Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Surin Elephant Roundup, a government-sanctioned festival celebrating Thailand’s revered Asian elephant. The multi-day event draws large crowds all eager to witness elephants showcasing their amazing abilities. Elephants dancing to Gangnam Style, throwing darts to pop balloons, playing an organized game of soccer and even walking upright to slam dunk a basketball were all on display.
I think it’s safe to assume that everyone knows these skills are not natural for elephants to perform. No one would expect to witness a wild elephant in the jungle throwing something with its trunk at a target or walking upright on her hind legs, let alone kicking a ball or painting. Elephants are trained to do these tricks, and they’re smart enough to learn over 200 commands.
The Surin Elephant Roundup is a festival that attracts flocks of Thai and international tourists to an otherwise sleepy place. The natural forest habitat of the Asian elephant has been completely logged, and in its place are acres upon acres of rice fields. Surin province was once the heartland of Thailand’s wild elephants. Now, there are zero. Not a single wild elephant exists in Surin. There are, however, approximately 300 domesticated ones.
It may not be obvious, but in order for a new generation of elephants to be employed in the tourism industry, they must first be domesticated. Otherwise, it would be extremely dangerous to interact with these massive animals. After all, even trained elephants have been known to injure, sometimes fatally, their mahouts (caretakers).
The Surin Elephant Roundup requires all of the employed elephants registered in the province to return each November for the festival, regardless of where they’re currently working. Some make the 20-hour journey from trekking camps north of Chiang Mai, where others are trucked in from their street-begging night jobs in Phuket. The saddest journey of all, though, is when baby elephants are kidnapped from their mothers in the wild jungles of Burma, and illegally smuggled across the border into Thailand. These babies, scared beyond belief, are chained to females that have no milk to give, nor any interest in caring for babies that don’t belong to them.
I saw a terrified, motherless calf and my heart still breaks when I think of her. I know what her next chapter will be: if she survives the next year or so without the important nutrients only found in her mother’s milk, she’ll be malnourished when her mahouts force her into the torturous domestication process, known as the Phajaan in Thai. In English, the process is known as “the crush”, where young elephants are imprisoned in a cage so small they can’t turn around or lie down for 3-7 days, while they’re beaten with bats, poked with nail-studded sticks, and gouged with bull hooks incessantly until the elephants lose their spirit. Below is a video of a typical Phajaan, and I warn you, it is extremely graphic and disturbing:
At the Elephant Roundup in Surin, with excited onlookers all around, I only saw the bull hook serving as a constant reminder for each elephant to behave. After all, an elephant never forgets. Behind the scenes, however, like the morning before the chaotic elephant buffet at the festival, I witnessed its return to the weapon it is:
The elephant buffet is one of the main events of the festival and since many high-level Thai politicians and dignitaries are in attendance, the elephants must look their best. I was lucky enough to get behind the scenes and watch dozens of elephants getting scrubbed clean by their mahouts, interjected with whacks or pokes of the bull hooks.
The aforementioned buffet was the most heart-wrenching for me. I walked through the fruit- and vegetable-lined streets of downtown Surin, along with thousands of other tourists and over 200 elephants. I saw an elephant unsure of his footing, afraid to step on a tourist who wasn’t aware he was caught between two elephants. I saw elephants overeating, instinct telling them to eat the food offered but their stomachs refusing to accept anything else, and then throwing up. I saw beautifully clean elephants in the hot sun for hours, without mud on their skin for protection. I saw young elephants rocking in fear, with their mahouts forcing them to street beg for tiny sticks of bamboo, when the abundance of free food could have fed an entire village. And I was asked whether I needed a taxi ride back to my hotel, with the driver pointing to his elephant.
I know I’m not the only one that understands that kidnapping baby elephants from the wild, or torturing them into submission, or watching them perform tricks, or hiring them like taxis is wrong. But, stepping from behind the scenes at the Surin Elephant Roundup to see massive flocks of tourists thrilled at what they were able to witness, I never felt so alone in my beliefs.
