A Little Conservation… Elephant Ethics at Chitwan National Park

Last updated on March 12, 2023

Royal Chitwan National Park is a crowning jewel of Nepal, and it’s also one of the country’s most successful conservation projects. It’s a notable place not only in Nepal, but on the world stage, too—Chitwan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and therefore under international protection. During my month of volunteering, I had only heard good things about Chitwan from the young monks; I was eager to explore all Chitwan could offer a self-proclaimed responsible tourist like myself.

My friends and I had taken a boat through the National Park while scouting tigers in the wild, we ate delicious food, and we rounded out our weekend in Chitwan with a ride through a local Tharu village. Piling into the back of a jeep, we observed village life while the wind sent sticky heat across our skin. In addition to seeing the Terai villages, our end goal was Chitwan’s Elephant Breeding Center, where I planned to learn more about Chitwan’s elephant tourism industry, with a real hope that I could uncover how it differed from that of Thailand’s circus-like, deeply abusive, and state-sponsored elephant tourism industry.

Morning at the river as the first tourist boats were heading into the National Park to explore.

Chitwan’s Elephant Breeding Center

Elephants in Asia are a sticky subject fraught with hard questions. Is riding ethical or can they be tamed humanely? And what role do breeding centers play in the equation? In conservation, many breeding centers effectively revive endangered populations. But the elephant population in Chitwan is not endangered, and it’s growing on its own through the park’s successful anti-poaching measures. Instead, the Breeding Center breeds elephants for use in the National Park—both for tourism and for anti-poaching patrols. That begs the question: Are those motives enough to rationalize an elephant breeding program given there are still no proven humane ways to break an elephant?

Even before arriving, I had  reservations about the purpose of the breeding center—I knew I needed more information before I would fully understand the ethics of riding elephants in Nepal.

Consider that as of summer 2019, by establishing a new breeding center in Cambodia (and banning elephant rides at Angkor Wat), many conservationists hope to stop the ongoing poaching of the last of Cambodia’s wild elephants—because locals do use them for logging and work, and without a viable path toward using elephants, outright banning elephant tourism in the country would cause far worse side effects … for now. So although the dream would be just the responsible elephant experiences in Cambodia were left, the breeding center there is a larger step than any other Southeast Asian nation has yet take.

So what does Cambodia have to do with Chitwan? Well, like Cambodia, the elephants are currently playing a vital role in the maintenance of the park. That’s not enough of a rationale for many, but if you believe that the answer about breeding elephants at Chitwan is black and white, then you are missing all the shades of grey that make up the reality of this world. Eliminating elephant use in regions where humans depend on it is a wicked problem, and it’s prevalent across many countries in Asia. Don’t know what’s meant by a wicked problem? The short of it is that this a complex problem without a single solution.

It’s easy to say no riding elephants ever (and that’s my stance in every other country in the world), but what if that elimination means every single elephant starves to death because its owners can no longer afford to feed it (elephants cost roughly $1,500 a month for food and care)? Or if no longer using elephants for patrols allows poachers to wipe out the last remaining bengal tigers in the world, as well as the rare one-horned rhino. This is not a thought experiment; that’s what’s at stake at Chitwan National Park. Not only are elephants used for tourism—which is what pays the bills to feed them—but guards also use them to patrol hard-to-reach areas of the forest.

So, let’s get back to the breeding center.

The Breeding Center in 2009

As part of my packaged tour, our guide shepherded us along to learn more and to see the newest elephants. The prize animals at the breeding center were twin baby elephants, just three months old. It seems like it’s cute, but not a big deal. According to our guide, however, these twins are the only surviving elephant twins in the park’s history. And they are just the third set to be born here, period. Twin elephants are extremely rare all over the world and have dismal survival rates. Considering the extremely long gestation time for elephants (22 months!), the momma elephant who carries the twins has a long road to travel before birth.

When we arrived, the twin elephants lopped along at a goofy pace as they followed their momma back to the breeding center—they had left with the mahouts in search of breakfast. And while I wanted to celebrate the birth of these adorable elephants, it was hard to see the mother elephant march back into the compound bound in chains. I wondered when those cute twins “need” chaining.

