27 May, 2022


Elephants, Tourism & Cruelty To Animals

By Vositha Wijenayake

Vositha Wijenayake

Vositha Wijenayake

In Sri Lankan tourism, riding an elephant has become one of the key attractions. Due to this we find many elephants in the country being victims of cruelty and inhumane treatment in the name of tourism. While there are set guidelines on the treatment of elephants, they are visibly not followed, and the laws on cruelty to animals in Sri Lanka dating back to 1907 fail to address this issue in an effective manner. This in turn highlights the need for effective laws to address issues on cruelty to animals, and to speed up the passing of the Animal Welfare Bill in Sri Lanka.

Elephant Rides and Suffering of Animals

As fun it might seem for some tourists to ride elephants, the elephants have to undergo great suffering even before a man decides to get on his back for the man’s amusement. Elephants that are used for elephant rides are fitted with a crude metal cage that resembles a bedframe which could weigh more than 50kg. And in order to keep the structure securely fitted, the cage is fitted using ropes tightly tied around the elephants spine.

ElephentDeepani Jayantha, Veterinarian, Country Coordinator of Elemotion Foundation and a member of Animal Welfare Coalition commented on the crude nature in which these frames are fitted, and the pain and suffering that the elephants endure due to these practices.

“Elephants used for these rides for tourism purposes in Habarana and Sigiriya are fitted with a metal cage that resembles a bedframe that could weigh upto and over 50kg. The elephant dorsum is not anatomically designed to hold such structures or to carry heavy loads. This could damage the elephant’s dorsum and the pelvic area.”

She also explained that continuous friction could cause wounds and that tension exerted by the ropes and straps on their chest can cause pressure on internal organs.

“Long term use of cages have reportedly resulted in chronic wounds (pressure wounds), abscesses and joint pain. And the whole process itself is a chronic stress for the animal,” she added.

It is not only the cage that the elephants suffer, but also the long working hours. According to Ms. Jayantha, the elephants provide rides from 0700-1100hrs and 1500-1800hrs, which could be further prolonged depending on the day’s weather and the circumstances.

Controlling Elephants

Another instance when cruelty is suffered by these animals is caused when the elephants are controlled for the purpose of providing rides. Given that captive elephants need controlling, with their wild traits not been made docile, the owners tend to create obedience through submission to fear. Commanding, whacking and jabbing with the ankus or elephant goad are traditional restraining methods. Spiked chains, hobbles and shackles are also reported to be used for purposes for controlling them as well.

“In extreme cases elephants are hit on their head, where sensitivity is higher, which could cause injury to the eye. There was an incident where an elephant in Habarana was found with spiked chain shackles, cut and jab wounds and burns on its lips. These are situations we should put an end to,” added Ms. Jayantha.

Guidelines and Animal Welfare Laws

The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority has introduced a set of guidelines for managing riding elephants. The guidelines provides that five freedoms must be enjoyed by elephants in captivity which include being free from malnutrition, terminal physical discomfort, injury and disease, fear and stress and to Express normal patterns and behaviour.

The guidelines also include the need for light structures with a mattress to be used for carrying of guests and that passenger weight should be well balanced on either side to ensure that no damage should be caused to the back bone of the elephant. They also stress the need for preventing any damage to the skin or injuries to the elephant and that care should be taken when loading passengers which could damage the back of the elephant. Maximum of Four passengers to be taken on elephant back.

In addition to this there are also guidelines on the need for medical care for the animals, and provision of a balanced diet with relevant nourishing foods to be given to the elephant on a planned programme in consultation with veterinary surgeon, as well as adequate supply of drinking water.

Section 48 (4) of the Tourism Act No. 38 of 2005 provides that violations could lead to tour operations being cancelled.

“Most of the practices at places that provide elephant rides violate the guidelines on this issue. I believe there needs to be a better monitoring system for these violations,” said Ms. Jayantha.

Another way to address these issues is through better established animal welfare laws. In Sri Lanka though there is law on cruelty to animals, the people do not pay attention to it due to the lack of strength of its penalties which remain in the era of its passing, in 1900s. The new Animal Welfare Bill which has been proposed and presented to the cabinet of Sri Lanka addresses issues of cruelty to animals as mentioned above in a more effective manner. While broadening the scope of what constitutes cruelty to animals, it further strengthens the efficiency of the law by setting up penalties and sanctions that will be much stronger in its deterring effect on the society.

Alternative to Elephant Rides

The counter argument to putting a stop to elephant rides would be that it is one of the key attractions for many tourists. However this is not the only option available for tourists who come to Sri Lanka.