Without a tourist industry supporting festivals like the Surin Elephant Roundup, or at elephant trekking camps, or at zoos and circuses, future generations of elephants will have a better chance at a cruelty-free life.
Thanks for reading, and I encourage you to share this with others.
48 thoughts on “Surin Elephant Roundup: Behind the Scenes”
Heartbreaking. This makes me so sad. I won't ever understand it. 🙁 Love you guys….and the new look of the blog…..Jeanne
I am so sad now… WUV WUV WUV
A Kings Life
We've been in Thailand for 2 weeks now and refuse to go to any of these attractions. We visited the Zoo and could see that the elephants where not very well taken care of.
The only way to change it, is to refuse to let that be a business by not participating in it.
It's sad to see tourists being sold these 'special' events when in fact, you've portrayed the reality of such a spectacle.
Thanks for your grateful informations, am working in Tourism Portal, so it will be helpful info for my works.
I was reading this at work and was almost sick to my stomach Mindy!! I feel sad for these poor innocent elephants!!!
I can barely stand to hear your story, it rips at my heart. I cannot see the movies, the still photos of cowering elephants and your stories are enough to make me sick. Thank you for bearing witness, it is a shameful tragedy of horrors.
Mindy & Ligeia
The videos certainly make one’s stomach turn. They’re important for those naive about the horrors behind the apparently peaceful act of riding elephants or seeing them perform tricks. Spreading this knowledge is necessary!
I live not too far from the ‘elephant village’ and I must admit that when I visited I didn’t see (notice) any signs of abuse. There are teams of volunteers there most of the time that help with caring for the elephants, I am sure that these (mostly American) young people would raise hell if they saw anything like this. However it is a fact that most of the elephants at the roundup don’t live in the village.
Hi David, thank you for your comment. I’ve been inside the Elephant Village twice now, and both times I saw almost all elephants tethered on short chains and exhibiting signs of stress from that (rocking, head-bobbing, biting their own trunk, etc.), as well as numerous mahouts wielding their bullhooks to remind their elephants to behave. Elephant rides and shows are offered as attractions, and to me, these are also forms of abuse. There are indeed volunteers who work within the Study Center, as part of a project from the Save Elephant Foundation. Currently only about 10% of the elephants living within the village are a part of the Surin Project, and they get to enjoy their days off chains and their mahouts must leave their bullhook at home. And Hell is certainly being raised, but our voices aren’t loud enough yet to overtake the draw of current elephant tourism in SE Asia.
Thank you for this EXCELLENT post. You are truly doing good for the elephants by witnessing and reporting on their lives.
Thank you, Amy. Witnessing and reporting is the least we can do. Thanks for witnessing more 🙂
feel sad now
I urge you to take your sadness and turn it into action. Tell your friends and family not to support attractions that aren’t elephant-friendly 🙂
This is heartbreaking. I was going to book a trip with Responsible vacation .com but I will tell them NO NO NO I will not support this abuse of such gentle, intelligent creatures.
Thankyou for writing this!
Thank you for taking the time to research responsible and sustainable travel activities. I took a quick look at the tours being offered at the website you mentioned, and discovered that at least one of their itineraries that includes an elephant attraction is actually a visit to Elephant Nature Park, a project under the Save Elephant Foundation umbrella and striving to protect the lives of Asian elephants. The pictures of elephants on their website, however, tell a very different story. Were you looking at a tour with them and found that they participate in activities that are unfriendly to elephants and/or other animals?
Thanks for your comment,
Making elephants walk a tightrope disturbs me.
As it should everyone!
Mindy – There are lots of people who think like you do… it will change, but one step at a time.
In the meantime, for encouragement and to fnd out who is trying to help and desperately needs the world to help her, look up Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, founder of the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Just type “Elephant Nature Park” into Youtube to see all the videos of fabulous work that has been done in the last 10 years of this charitable organisation.
Lek was born into the Karen tribe in the North of Thailand and this tiny woman has made the world aware of the plight of the Captive Asian Elephant in Thailand. Her eventual goal is to see the end of captivity and for all young elephants (born to captives) to be returned to the wild, but this is still a long term goal.