A few minutes later, we met another set of elephants, both about two-and-a-half years old and both were feisty! They trotted over to our group as soon as we walked into the compound. These two guys were frisky and playful. And they knew precisely what they wanted—any and all food hiding in our bags. One of them even walked straight up to me with his trunk extended and tried to taste my camera! I assured him that the crackers in the other hand were tastier, and he then pushed and nudged me until I had surrendered every single piece of my food I had hidden in pockets for them.

rare twin baby elephants
A mother elephant with her rare twin baby elephants brining home breakfast.

The Breeding Center Today

Back in 2009, the number of chained elephants saddened me deeply and I wasn’t sure how the breeding center played into Chitwan’s larger conservation goals. Today, the breeding center is one of the handful of remaining places in Chitwan that still chains elephants—this practice is really changing elsewhere in the area and has seen a perspective shift among some private tour operators and private elephant owners.

In the years since my visit, a large percentage of private tour operators around Chitwan have worked with elephant advocacy groups to make changes to how they breed and break elephants. As of 2017, many captive elephants at places outside the breeding center were allowed to roam unchained and in packs, as they do in the wild—bull elephants are still chained for protection of people and other elephants, but the life of captive elephants has seen years of continual improvement.

Inside the breeding center, life hasn’t changed much, according to reports from A Little Adrift readers. Elephants are still chained at the center, and the official Chitwan breeding center has resisted the more sweeping changes other elephant camps are implementing to counter the extreme cruelty done to elephants in captivity used for tourism and work.

Outside of the breeding center, however, there is a changing tide of opinion. Local tour operators slowly beginning to look for creative solutions to how they can balance their twin goals of a humane life for the animals while still using tourism to further conservation. The Chitwan breeding center is a skip for ethical tourists as of 2023 because of its cruel practices.

I recommend using lodges and safari companies embracing the new styles of elephant tourism and conservation. The Nepalese government has been slow to embrace the changes, but the seeds of ethical tourism are firmly planting in non-governmental facilities at Chitwan, and you can have more positive, ethical elephant interactions with the elephants that have already been drafted into tourism and thus can no longer return to the wild.

Should You Ride an Elephant at Chitwan National Park?

The short answer is no, you should not ride an elephant as it has taken unspeakable cruelty for that animal to be broken to the point that it will accept human riders.

The long answer, however, is—I can see why Nepali operators still offer the practice. As the final activity during our tour of Chitwan, our guide announced that tours end with an elephant ride through the jungle to spot wildlife. After all of my effort in Laos to not exploit the elephants, the jungle ride defeated the purpose. Even more tricky than breeding elephants, riding them is met with a lot of opinions. In Thailand, it’s a clear no—riding elephants is not a responsible tourism practice and you shouldn’t ride an elephant when traveling there.

In Nepal, however, I tend to float in the other direction, as do several prominent responsible tourism websites: please read this and this. In Chitwan National Park, the elephants are primarily used to allow tourists to see endangered one-horned rhinos. Additionally, park rangers use elephants to penetrate deep into the forest where they could never go by car, and where it would be dangerous to enter on foot. These anti-poaching elephants roam free from chains in separate quarters from the elephants used for tourism, and these types of elephant rides successfully protect the world’s remaining Royal Bengal tigers, vultures, and other critically endangered animals. For several years in a row, there wasn’t a single rhino poached. That changed in 2017, but the fact is that the elephant anti-poaching measures work. Chitwan has the lion’s share of Nepal’s more than 600+ one-horned rhino (at one time, there were fewer than 200 in the world). No system is perfect, but rhino and tiger populations are increasing in Nepal, and that’s a conservation win for the entire world. This is where the wicked part of the problem emerges, because Nepal uses elephants for both tourism (a no-no) and for important conservation work (ethically ambiguous).

Chitwan National Park elephants
elephant riding in nepal

Effects of Riding an Elephant at Chitwan

Chitwan National Park uses elephants for two parts of its tourism industry: elephant safaris to see a one-horned rhino, and elephant baths. As of 2023, both of these activities are still offered, but back in 2017, there was a slow march toward positive changes for government and private owned elephants.