“We have an excellent alternative to elephant rides – wild elephants!” explained Ms. Jayantha.

“Responsibly developing the wild tourism industry unique to Sri Lanka will allow tourism to grow without the need for captive elephants. Elephants show an array of rich and interesting behaviours when they are free and wild. Though the country is yet to have a proper elephant sanctuary for captive elephants, the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawa gives the tourists an opportunity to see and learn about captive caring for orphan juvenile wild elephants,” she added.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 22

    Buddhist perahera organisers please note that the Buddha did not ride on elephants or horses. He travelled everywhere on foot and would not allow another being to suffer his weight.

    • 7


      “He travelled everywhere on foot and would not allow another being to suffer his weight.”

      Yes I agree, however, it doesn’t explain his three visits to this island.

      • 7

        What three visits? He had better things to do than take holidays.

        • 2


          “What three visits? He had better things to do than take holidays.”

          Sorry I was told he flew from India to this island in order to ordain Nagas, Yakshas, …… and Ravana’s children and convert them into Buddhism and also to sort out Royal family disputes at Nagadipa and Kelaniya.

          Probably I was talking to a bunch of Sinhala/Buddhists.

          Now I am bit confused, why do people (including myself – never groped a single devotee) climb Sri Pada regularly ?

          Is it part of mountaineering sport activity of this island?

  • 14

    Shouldn’t the elephants be taken out of peraheras and pagents as well?

    Can we do this in a yahapalanaya Buddhist country?

    Why isn’t anyone talking about the young elephants being tamed inside elephants ? How about the elephant at Gangaramaya in Colombo 2?

    • 5

      In what way elephant ride becomes an animal abuse ? that is a dumb argument.

      Instead, you should ask some of the money earned by using animals should be spent for the welfare of those animals in whole.

      Money collected in many zoos are used for animal research.

      Animal abuse is if animals are contrfolled by age old habit using steel hooks. elephants are intelligent and they can be controlled by talking to their ears. that had been practised in the ancient times, it is practised now in African animal camps where orphan elephants are brought up..

      • 10

        Jim Softy,

        “In what way elephant ride becomes an animal abuse ? that is a dumb argument.”

        Just because you are blessed with a tiny brain, you don’t have to reveal that to the whole world.

        Learn to shut up once in a while.


        • 1

          When I shut up Donkeys can bray loud.

        • 2

          this animal abuse claim is mostly aberrent thinking.

          How do you know whether the animals enjoy it ?

          Instead ask, killing animals for foods to stop. that is animal abuse.

          • 3

            @Jim softly

            I don’t think you or anyone else will enjoy any of the following

            1) Your legs being chained together so that you can only take a fraction of your normal stride

            2) Being poked at with a sharp steel hook for a reason that you cannot fathom

            3) Whipped mercilessly by a mahout who is shouting and screaming at you in a language you cannot understand.

            4) Walked in the hot sun, on tarmac in bare feet with a sheet draped over all of your body – This has become a favourite pastime of many so-called “top-schools” in the country – Elephants are not built for handling heat and seek shade at the hottest times of the day.

            5) Add to this the horrific treatment that elephants and other creatures undergo in the name of “entertainment” at our zoo and other shows worldwide (I am sure you can look it up for yourself)

            I agree with your last sentence but not as an “instead” but as an “as well”

            We are supposed to be living in enlightened times and should let go of these medieval practices

  • 6

    I think the middle path should be observed. Treat the Elephant as you would treat a human employee. They will have time off, 5 day work week with regular breaks etc.

    When its free time they shall be in an area large enough for it to roam freely with its own clan.

    Chains will not be used, unless to secure the carriage. The Mahot will seek permission from the elephant before employing the elephant to work. The Mahot is intelligent enough to know when its not ready for work.

    • 2

      I second the comments made by Vibhushana. Working animals should be treated with respect, afforded dignity, and not overworked. The same for domesticated pets.

      The antediluvian practice of dressing and parading animals (as we do with elephants) is abhorrent, and cessation is long overdue.

      Other animals should be free and their habitats properly safeguarded.

      I am against the chaining, caging or corralling of animals.

      Let all who share these thoughts come out in force.

    • 5


      Your thinking represent a much needed marginal improvement for these enslaved, captive elephants suffering life-long in silence.

      However, it will be impossible to implement. Nobody has large spaces to let elephants roam free off duty in urban areas.

      It will not stop cruel kidnapping of baby elephants from their loving families in the wild.

      It will not stop the inhuman, brutal torture that follows to tame a young elephant, once captured.