Through large donations from overseas benefactors, Lek is able to travel each year to the Surin Roundup Festival to buy an elephant out of slavery… sometimes, she has enough to buy two elephants. Then she transports them in a specially converted truck, riding with them herself for up to 24 hours to get them to her beautiful park. Here they are treated for injuries (some are very severe) and allowed to form family groups with other elephants and roam the park freely to enjoy their new open green spaces.
The Elephant Nature Park is absolutely the most perfect place for visitors to go… you can feed the elephants and help bathe them. You cannot ride them, tease them or expect them to do tricks. The mahouts are specially trained and you will not see one bullhook “anker” in the hand of anyone here. A visit will leave your soul soaring… and if you have the time, volunteering for a week or two is even better. (Oh and everyone here is vegetarian… so don’t expect any meat to eat on your visit – but you’ll have masses of great food).
please go and look at what this tiny, hard-working “Lek” has created. She is the kindest person on the planet. When Bangkok had its massive floods last year, “Lek” arranged for dogs to be rescued… mostly abandoned street dogs. She now has 400 in the park although you’d not know it. They are all quiet, healthy and well-behaved. This womans love for the world transforms everyone and every animal she touches. Her park is unique although some of the trekking camps are trying to emulate some of her program to fool tourists into believing they are kind to the elephants too.
My wife and I volunteered at Elephant Nature Park about a year ago, fell in love with the place and it changed our lives. We live in Chiang Mai, and I am lucky enough to work with Lek at her foundation, Save Elephant Foundation (http://www.saveelephant.org).
We actually just spent the day with her today at ENP enjoying the 10-year anniversary at that location! Lek’s foundation not only supports ENP, but numerous other projects, including the Surin Project, Journey to Freedom, the Dog Rescue project which you mention in your comment, Thailand Cares, her newest project in Cambodia, and a few others.
With Lek, I have had the opportunity to participate in two elephant rescues: during the Surin Elephant Roundup in November 2012, when I wrote this post, I was part of Dao Tong’s rescue and drove back with her to ENP; and at the end of January of this year, I headed back to Surin to help rescue Lucky. Both were wonderful experiences!
Thank you for your comment and writing such wonderful words about Lek and her work. Just to let you know, I have edited your post and removed the links you gave for ENP. That link doesn’t represent Lek’s foundation and the Save Elephant Foundation is the only link we want to promote on our site.
I just want to say a huge thank you for writing this post!! I have been wanting to volunteer with a group in Surin for a while now, but I wanted to make sure that I would be working with a company that really makes a difference. Part of their volunteer trip is to go watch this Elephant Round-up and that was when I started doubting the affect this volunteer group was really having. If they were inviting volunteers to come help the elephants, why would they promote this festival where there is doubtless huge amounts of abuse going on?? I have searched high and low for the truth behind the treatment of elephants in this festival, and this is the only article I have found describing what actually goes on.
Thank you so much!
Thank you for your comment! I knew when I visited the Surin Elephant Roundup that I was strictly going as a witness and to collect as many facts as possible. I’m happy that the sadness, fear and abuse that I saw, felt and reported has made a difference and done some good. If you’re interested in volunteering to help the elephants in Surin, I recommend investigating the Surin Project. I truly believe this is a group doing genuine good for the elephants in the province.
The elephants here in Surin (I’ve been here for 13yrs and Thailand for 20+ total) are pretty good its the elephants in Phuket / Pattaya and Bangkok that are really being misused. With construction and logging being taken over by machines these elephants which are generally raised with people have no other choice. They can’t be re-wilded due to habitat lose and the Thai’s that for hundreds of years used and raised them are also stuck.
Thanks for your comment. In my post, I tried not to compare the lives of elephants in Surin to the lives of elephants in other provinces. I strongly feel that all captive elephants in Thailand have a difficult, some far worse than others.