  • Elephants perform a maximum of two safaris per day, down from five. Mahouts report the animals no longer have sores on their backs and are generally happier. (A reader reports that there has been a backslide here, and that they are back up to five, which is disheartening).
  • Metal hooks and prods are now banned and are no longer used in most aspects of the elephant-handling process. These are banned, that is a fact, but you may see them in use—avoid supporting that behavior.
  • Some private companies offer elephant walk-alongs rather than elephant rides—check that the one you use is not just doing the elephant walks in between the elephant’s duties with safari rides.
  • Private companies have decreased the use of chains, instead allowing all but aggressive bull elephants to wander more freely.
  • With the help and influence of conservation groups and activists, private groups are looking for new ways to train elephants. Two elephants have been raised so far using rewards-based training (instead of breaking the elephant through fear and beatings)—it’s been rocky but private lodges at Chitwan National Park are among of the few places on earth testing more harmonious ways elephants and humans can work together ethically.
  • Tiger Tops is the only place truly endorsable as an ethical option in the park—give them your money if you hope to support an industry in Chitwan that does not rely on elephant rides.
  • Consider visiting Stand Up for Elephants while you’re in the area—it’s an easy bike or tuk-tuk ride. This is one of the few (only?) organizations on the ground attempting to build a sanctuary and a culture of tourism in Chitwan that offers elephant owners an alternative source of income for their elephants besides rides.

So again, should you ride an elephant? No. But should we ban or boycott elephant use at Chitwan for both tourism and anti-poaching efforts? Also no. There is a clear right answer we need to get to: not cruelly breaking an elephant’s will so it submits to a lifetime of captivity. But like in Cambodia, progress is slower than we might like, but it’s progress all the same. Chitwan is headed in that direction, and it’s happening a lot sooner than countries facing similar choices in Southeast Asia.

Where we’re at right now might be the best we could hope for at this moment in time in the conservation/ethical debate about elephants in Nepal. It’s seeing more progress most other countries on this front, and travelers demanding new forms of elephant tourism are moving the needle on how business offer these types of tours.

So what’s an ethical traveler to do? Chitwan National Park offers options for tourists who want to use their tourism dollars to support businesses committed to implementing ethical, responsible tourism practices even when it’s more expensive and it bucks trends. Tourists can now vote with their dollars and help effect change that way. I understand some people boycott Chitwan altogether, but I believe tourism effects the most change when it’s used to funnel money into projects and people committed to enacting positive new policies in the world. Use your money to encourage more local providers to treat their elephants humanely, to offer ethical interactions that bring in tourism dollars without compromising the welfare of the animals in question.

You should visit the park, because Chitwan needs money and support to continue its important conservation work—work that is conserving critically endangered animals in the national park. Work that employs very poor mahouts who have no other livelihoods and would not be able to feed their elephants otherwise.

Also, there are few alternatives to raise the profile of the one-horned Indian rhino. These rhinos are extremely dangerous on foot, and the elephant ride is one of the few ways tourists can view the rhino without risking dismemberment. And I am not exaggerating. One of the Chitwan guides had returned home from the hospital the day I visited because of a wild rhino attack. For our journey, a rhino we spotted was unperturbed by the three elephants circling him in the large, grassy area. He munched the grass for several minutes, and then he stood perfectly still, almost like he was posing for a mini photo-shoot for us (he was more tolerant than the Indian cow debacle!)

Should You Participate in Bathing Elephants?

In addition to the elephant safaris, elephants participate in a bathing ritual twice a day. Back in 2009, mahouts used metal prods on the elephants, but today that practice is banned. Instead, it’s an activity that you have to decide for yourself where you stand. Perhaps you skip the elephant safari, where the saddles are problematic and painful for elephants, but believe this is a lower-key option. Even the most highly touted elephant sanctuaries in Thailand allow some form of elephant bathing (and other highly-touted ones even ban that), so consider if it’s a halfway point in the ethical debate for you—a way to see these majestic creatures in a more natural way.

In the comments, this stance has also garnered heat—the fact its, these animals are not going to be returned to the wild. That is a naive point of view. Even in the most ethical sanctuaries in the world, the elephants are still engaging in tourism—that’s how their owners can afford their food. For many, many more decades we will face the issue of needing to feed and care for elephants that are already unwild. Pony up donations if you truly want to see them set free in a pasture for the rest of their days, otherwise look for the compromise.

riding elephants at chitwan national park
Elephant bathing is one of the activities you can undertake with at Chitwan National Park.

