Is it okay to bathe elephants?

There is a growing awareness among travellers, and in the tourism industry, that elephant riding and watching elephants perform unnatural tricks such as painting or playing football is unethical. However, while many camps no longer offer riding, bathing elephants has become a very popular substitute for travellers in Southeast Asia, as well as Sri Lanka and India.

Unfortunately, many elephant bathing experiences are deeply problematic. For a large, incredibly powerful and potentially dangerous animal to be safe around members of the public, it has to be kept under control. And control – not always, but too often – requires the threat of violence if the elephant doesn’t behave as it should.
As of December 2023, Responsible Travel will no longer promote any holiday that features elephant bathing as an activity.
While we believe that in the right circumstances elephant bathing can be done ethically, in our view the practice is wide open to abuse. We believe that the most responsible option is instead to encourage visits to no-touch, observation-only sanctuaries.

As is sadly very often the case where wildlife conservation and tourism intersect, elephant bathing is a complex and culturally sensitive issue. In reviewing and deciding on this stance, we spoke to a range of animal welfare charities and elephant sanctuaries on both sides of the debate, as well as several of our partners who offer holidays in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

What does elephant bathing involve?

The bathing experience varies from place to place, but typically it involves groups of visitors in swimwear accompanying a few elephants down to a river. There, the elephants stand, kneel, or lie down while people pour buckets of water over them, smear mud over the elephants’ skin, and pose for photos. Which sounds perfectly harmless on the face of it. But unfortunately, as is often the case when it comes to the use of animals in the tourism industry, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Do elephants like to be bathed?

Elephants are huge. They are immensely powerful, they move quickly in the water, and while they may be perfectly calm and pleasant 99 percent of the time, all it takes is for one to be spooked for some reason, and it could lead to tragedy. You cannot have elephants behaving naturally in the water alongside people. It is not safe. They need to be kept under control, and for control to be effective, the animal has to know that it must do as it’s told. In many cases, control is underpinned by the threat of violence.

Elephants wash themselves regularly in the wild, which is one of the main reasons why bathing is commonly seen as a benign, even beneficial activity. “They enjoy it, they relax, and up to a point they’re cleaning themselves, though of course mud helps with sun protection and keeping away flies,” says the founder of one sanctuary in Thailand. “But ultimately it’s about socialising with other elephants.” However, there is a difference between elephants bathing themselves in the wild, and elephants being bathed by tourists at a camp or sanctuary. A big, grey, three-ton difference.

As the manager of one sanctuary in Laos that we spoke to puts it: “You either put your guests in danger, or you have to dominate the elephant.”

“Feeding elephants and walking alongside them may be interesting, but bathing them lets you really get close. Elephants are at their most comfortable when bathing, and so they are most likely to interact with you. For a lot of people, especially children, this is a memorable and joyous life experience, one they can’t get in zoos and on safaris.”

Not our words, but those of a prominent elephant sanctuary in Thailand. But how can visitors be sure the elephant is comfortable? And should the aim of a sanctuary be to care for animals, or to provide ‘joyous life experiences’ for tourists?
You either put your guests in danger, or you have to dominate the elephant.

Do elephants find bathing stressful?

As far as we are aware, there have been no studies into elephant bathing by members of the public and its impact on the animal’s mental health. But while many elephants in camps, zoos and sanctuaries will be used to humans, sometimes having been around them all their lives, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always comfortable around them – especially if they have been victims of cruel treatment in the past. Wariness around humans can be passed down generations through a herd, and likely stems from centuries of seeing other elephants being killed for their ivory or taken into captivity.
Too often the happiness of the tourist is prioritised over that of the animal.
When you’ve got twenty visitors paying for the experience every morning, the schedule has to be kept, and the elephants must be encouraged, or forced, into the water whether they’re in the mood for a bath or not. In the wild they might be in the water for five minutes, or an hour, but it’s up to them. When they have to bathe according to a timetable to bring in money, it becomes problematic. Too often the enjoyment of the tourist is put ahead of that of the animal.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Elephant conservation or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Elephant bathing invites exploitation

The sad fact is that whenever you have elephants being used as a tourist attraction, it is inviting unethical practices and exploitation because it puts profit above the animals’ interests. And for the visitor it can be difficult to know whether the sanctuary they are visiting is a place of genuine safety for the elephant – or somewhere that has just given itself that title to make money. If you’re struggling to make that distinction, our list of sanctuaries that we do and do not support is a good place to start.

There is an obvious element of risk involved in bathing elephants that have been rescued from elsewhere, such as a riding or logging camp. It is impossible to know what kind of trauma they may have been exposed to, and whether or not they are safe around members of the public, even if they are being controlled. The growing popularity and profitability of elephant bathing means there is a lot of incentive for captive breeding. Elephants that have been raised among humans, trained from an early age, are more predictable and easier to manage.
The need to make elephant bathing safe by moderating behaviours can lead to unethical captive breeding.
Captive breeding of elephants is unethical because it is unlikely those elephants are ever going to be released into the wild. They are bred for work in the tourism industry and will spend their lives in camps. It doesn’t matter how well they’re treated by their mahouts (caretakers), it is a form of slavery.

