How Thailand’s performing elephants became symbols of despair

This young elephant, named Kluay Hom, is chained in his enclosure.

His legs are contorted and his spirit is breaking.

He is just eight or nine years old.

This young elephant, nicknamed Dumbo, died at Phuket Zoo.

Something was clearly wrong with him but still he was made to entertain.

Zoo officials deny any cruelty was involved, saying he was like their “child”.

Video: Moving Animals

Their stories are no different from those of thousands of elephants across Thailand working to entertain people - in zoos, at riding camps, in sanctuaries and on beaches.

CNA visited multiple elephant attractions and went behind the scenes to see the true sad state of the industry.


Bullhooks and nails are common tools to discipline performing elephants; since they were babies, pain is used to train and control them.

Key industry players believe bad practices are as prevalent and popular as ever.

Welfare standards for Thailand’s elephant camps remain voluntary.

Inspections are sporadic; penalties are light.

Elephant-riding businesses defend the practice, arguing that they are strong animals.

Animal groups say they are overworked, underfed and made to work until they die.

There is a growing need for refuges for rescued elephants.

Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai is home to 85 of them, many disabled, mistreated and abandoned.

There, tourists can watch
elephants from a safe distance
feeding, playing
and swimming.

“I see how terrible they are but after they stay with us a while, they start rolling in the mud, trumpeting and start to run and play,” says park founder Lek Chailert.

“They want to taste freedom.”

Text, photos and videos:
Jack Board and Pichayada Promchertchoo
Coder: Calvin Chia
Editor: Dawn Teo