Final Impressions: Chitwan National Park

It was a lovely trip and one that I highly recommend to travelers visiting Nepal. We had no major issues throughout our visit. In fact, the whole trip was documented well by one of the doctors volunteering in a community near our village of Pharping. Lip, a Malaysian doctor, was such a fun addition to our ragtag group. He took a picture of absolutely everything he encountered, meaning we were all happy to look back and remember certain moments, and add to it that he had just completed his own Vipassana Meditation course, and he was a veritable chatterbox. Fellow travelers Jess and Regina also joined our group of Pharping volunteers. Jess was spunky and fun; she had just received her certification in the US and was a newly minted doctor. Regina is Portuguese and also a doctor volunteer in the medical clinic in Chapagaon.

After my months on the road, it was fun and a relief to travel with three doctors! My cousin and I had a bevy of questions for them, naming symptoms and questions from our illnesses endured these past months on the road. Despite being sure we had issues, our doctor-friends cleared our symptoms and told us to wait it out until we rejoined the developed world in just a few weeks.

Side Note: This Conde Nast Traveler article is thoughtful read for those more deeply interested in the true challenges elephant tourism presents. The article describes some of the cultural implications of elephant-human interactions in Asia (Cliffs Notes: It’s been happening since before Christianity so it’s a bit much for Westerners to dictate it must end in one fell swoop.), and details the work of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Asian Captive Elephant Working Group to create a more sustainable link between elephants and tourism.

Quick Tips: Visiting Chitwan National Park

Staying Healthy at Chitwan

As far as health concerns went throughout Chitwan, all seven of us took anti-malarial medicine because of the parks tropical climate and proximity to India. Until this point, I had opted against malaria medication, even though it was recommended for all of Southeast Asia and India. Because it was dry season in SEA, I took a calculated risk. Instead, I used strong DEET repellant and wore long pants in the evenings. And while that worked well, I figured only an idiot would refuse to take anti-malaria medication while all the doctors in the group were doing it. I already had a three-month supply from the U.S. travel clinic I visited just before my trip, so that was plenty for my cousin and I to take recommended dose of Doxycycline every day (and for four weeks afterwards).

We also all had great travel insurance that would cover us if we needed immediate transport from the very remote National Park back to Kathmandu for medical treatment—this is important since there’s a lot that can go wrong in the jungle.

Exploring Chitwan was amazing. I highly recommend that fellow travelers build this into any trip to Nepal. It’s a gorgeous region of the country making important strides in conservation and environmental preservation.

What to Pack

Chitwan is a wet, humid, and forested area. It’s also blazing hot and there may be power outages at night, when nary a fan or breeze moves the stagnant heat. Pack clothes for hot, sunny days during, and pack lightweight clothes that cover your limbs in the evenings to prevent mosquito bites. And absolutely pack DEET repellant,  quality sunscreen, and a hat. A full travel packing list is here. And don’t forget your Nepal travel adapter so you can charge all of your electronics.

Where to Stay

Most travelers stay in Sauraha. If you want to put your money where your ethics are, head to Tiger Tops Elephant Camp—a private elephant camp leading the way with the most humane and ethical elephant practices. I also recommend Eden Jungle Resort and Lodge; it was lovely and remains highly rated by other travelers in the years since my visit. If you’re feeling more spendy, then Landmark Forest Park Hotel is a great choice.

Choose a Tour

This post more clearly outlines all the information you need on How to Visit Chitwan National Park.

Additional Reading

Throughout this piece I linked to other resources and points of view on the questions ethically supporting elephant tourism in Nepal. The best ones for those in search of additional reading include this one, this one, and this one. And it’s always good to refresh yourself on the best practices of responsible tourists.

The best guidebook. Use the Nepal Lonely Planet to organize your wanders; it’s the one I used during my months there, and it proved useful!

Nepal Travel Guide

A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Nepal. From Kathmandu to Pokhara—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.

You are welcome to leave a comment below. All comments that engage in civil discourse will be approved; hateful trolling against others’ opinions will not.

26 thoughts on “A Little Conservation… Elephant Ethics at Chitwan National Park”

  1. I visit Nepal regularly and was there for the seventh time in November 2022.
    I see that there is indeed a shift in tourism in Chitwan. There used to be up to five elephant walks a day ; these have now been reduced to two a day, and the elephants also ‘work’ only one day out of two. Indeed, it remains a principle of humans using an animal for pleasure, but the income from this tourist attraction does allow the park to be better protected from degradation by industry and from poachers. And why don’t we hear more protests against draft dogs in the North, and camels in the desert, and horses and dogs being used for races ? Nepali farmers (most of them in any case) have a deep respect for their animals and take good care of them. I think many people here on these pages do not know the situation in Nepal at all and too often compare it with abuses in other countries like Thailand. There are organisations in Chitwan that propose alternative activities with elephants, but most of them are foreigners. Aren’t we then talking about exploiting the Nepalese people who have no financial possibilities themselves to set up such organisations ?