Not all forms of elephant tourism are unethical. There are many truly excellent, caring mahouts and sanctuaries out there. We know, because our partners deliberately seek them out to send travellers to them. But the industry is difficult to regulate, and animal exploitation is prevalent. Sometimes, despite the best of intentions…

Elephant economics

The Covid-19 pandemic, during which the tourism industry almost entirely shut down, had a devastating effect on elephant camps and sanctuaries. Some venues were reduced to begging for financial support on social media, their animals to be seen shaking with hunger and displaying aggressive behaviour. Saengduean (Lek) Chailert, the pioneering and heroic founder of Save Elephant Foundation non-profit, stepped in to help feed almost 2,000 elephants in financially-struggling camps.

Bathing experiences can bring in a lot of valuable visitor income. Elephants are incredibly expensive to keep, from food supplies to veterinary bills. The Born Free Foundation estimates the cost of looking after just one captive elephant to be around USD $100,000 annually. And an Asian elephant can live well into its 50s and beyond. When you take into account the fact that most sanctuaries are almost entirely reliant on charitable donations and visitor revenue, it’s not hard to understand why many see bathing as a relatively harmless way to bring in some much-needed money.

Can elephant bathing be done responsibly?

We can’t solve the problem just by trying to ban the bad stuff. We have to present better solutions instead.
While we hold the view that elephant bathing is too problematic to responsibly promote, and that abuse sadly continues to be rife in elephant tourism, there are still many excellent mahouts out there – people who might spend their whole lives looking after one elephant, developing deep bonds of trust and respect with their charge. It can feel to them that keeping their elephant under control while it’s being washed isn’t cruel in the slightest – after all, we keep dogs on a leash and use reins on a horse, don’t we?

One of our partners has worked closely with a small sanctuary near Chiang Mai for over ten years. He believes that the only way forward for elephant conservation is a collaborative approach, feeling that overseas organisations unfairly claim to know better than local people who have often lived and worked with the animals for many years. That the issue of elephant bathing should be looked at within the broader context of ‘cultural imposition’.

“The biggest challenge is that unethical camp owners simply don't care about what anyone from outside Thailand says, and until overseas organisations adapt their methods to take that into account, nothing will change.”

The counterpoint is that, after years of campaigning and raising awareness by NGOs and charities, elephant riding is now widely viewed as unacceptable. A similar effort around bathing experiences could also change perceptions.

Non-contact (observation only) elephant sanctuaries

There is an alternative to visitor bathing experiences. Many of the elephant sanctuaries that we would consider truly ethical are either strictly observation-only, or are moving in that direction. Visitors watch from a distance, perhaps may walk alongside the elephants, but have no direct physical contact with them. Observation-only means no commands, no chains, no control.

At these sanctuaries you might accompany the elephants as they make their way down to the water then watch either from the riverbank or, ideally from a safety perspective, from a specially built platform or walkway. We’d argue that this kind of experience is more satisfying than bathing the elephants yourself, because you can watch them having fun and behaving completely naturally. They can move around freely, and leave the water whenever they want.

Another take on how bathing elephants at sanctuaries can be done in a safe and humane way comes from one of our India holiday partners, who suggests visitors can watch the washing being done by trained caretakers, with the animals given treats or special attention as a reward for their cooperation. “We should let visitors watch the normal bathing routine but it should not be a special tourist show.”

Should I visit a sanctuary that allows elephant bathing?

From 2023 you won’t find any holidays on our website that feature elephant bathing. Yet given the immense financial costs of protecting elephants, and the sheer numbers that need help, we accept there is a good argument for continuing to visit sanctuaries that do offer the experience. But visit on an observation-only basis, making clear your reasons for requesting this and thereby proving to the owners that there is a better, more ethical model of elephant tourism within reach.

The fact is that things are getting better in wildlife tourism. Awareness is growing among travellers and businesses, and the industry is gradually becoming more ethical.

One sanctuary manager in Laos told us he was optimistic about the future. “The last fifteen, twenty years there has been a big rise in ethical tourism. I think the younger generation, the future tourists, are quite open minded and will be content with observation-only sanctuaries.” He feels that the answer lies not in boycotting sanctuaries that offer problematic activities, but in asking better from them. “If people stop visiting these places they’ll have less money, but it’s the animals that will suffer, not the owners. They’ll spend less on food and other resources. I think instead people should visit them and demand more ethical experiences instead. We can’t solve the problem just by trying to ban the bad stuff. We have to present better solutions instead.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pikist] [Intro: Chrislyanto Manullang] [Do elephants find bathing stressful?: Ronald Saunders] [Inviting exploitation: Cherubino] [Can elephant bathing be done responsibly?: Adam Jones]