      Elephant rides should be banned.

      Buddhist temples must explain how they can justify elephant abuse in “Perehera”. Buddhism is not a circus.

      There are serious proposals to establish elephant sanctuaries for captive elephants as a temp solution, since they cannot be released to the wild.


      • 2

        Hell Ben,

        Well, its indeed hard to watch a majestic beast in chains. The first reaction is they need to be free.

        Its also a tragedy if the Kandy Perehara do not have elephants. The elephant joy rides on the other hand can be cancelled.

        So we need to find a middle ground without depriving the well being of the elephants.

        All elephants are not the same. There will be some elephants who prefer to be pampered by the Mahot without having the freedom to roam.

        I think older more settled ones perhaps will enjoy not having to struggle to find food and shelter.

        The temple duty can be part time anyway. when not performing, I would think most times of the year, the elephant can live in a jungle reserve tagged and monitored remotely.

        So a smart middle ground should be found. Animal physiologists etc need to be involved.

        As someone said the elephant need to be in a chain for safety reasons. Perhaps the mahot can carry a powerful tranquliser instead of keeping the elephant in chains.

  • 2

    This use of animals is sustainable. It is killing of animals and the way they are cultured and treated are animal abuse. You don’t want to talk how chicken are fattened, grown up and killed, YOu don’t want to talk how Cattle is treated and killed mercilessly.

    Simply stupid argument.

  • 1

    What a load of rubbish ! Can you drive a 6 ton truck on the road without brakes ? The correct deployment of chains is for the safety of the public and little else.

    The key here is that there is no proper training given to those who masquerade as mahouts. There are cabinet papers in place for a proper training school and licenses for Mahouts but these things are never implemented.

    Elephants in pageants ( that are conducted properly) actually enjoy themselves !

    Most of this sort of well meaning but totally baseless articles are inserted by people who have sworn to “rest” only when they see the Dalada being taken in the perahera on the back of a pick up truck !

    We know who the people are and they continue and go from strength to strength what ever government is in power. One minister in the current government once swore to set fire to the beard of the main perpetrator …well he has the opportunity now !

    • 0

      @Don Quixote

      You have chosen your handle very well !!!

      “Elephants in pageants ( that are conducted properly) actually enjoy themselves !”

      Which elephant actually told you this ?

  • 2

    In Sri lanka, christians are very active against buddhist practices.

    No one wants to stop killing animals for food.

    All bull$hit arguments

  • 3

    Jim, you are pointing out the hypocrisy of people. That is quite right and all cruelty to animals should be stopped not just elephants.
    Although the powers that be cannot carry this out completely, they could at least make a start. They could set a good example.

    Yahapalanaya could end elephants being used in peraheras. They could ban the caging of birds. They could close that national disgrace Dehiwela zoo.

    Things like a ban on fishing etc are impractical, too many human livelihoods depend on it but at least a start to alleviate suffering could be made.

    Do you think this will ever happen? No chance! The buggers are too heartless and greedy. You know how poor Tamil and Sinhala citizens have been treated by the police, the military and the government? If this is how they treat humans what chance do animals have? Zero! There is a greater probability that yahapalanaya will leap into action and print Amarasiri’s ‘Rights of Man’ article!

    • 2


      Come on.

      Seriously would you stop eating non veg for the rest of your life starting from today, never mind the poor Sinhalese and Tamils?

      Could you also find out from Jimmy if he/she/it is agreeable to a staple diet of bath with Centella asiatica.

      Your hypocrisy knows no bound.

      • 4

        I am vegetarian Vedda. It is not that difficult.

        • 2


          “I am vegetarian Vedda.”

          Welcome aboard.

          Definition of a vegetarian

          A person who does not eat meat or fish, and sometimes other animal products, especially for moral, religious, or health reasons.

          I suppose you are a strict adherent of vegetarianism.

          Do you eat egg, katta sambola, seeni sambol, …. ?

          Do you carry leather hand bag?

          Do you wear leather foot wear?

        • 2


          Props to you for being a Vegetarian!

          It seems some are valiantly grappling with your declaration that you are a vegetarian and have difficulty in understanding what it means

          • 2


            “It seems some are valiantly grappling with your declaration that you are a vegetarian and have difficulty in understanding what it means”

            Chinese, Korean and Japanese generally consider fish and egg as vegetarian. Eggetarians shun meat and fish but eat egg in any form or shape. Vegans don’t eat or drink milk or its derivatives. Strict Jain is prohibited from eating root vegetable.

            BTW, its not about my difficulty in understanding what taraki has said but about your misunderstanding of the culinary world around you.

