Many trekking camps over work their elephants, leave the heavy chairs on their backs all day, load heavier than acceptable and do not offer enough food or water. There is also no enrichment for the elephants or freedom for them to behave naturally and roam in a forest environment when they are not working.

EARS believes responsible elephant tourism can help to save the elephants throughout Asia but ONLY if camps maintain the highest level of elephant care, food requirements, hygiene and environmental enrichment.

In this Guide we aim to give practical and impartial advice on what to look for and what an elephant camp should and shouldn’t do.


1. Why are elephants used for trekking?

Income earned from elephant trekking supports a mahout (elephant handler) and their family and is an essential income. Elephant camps, some homing over 80 elephants, would financially suffer and therefore their elephants would suffer, if tourists did not visit. There are however an increasing number of camps and projects beginning to flourish offering ‘low impact’ activities. These are kinder on the elephant whilst still making a healthy wage for the mahouts and we hope to see a change towards this type of gentle tourism instead. Look in our where to visit section on our website for suggestions.

2. Do elephants need to have exercise?

Yes they do. Elephants need a gentle, minimal amount of exercise per day for their physical and mental health. Elephants are like people in that their health will suffer if they don’t get enough exercise.

3. How many hours a day should an elephant work?

This depends on the temperature and terrain. An elephant should generally not walk at a brisk pace for more than 4 hours a day. If an elephant is overworked they will not have enough time to eat, drink and take a rest from the heat. It’s very important to tell your guide if you think your elephant is overworked and needs to rest.

4. How many people can an elephant carry in a trekking chair?

A fully grown adult elephant can carry up to 150kg on its back which is 2 normal size adults and 1 mahout (sat behind the ears). A chair alone is approx 60 kgs and elephants are often overloaded. Over the years trekking chairs severely deform their backs.

5. Is it ok to walk up to an elephant on my own?

Absolutely NOT!! Always ask permission from a mahout. Even elephant experts do not approach an elephant without the consent of a mahout who knows the elephants’ temperament. Elephants also do not like loud noises or quick movements so please be quiet around them. It’s best to always make sure you have a mahout with you.

5. Are elephants talented because they perform tricks or balancing acts?

No. If you think it’s cute to watch an elephant perform you would change your mind if you saw the ‘behind the scenes’ training which is more often than not cruel, abusive and pain inflicted. Training an elephant for circus shows is unnatural and cruel. Please do not support these activities.

“Things to know before you go!”


1. Check the elephants head for puncture wounds

The bull hook or hook is often assumed to be a very cruel implement used to control the elephant. It is, in fact, used to ‘guide’ the elephant when used properly. A gentle tap indicates the elephant to turn left, right, stop etc. Hooks are, however, misused by heavy handed inexperienced mahouts. If you see bloody wounds on an elephants head you will know the elephant is mistreated. Please make your concern known to the mahout.

2. Make sure there is enough food when the elephant is not working or giving rides

Have a look at the elephants enclosure/stabling area where it is kept. Can you see any grass, bamboo or fodder? Elephants need to eat between 14 - 18 hours each day and should have constant access to clean, fresh grasses in a clean fresh stable area. Often elephant food is thrown on the floor where the elephants also urinate and obviously they are unable to eat this. Elephants love fruit such as bananas, pineapples and papaya but these are usually regarded as a treat. They must have an ample supply of grasses so please check to make sure this is readily available for them.

3. Check the elephants have access to water and an enclosure with a roof

The hottest months in Asia are March to July though year round the temperature can be humid and hot. Elephants suffer if exposed to too much sun and need up to 100 litres of water each day. Is there access to water? Do they have a roof over their heads? In the wild, elephants would naturally shelter under trees in the hottest part of the day.

4. Check to see if the elephant enclosure is clean

Can you see dung in their stable or is there a strong smell of urine? Dung should be collected and disposed of and urine should be regularly washed away. Elephants, like all animals, like to be clean and don’t like standing in their own mess all day. This is also vital for preventing the spread of disease. Please tell staff if you think the enclosure needs cleaning.

5. Look at the elephants’ disposition

Is the elephant flapping its ears and swinging its tail?

A healthy elephant is constant moving. They flap their ears to cool themselves down and swish their tail to keep flies away. If an elephant isn’t moving it is certainly an indicator of ill health or sickness.

Is the elephant swaying frantically from side to side?

Elephants that have been chained for many hours and which are unable to walk freely often show signs of ‘stereotypical behaviour’. They will rock from side to side, back and forth, sometimes swinging their legs in a very distressing manner. This is an indicator of deep stress, boredom and a lack of environmental enrichment and a sure sign of elephant cruelty that needs to be addressed.

7. Check the elephants’ dung

Is it runny resembling diahorrea?

The dung of a healthy elephant looks like large round solid lumps similar to the size of a handball. If the faeces is runny the elephant is almost guaranteed to be sick and definitely should not be working.

Please give constructive feedback if you don’t like the conditions of an elephant camp you visit. This will allow the owner to re-evaluate and improve the facility for both visitors and their elephants. If the owner or mahouts are not aware then they won’t be able to make positive changes.

A Guide to trekking camps

Tourists traveling to Thailand have the power to influence change