I disagree with your point that Thais “have no other choice” when it comes to their elephants. I believe it’s a matter of educating people, both Thai and foreign, as to other options that allow for a better life for both mahout and elephant. With education about the plight of Asian elephants and how the tourist industry negatively affects the species, more tourists are visiting sanctuaries.
One of my main points in my post is that I worry about the future of elephants. A tourist industry that drives people to kidnap wild elephants is not a sustainable one. Traditionally, in the hundreds of years before the 21st century, Thais had not been taking elephants from the jungles at such a staggering rate. This is only driven due to the demand of ivory and the tourist industry.
Thanks again for your comment!
I’m an American volunteer assigned to Kalasin province, and one of my fellow volunteer friends works in Surin, about 25 minutes from the amphur muang. I’m so thankful you posted this information about the roundup because several of us were concerned about the treatment of the elephants during the festival, and this confirmed our fears. But it’s good information to have and to pass along to others who may be unaware. My friend recently visited Elephant Nature Park with her parents after researching all the various parks in the Chiang Mai area. I hope to visit and volunteer there soon!
Although most of the volunteers I know who had considered going to the roundup are now boycotting it on principle, I am really interested in knowing how you were able to attain some of your behind the scenes information and access. I was a photographer and videographer in the Army for 10 years and feel a pull to document the tough reality of what happens behind the scenes to people are more aware of what’s actually going on. As with anything of this nature, I know it would have to be done with finesse, and the other volunteers and I have pretty good language skills at this point. I think it would be interesting to interview some of the local residents and volunteers with the Surin Project. Do you have any suggestions for getting more behind the scenes at the roundup this year? Thank you so much!
Thank you so much for your comment. This post was extremely difficult to write as it dealt with considerable heartache and pain, and I feel relieved that good is coming from it. If you can, certainly try and volunteer with the Surin Project as they’re doing amazing work. That project is also run by the same foundation that supports Elephant Nature Park, the Save Elephant Foundation.
Thank you for letting me know about the volunteer boycott of the festival. The fewer visitors the Round Up gets, the less likely it will be that the elephants get forced through it.
I’m from England, but currently living in Uruguay and a former Veterinary student, today in the local news I came across a video that showed these poor beautiful creatures and how they are treated, the Phajaan, ilegal logging industry and being forced to beg on the streets. What suprised me even more was how their numbers have dropped so dramatically in the last century. Due to this I started to look up organization pages to see what I could do from here, where I wrote to ENP and am about to sponser one of the elephants and try to send money for there wishlist.
Thank you so much for posting this, I can’t beleive people aren’t more aware of what is happening to elephants in Africa & Asia.
What else can I do from here to help?
Thank you again, best regards,
Thank you for reading and for leaving a comment. On the trip I made to the Surin Elephant Roundup, I was a witness to the rescue of Dao Tong, who is now a happy nanny to Navann at ENP 🙂 In terms of what can be done, increasing awareness about the plight of elephants (poaching for ivory in Africa and tourism in Thailand) is the strongest course of action, in my opinion. Also, writing to your government to put pressure on Thai lawmakers to change the status of Asian elephants from “livestock” to “protected” would be a great first step!
Thank you for your passion and compassion for helping these wonderful animals!
Devastating … but, apart from avoiding attending these type of events, what on earth can one do to stop this brutality? Rightly or wrongly, we have just abandoned plans to visit Thailand.
Not visiting Thailand ensures that the tourist industry doesn’t get your well-earned money, so in one way, that helps. However, what it also does is not give money to the organizations that offer elephant-friendlier experiences. Money makes this world go ’round, and if owners of trekking camps, circus shows and the like see that more and more tourists are visiting sanctuaries (which might charge more!), we might start to see the model change. Thailand needs our money, but we need more education so that tourists know where to spend it!
Thanks for reading! 🙂
Hi again, I’ve just seen your reply to Jessica. Good suggestions. Thanks.
Awareness is growing!