            If you have any doubts on vegetarianism please feel free to drop a line.


            Konda Kavum is vegetarian sweet whereas kokis is not.

            You can have stuffed malu miris stir fry with or without maldive fish.

            • 1

              @”Native” Vedda

              LOL! You slay me!… Really !!

              There is a generally accepted definition of what a Vegetarian is., as well as what a Vegan is.

              Look it up instead of dreaming up sentences to justify your disconnect.

              “Chinese consider Fish as a Vegetable !!”… LMAO !!! The truth is, the Chinese DON’T consider it at all. Their culinary ingredient list is so varied that ANYTHING is up for grabs. The concept of vegetarianism as we (not you) generally understand it, is somewhat new to China.

              I seriously doubt whether you have seen a Kavun or a Kokis since your departure from Sri Lanka so you can be excused for not knowing the ingredient list for either.

              Ah.. but what am I doing here..? Not getting get paid to educate wise-guys !

              • 2


                “There is a generally accepted definition of what a Vegetarian is., as well as what a Vegan is.”

                Please let me know your generally accepted definition of vegetarian and vegan.

                Had you read through my comment at (February 8, 2016)11:06 pm before you started knocking your keyboard you would have noticed I have already given a definition which is widely accepted.

                “The concept of vegetarianism as we (not you) generally understand it, is somewhat new to China.”

                The ancient kingdom of Zhong Guo (China) had a long history of vegetarianism. The Chinese Kings Fu Xi and Thien Ce were vegetarians. The ancient Taoist were not only vegetarians but believed in and practiced pacifism and compassionism, unlike you lot.

                During Chow Dynasty people were taught universal love and vegetarianism, unlike you lot.

                Confucius was a practicing vegetarian.

                Han dynasty reintroduced vegetarianism following the spread of Buddhism from India.

                During Tang Dynasty Zen monks were vegans and they popularised vegetarianism among the people.

                Even during the late part of 18th century people from some parts of China practiced strict vegetarianism.

                At present according to some account about 50 million mainland Chinese consider themselves as strict vegetarians.

                The concept of vegetarianism existed existed for many millennia however it has changed somewhat, over a period of time.

                It is like Buddha’s teaching and the bastardize Sinhala/Buddhism.

                “I seriously doubt whether you have seen a Kavun or a Kokis since your departure”

                What do you think I am a coconut?

                “Ah.. but what am I doing here..?”

                Simply self ridiculing yourself.

                • 0

                  @”Native” Vedda

                  Oh No, No – my poor definition of Vegetarian won’t be necessary since you have enlightened me that the perfect definition is one where even Fish and Meat are vegetables.

                  I didn’t know we were talking about Ancient China. Silly me, I thought we were talking about the modern day where 5% of 1 billion plus Chinese people are vegetarians, compared that to the 31% of a billion Indians

                  Since you ask, I believe you ARE a coconut. Probably one taken as a seedling and planted in more economically salubrious climes where rice-flour-coconut milk kokis is a non-sweet, non-vegetarian item and Fish and Meat are classified as vegetables, where someone who admits to be a vegetarian is to be pilloried and given the third-degree as to whether they eat seeni-sambol or eggs .. tcha!

                  But, I am guilty of digressing from Elephants and attendant cruelty to this for which I apologise

          • 1

            He will always be grappling. He cannot differentiate between vegetarian and vegan. Just ignore him.

            • 2


              “He cannot differentiate between vegetarian and vegan.”

              Alright tell me what you believe a vegetarian should be, eat what, omit what, wear what, ……

              “Just ignore him.”

              He knows, I once told him to ignore me.

    • 0

      Don’t be extremist.

      I don’t think, as it is not the practice of christians they should criticize how buddhists should practice their culture.

      first stop killing animals for food.

  • 1

    Who is fighting for the poor fish? Billions of them are killed every year.

    • 1

      Nobody. Even Dharmasoka recognised that to stop all killing is impossible.

  • 2

    “Animal Abuse” is widely used anytime any animal is involved.

    Would you consider riding horse as animal abuse? Or catching fish by hooks or nets? Or using cow’s milk meant for calves?

    You see – there is more to the subject than simply making a blanket statement.

  • 2


    Do not be distracted by all the ambivalent comments here. Keep up your good work. The elephant belongs to the jungle. Not for the entertainment of tourist nor crass perehara crowds.

    If I could have my way I will apply the same declaration of human right to the animals as well. Unfortunately in this trice blessed country neither human rights nor animal rights can really be enforced.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.