Elephant that ever lived.” It talks about some of the elephant kidnapping and such. You may enjoy it!

    1. Author

      Sarah, thank you so much for sharing! I think the best thing to do is to stay away from riding them. I’ve heard that some sanctuaries allow riding at their neck, but I would have to do my research on that. Either way, it’s good to do research ahead of time to ensure that they are ethical. I will look into that story, I’d love to read it. Thank you so much!

  15. It’s so good that you’re spreading awareness of this girl. We did elephant riding about 6 years ago in Thailand, that was before I started my blog or I became properly interested in travel and the implications of things like elephant and tiger “sanctuaries”, but once you look into it you realize it’s not as innocent as you think. It’s all a learning curve so at least now you’ve experienced it you can tell others what they’re really like!!
    Alicia x

    1. Author

      Alicia I absolutely agree! I’m glad that you’ve experienced it and can relate. As bad as is it is that we did participate in these activities, it’s actually a good thing. We are now able to speak from experience and warn others. I often think back to that elephant and I want to cry just remember her sadness. I really hope that the industry will close down not just in Bali but everywhere. Thank you for commenting! xx

    1. Author

      I’m glad that you’re thinking negatively about it. It’s really sad! I don’t think anyone who knows the truth about it would want to do it. I hope that’s the case anyway 🙂

  16. Those elephant rides make me so sad. They have one at a local state fair and I can’t go near it. I think elephants are one of the most beautiful animals on Earth. I’m glad you’re bringing this to the attention of the public.

    1. Author

      They really are. I had no idea how amazing they are until I met them that day. My heart breaks for them and any other animals that are being tortured. Thank you for commenting. I hope that this post helps educate and stop travelers from making this mistake.

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