  2. Hi Shannon,

    Love your blog! Stumbled across it whilst doing some research into the topic.

    Have you heard of Stand up 4 Elephants? They’re an NGO working in Chitwan to encourage people to go on elephant ‘walks’, not rides, and observe the elephant in her natural habitat, giving her a break from rides for a few hours. They’ve used their funds to build an elephant home for retired elephants that are too domesticated to be released and form good relationships with mahouts.

    I’d love to know your thoughts on this? If it’s something you think is good, it would be great to mention them on the blog next time you update.

  3. We have lived in Nepal 6 years, and frequently visited Sauraha. We have seen the elephants raised by the so-called “reward based system” nearly kill their mahouts. They are uncontrollable. The properly domesticated elephants could as easy as nothing kill their mahouts, if they were unhappy, but doesnt. They live in a close and beautiful relationship, as farmers have lived with their domesticated animals for thousands. How about your dog’s and cat’s – would you demand them all into the jungle again ?

  4. Let’s be clear: elephants are NEVER domesticated. Domestication implies captive and SELECTIVE breeding over a long period to the point that a captive animal is genetically different from its wild type. This is not the case with elephants. Asian elephants are at best tamed, not domesticated. Because of this, they always maintain their wild genetics and forcing them to act in unnatural ways is cruel.

    You’re making excuses that shouldn’t be given because the truth makes you uncomfortable. Keeping some wild animals to interact with people is cruel. This sort of thing also creates an ambiguous idea of ‘wild’ life in tourists minds, creating confusion. None of this is good for wildlife conservation. You also didn’t make a clear connection between anti poaching elephants and tourism elephants. Why do you need tourism to have anti poaching elephants? Despite this, I also am deeply suspicious of the need for elephants for anti poaching efforts. Rangers can get to the same places poachers get to in the same method. I doubt rhino poachers are riding in on elephants, if they are, it just makes it more obvious why there should be no elephants in captivity.

  5. Dear Sharon,

    As a long term reader I respect your opinions and find your articles considered. I was surprised by your stance in this topic so I read and re-read the article to try and comprehend your rationale. I also noticed you have made several edits which suggests that you have considered this a lot.

    I wonder what are your thoughts on bullfighting? Fox hunting? Whale and dolphin slaughtering by communities that no longer rely on these hunts for subsistence? Animal circuses that have been around since 1800’s? All of these practices still exist because of tradition and I would suggest they are utterly unacceptable and shame us a species because they inflict cruelty on animals for human gratification.

    As our understanding and knowledge progresses, it is our duty to also update these traditions. The way dancing bears-a 300 year old tradition in India- stopped thanks to an Indian NGO’s efforts.

    You admit in a somewhat opaque way that there is no humane way of taming an elephant (and there is a discussion about exceptions in the comments). But let’s be clear, these are wild animals being denied their nature. Finding ways to let them be wild ought to be the only topic of interest if there is ever going to be a shift away from cruel elephant practices across Asia. When this happens, sure… let us entertain the exceptions.

    You are going to lengths to introduce a nuanced argument but I fear I completely lost you on the bit about sacrificing the welfare of one species to save another. Nobody would suggest this for humans. Also, it is preposterous to suggest that you cannot have effective anti-poaching patrols without elephants. Surely, if it is possible in the vast expanses in Africa it is possible elsewhere. It takes just a little shift in addressing the issue and not just accepting a deeply flawed approach.

    I fear on this occasion you are creating a grey area on a subject that should be unequivocal. Elephants that have been subjugated live a miserable, tortured existence and it should be our responsibility to end it by removing the demand and forcing more sustainable and ethical solutions. The same way we think it is unacceptable to slash the amazon for cattle grazing despite this offering quick money for some local people.

    One has to be emphatic…. Any activity that involves interactions with wild animals is just as wrong because the animals will have been crushed in the first place. Elephant bathing is not morally half-acceptable. It is fed by the same animal misery.

