Few animals get travellers quite as excited as elephants.

The gentle giants of the Savannah and the Asian jungles have the charisma to draw people into taking an expensive overseas holiday.

This month the remake of Disney's 1941 film Dumbo opened at the top of the box office proving our largest living land mammal has lost none of its appeal.

Sadly, many less scrupulous parts of the tourism industry are also aware of this draw.


Elephants have long been mistreated, made to perform tricks and forced to carry visitors on their backs. Their spines are not made to support the weight of humans, it is very unnatural and painful for the elephant.

Last week the filmmaker activists Moving Animals released footage of behind the scenes at Phuket Zoo showing the treatment of a young elephant.

The young elephant, also named "Dumbo", is seen performing a trick for captors – and then it is revealed how he learned it. Harangued and beaten behind his ears, the young elephant learns to lift a foot and beg.

Many elephants are beaten and starved over a series of days in a tradition designed to break their spirits and make them obedient, called "The Crush".

According to the filmmakers the population of Asian elephants has halved since the 1940s and their exploitation for the entertainment of tourists is directly to blame.

"The cruel life that Dumbo the baby elephant will endure is heartbreaking," a spokesperson for the group told the DailyMail, adding "we've started a petition calling for her release to a sanctuary."

'Unnatural behaviour such as tricks, shows and painting is animal cruelty.' Photo / Moving Animals
'Unnatural behaviour such as tricks, shows and painting is animal cruelty.' Photo / Moving Animals

Elephants are still a huge draw for tourists, but a new more-aware traveller might be conflicted by the urge to see them in such conditions.

Fortunately World Animal Protection has come up with five tips for ethical elephant tourism.


Five tips for ethical elephant tourism:

"Out of almost 3,000 elephants used for entertainment tourism in Asia alone, 77% live in cruel and severely inadequate conditions," said Ben Pearson, a spokesperson for World Animal Protection.

"It's safe to assume that all riding, shows and washing is inhumane."

The very act of keeping elephants in captivity is disruptive to their "herd nature."

Not for entertainment
"Genuine sanctuaries do not offer guests to ride elephants" - If you are in any doubt, check if the sanctuary offers promotes shows or riding activities. It is World Animal Protection's advice that "elephant-friendly locations should not offer any direct contact with the elephants."

Check for level of captivity

"Elephants require wild or semi-wild conditions" – Enclosures are inhumane to the animals' herd nature. Check that your sanctuary encourages natural interactions between elephants, such as foraging and free movement – day and night.

Explore education offerings
"A great way to spot an elephant-friendly venue is to check out their education offering" – The most elephant-friendly sanctuaries should aim to raise awareness of animal welfare concerns. But it's up to the visitors to hold them to these principals.

Elephant control and conditioning methods
"Unnatural behaviour such as tricks, shows and painting is partaking in animal cruelty" –
Elephants are wild animals and should be treated as such. While you might wish to touch the animals, a degree of distance is to be encouraged. It protects both the animals, the visitors and elephant carers.

Dumbo: 'The baby elephant's condition is heartbreaking.' Photo / Moving Animals
Dumbo: 'The baby elephant's condition is heartbreaking.' Photo / Moving Animals

Breeding in captivity

Breeding elephants whilst in captivity is "a big red flag." Any sanctuary that is engaged in breeding elephants in captivity is not concerned with animal welfare, and is not doing so out of concern for elephant populations.

Moving Animals' petition can be found at change.org/
For more info on riding elephants, go to www.worldanimalprotection.org.nz