    I appreciate you do state it is wrong to ride elephants. I also recognise you are writing about your travel experience and not making a case for elephant conservation. Still, I decided to share my thoughts because your article comes up at the top of the internet searches on the subject and I find it unhelpful. Unhelpful at a time when #refusetoride campaigns are gaining traction and the plight of starved, beaten, and over stressed elephants continues to make the headlines.

    Once upon a time, I didn’t know. I visited Thailand and I didn’t see any beatings. I saw some distressed animals with swollen ankles but I blotted it out because it didn’t suit the happy narrative I had conveniently justified in my own head. Now that I know, I think it is my duty to shout from the rooftops that elephants should be allowed to live in their natural environment without humans touching them. And the money from tourism will still come in a different, kinder way.


    • Hi Tina,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response and the time to share your opinions. Like you, I’ve read your thoughts several times to be sure I was seeing your point, and the crux that I don’t see addressed is the nuanced reality of elephant tourism 1) specifically in Nepal and 2) repercussions of having already tamed the elephants. Here are some more ideas that round out why I feel that elephant tourism in general is often misunderstood as a crusade on the whole, and in Nepal even more specifically.

      – Elephants already removed from the wild cost a staggering amount of money each year to sustain and feed. The vast majority of elephants already in the tourism industry in Asia cannot be returned to the wild for a variety of reasons (habitat loss, conflict with humans, health). If all tourists boycotted elephants in Nepal next week—an unequivocal rebuke of elephant tourism—what actually happens to those elephants next? It’s not good. It’s really not good. Thailand is years ahead of Nepal in this regard, and yet there are still elephants left chained and starving to death when their owners and mahouts can no longer find a way to make a living. And that’s in a country with at least a six truly great sanctuaries for elephants.
      – As of 2019, I have yet to see evidence of a credible (or even an uncredible) elephant sanctuary in Nepal. The one that tried to launch last year did not raise remotely the funds needed to begin moving elephants out of tourism camps. (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/nepal-s-1st-elephant-refuge-be-part-of-history#/ — nothing from their website since Nov 2018). So again, how do we feed and care for the many Nepalese elephants that cannot be returned to the wild for the rest of their lives? It’s certainly not going to be subsidized by the Nepali government, which is THE poorest economy in that part of Asia (not counting Yemen, Afghanistan, etc).
      – Elephants can actually support a human or two with no stress to their back. And those videos you’ve seen online are more than 20 years old. There ARE different tactics for taming/domestication. Mahouts are not all evil—that’s a simple narrative that sells well but just doesn’t hold up to examination. Before tourism, many mahouts had respectful relationships with their animals and lived/worked in the jungles. It’s western tourism demand that created the spectacle we face now over the course of decades—how can we expect that to be obliterated overnight. The fact is, progress takes a slow march. This approach to Nepal is EXACTLY what worked over the course of a decade in changing the industry in Thailand.
      – Many of the elephants entering tourism around the world—and absolutely in Nepal—are born in captivity. And ask most conservationists about how to rebound the Asian elephant and it comes down to the sad acknowledgement that we’ve crossed a threshold with habitat loss—they only way to safeguard many populations is captivity and through tough-reality conservation programs like what Nepal has in place. Nepal can either use Chitwan tourism profits to rebuild herds in Asia or do nothing—the aid money is not there. The country’s GDP is poor and dry up tourism and yes, rhinos suffer, but also what remains of the wild ones too. Do I think this is right? Hell no. But I also DONT see a black and white answer, I see a squishy-hard answer of: Perhaps this is the best solution given what we have in front of us.

      I update this post about every three months. I WANT to change my stance. I want a fantastic sanctuary to come in and change the landscape. I want a global campaign to spectacularly fund an entirely new elephant program in Nepal. But that’s not happening. So for now, I want tourists to go to Chitwan and learn the issues, and I want them to spend the money it takes to make sure those elephants eat right now, this week, this year. And I want them to talk to their lodges and demand new solutions. In this case, I truly am firm in my belief that as of Sept 2019, a full boycott would cause those beautiful animals more suffering.

      To your examples:
      – From my readings on the approach toward cattle-grazing in the Amazon, the approach great NGOs take isn’t about just campaigning for banning the practice, but about working with locals to find other ways to sustain themselves so the practice isn’t needed. See the difference in a ban versus an approach that may take a couple years longer (and mean a few more years of cutting forests) but is a better long-term solution?
      – I see parallels with the plight of whales now that it’s more accepted those in captivity are not treated well. Sure, SeaWorld can afford to sunset their whales in big tanks and pay for their upkeep for years, but there were smaller parks around the world that struggled to pull in the money to pay the food bills once these animals stopped drawing tourist numbers. It’s a good thing that tourism is stopping, but you have to see that every action DOES have an outcome, and sometimes it’s more suffering. I advocate a slower approach that I believe works toward a more sustainable solution, while eliminating more suffering in the long-term (especially since capturing elephants from the wild is now banned most places and not really a big element in the elephant debate).
      – India’s bears—this is an example of an NGO working within the culture they know to change their own culture… that’s why it worked. NGOs from the outside that come in and impart western ideals without respect for tradition have largely failed across more examples than I could list in a single post. One of the reasons that Thailand still has so many suffering elephants is because the Westerners no longer supporting the tourism industry with as much money is not in sync with their values yet—they still don’t see the problem, and it’s caused harm for all involved. Sure there are examples—Lek is a Thai woman running the number one sanctuary—she has done untold good at changing the industry… and again, she’s changing it from within. Tourists boycotted, but Lek actually found the way to work within her culture to start changing attitudes and approaches.
      – Using elephants for rhinos—they are already tamed. This is done, it’s a moot subject. Those elephants exist now and they have to eat. By every single account I can hear and people I contact, the elephants in the conservation program are treated well. Do I wish they were in a sanctuary? Sure. But that’s not an option, so for now I see it as a squishy and uncomfortable acknowledgement that allowing the status quo to exist for a bit longer might be OK.
      – Yoru final statement “elephants should be allowed to live in their natural environment without humans touching them.” Of course I agree. I just can’t see how you’ve outlined a practical way to get from where we are now to where you want to be. Their natural environment is gone and eliminating ele tourism won’t bring it back. And I see your way forward causing more suffering than you are acknowledging your position will cause. In addition to #RefuseToRide we need a campaign—and as much focus on: #FundElephantSancuatries — and one without the other does harm.

      I am truly not alone in being one of the voices basically begging advocates for a discussion of what happens on the ground once the internet goes up in arms on a cause without helping find and fund the solutions: https://thediplomat.com/2019/08/the-truth-about-asias-elephant-tourism/ and https://goodtourismblog.com/2017/06/elephant-tourism-harms-received-wisdom/

  6. Your article makes me sad. How can you approve of the way these majestic animals are being treated? Clearly you weren’t paying attention or, worse, simply didn’t care. Having read all the comments of people who have visited the place, I think it’s time to revise your position and update your article.

  7. Hi Shannon,

    Basically what you are saying is, the suffering of an animal is OK, if it saves a more endangered animal. An animal that is meant to be wild and is in servitude to us, is suffering.

    It is not often you see many articles that still support the riding of elephants. I am sure you realized you would get a bunch of hate on here, but I hope you understand why.

  8. I really am upset how you could come to Nepal, travel and write a blog supporting animal cruelty. Why does an animal have to suffer, for whatever the good cause you are advocating?
    Are you aware of the training procedures it takes for an elephant to obey human commands?
    Would you chain your baby ?

    • Did you read the post and try to see my point of view, or did you come to this post only to advocate your own didactic opinion? I do NOT advocate for the training that breaks an elephant, but Chitwan is one of the few places testing out ways to break an elephant through rewards, and methods more akin to how you break a horse. Also, I don’t think it’s appropriate to completely dismiss the fact that these elephants ridden by those guarding the forest from the poachers are the only thing standing between the extinction of some species. My point is that this is a wicked problem; it’s not one with an easy solution. I don’t believe in this specific use case inside Chitwan that there is an easy yes or no answer. Google wicked problems and try to see why there IS grey here.

  9. WHAT IS WRONG with some of you people..You think they are still not beating and torturing these animals?? They need to keep the tourism up so of course they will tell you there are more humane ways of training them. C’mon, open your eyes..Do any of these elephants with the loads of people on their backs look happy?? Its abuse and i dont care much they to sugarcoat it for monetary value. Unfortunately gullible people believe it and still go to help promote it. Im so sad for these elephants.

  10. Shannon your version is a different story than what I experienced in December 2018/January 2019.

    – The co-op is still calling for elephants to give 5 rides a day.
    – Metal hooks and axes are being used to control the elephants.

    In addition to Tiger Tops, which does not allow elephant riding. One private owner is allowing the walks when the elephants are on break from giving rides. The elephant is giving rides prior to and after the walk. Another private owner allows – but is paid – to have a retired elephant live at the resort. The other elephants at this resort are giving rides and a young bull that walks with the retired elephant is not retired and is currently being groomed for service.

    The elephants in this area are some of the most abused in the world – Physically, mentally and the majority of elephants living on Kuchi made with moldy or dried up unhealthy grass and scrub rice.

    Why are our stories so different?

    • Thanks for reporting back on the conditions Annette. It’s disappointing to hear there has been a backward slide in the policies. At a guess, it would all come down to tourism dollars—was it profitable to operate in that way? If tourists were unwilling to do the nature walks and boat rides without elephant riding too, then they would have changed policies. My hope is that pressure from tourists will continue to make the private sector more ethical. If Tiger Tops can prove success in the model, others will follow—this happened with the blossoming of elephant sanctuaries across Southeast Asia, and changed the industry there. It comes down to where travelers spend their dollars when the government is unwilling to regulate and mandate new changes.

  11. Pingback: Ethical Mistakes I’ve Made When Travelling (So You Don’t Have To)
  12. I visited the park today and unfortunately I still saw them using the metal hooks and prods a lot during the elephant baths. Just terrible.

    • I am so disappointed to hear that. The Breeding Center definitely has a lot of work to do, but hopefully you were able to put your money into some of the eco-camps cropping up in the area.

  13. Hey girl… Need a starbucks fix yet?? I hope everything is amazing and safe! The elephants look incredible!
    Do you need anything?

    We love the pictures, and the girls love following your travels!
    Be careful and have fun!
    Bryan and Dawna Leeth

    • Hey!! I do miss my Starbucks :( But the Balkan States are big on reeeaaally strong coffee – so I’ve been getting my caffeine fix, just not my fancy-schmancy SB coffee :)

      Glad that you guys are enjoying the blog! The elephants were so amazing – really a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I am so glad I did. In about three weeks I’m going to be camping out in Amsterdam for a month of house-sitting and it will be like heaven to have all of the amenities and a nice place to stay :) Hello to your whole family!

  14. I have just visited Chitwan and the elephant sanctuary. Despite many reports saying that only some aggressive bull elephants are chained many of our party were left feeling very upset after our visit. We were shown over a dozen elephants who were chained, only one being a bull. Most had both front feet chained so they could barely move and were rocking in distress. There were several babies with their mum, one was trying to feed but couldn’t get close enough because of the chains. We were told they were chained because the wild elephants are aggressive and would attack them if they were allowed to roam. This didn’t make sense as they must be protected from the wild elephants if they are chained and so not in a position to protect themselves. Overall this was a very upsetting experience.

    • I am disappointed to hear that the Elephant Breeding Center is still using chains. To be clear, they are not an elephant sanctuary, the one that you likely visited is one that has not yet switched over to more ethical treatment of the animals. There are some private eco-camps doing wonderful work, but the Breeding Center has long relied on chains and old practices. If you go back, I recommend visiting Tiger Tops, or some of the others, and ensuring any tour that you take includes these alternatives.

  15. I am happy to hear there is a humane method to training elephants for domestic use. Such a beautiful gentle giant, my heart breaks to see and hear how we humans can treat such a special species!

    • Yes! It’s intriguing to see the progress they are making and the earnest effort to find a better way for human-elephant interactions. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a start.

  16. My understanding is that the breaking process of accustoming an elephant to being ridden is traumatic to the elephant. Is this process somehow different in Nepal?

    • Correct! Two elephants have already been successfully raised from infancy using a rewards-based process. The older elephants were broken and beaten using the old process, and the rewards-based process for the two elephants has been only partially successful, but Nepal is at the forefront of defining what ethical elephant tourism might look like. There has also been a welcomed cultural shift in Chitwan’s tourism industry the past few years, where many elephants are now only ridden by mahouts and those on anti-poaching patrol (which protects the rare one-horned rhinos, Royal Bengal tigers, and wild elephants). Elephants in Nepal are an integral part to successful conservation efforts and Nepal is one of the only places on earth where wild populations of elephants, tigers, and rhinos is increasing. And though it’s not a perfect industry (a few operators still allow tourists to ride, but the elephants now handle two safaris per day rather than five), it’s vastly different than what you see in Thailand. If you’re keen, these two pieces are good reads:




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