I became aware of the situation of the elephants only a few months ago and I can’t believe it’s still not obvious for everyone when so many agencies even in our westernised countries propose programs in Thailand or else, where you can ride elephants etc…I’m starting to do my part convincing other bloggers not to ride elephants when going there (aparently attraction number one) and they usualy agree. I’m planning a big travel around the world with my partner and can’t wait to work at the ENP and the Surin project and meet the wonderful Leik!
There are some really interesting documentation on the subject:
How I became an elephant
An elephant never forget
The elephant whisperer
Thanks for this post!
Thanks for an important post. I am seriously considering a week of volunteering at the Surin Project, but my concern is whether it’s valid to encourage any sort of tourism at all surrounding elephants unless it’s a sanctuary like the ENP. Obviously, the opportunity to make even 12 elephants’ captive life better for a few hours a day by taking them on walks and knowing they’re not being handled with bullhooks is a huge incentive to volunteer… but the bigger picture worries me… would it encourage other mahouts to kidnap baby elephants and then enter them into the Surin Project knowing they’ll get paid more… you get the idea, I’m sure.
I really want to do something worthwhile and I know that the elephant issue in Thailand is immensely complex, and of course they can’t just all be released. I just don’t want to do anything that encourages any *new* captive elephants… It sounds like you’ve got a decent amount of experience with elephant rescues and conservation in Thailand, so I’d genuinely like to hear your thoughts.
Thanks for your time and energy put into this post!
Thanks for your comment. In my personal opinion, the Surin Project is possibly the most important project in Thailand advocating elephant rights. The reason for this is that you volunteer directly with the mahouts and their families, in their village. Only 10% of the elephants living at the Surin Elephant Study Center have joined the project, so there is still considerable sadness and suffering there. The more volunteers the project receives, the more the mahouts see the demand for such a project. Also, with more volunteers, the project will have more money to support more elephants to join the project.
Please know, that even with the added salary for mahouts with the Surin Project, it’s nowhere near the amount it costs to kidnap and smuggle a baby elephant across the border. The families living in Baan Tha Klang (the village of the Study Center), generally, are there so that they can live together and the father doesn’t have to be out street-begging with his elephant.
Slowly, very slowly, elephant owners in Thailand are seeing the benefit of lower impact elephant attractions (feeding, bathing, observing). Volunteering at the Surin Project will not only be life-changing for you, but I trust it will eventually be life-changing for the elephants.
Was considering this for November but now I’m put off completely. I’ve seen more touristy elephant shows before and wasn’t amused and obviously elephants dancing to Gangnam style is far from tradition. Unfortunate and sad.
This is so sad. Thank you for writing about it so travelers can be more aware of what’s going on with elephants. Really important to know it’s not all fun and games!
Camels & Chocolate
Ugh, this is heartbreaking. I hope every traveler considering this festival Googles it and finds this post.
Bounding Over Our Steps
We do too.
Giselle and Cody
How heartbreaking to know this exploitation is happening presently…..but we have hope and know that things are slowly changing. We are happy to be a part of that change.
I admit, when I first came to Thailand as a naive 19 year old, I heard of the Surin Elephant Roundup and thought, “that sounds cool!” I hoped to attend one day. Obviously over time I learned so much about the elephant tourism industry — including when I met you during my trip to Elephant Nature Park! — and now I see the sadness behind it. Education is the way forward — thank you for doing your part.
hi Mindy !
I am SOOO glad to have come across your postings! I was wondering about the “Elephant Party,” wondering if there wer anything good about it… THANKS for your behind the scenes postings!
G-d Bless and G-d speed in all your endeavors!
Sorry to have missed you this yr, returning to ENP — and glad to know you are ever spreading your Good Will and Open Heart!
i was crying during the show in surin, i dident understand why, but i felt very ad watching the show. i have also visitded tiger zoo outside phattaya, that place made me sick..
It sounds like it’s time to stop visiting animal attractions. You care too much for the animals <3
Thanks for reading 🙂
Very interesting celebration, but I was sad, elephants is one of the smartest animals of the world, and deserves better treatment, this is big mistake. I know that Thailand is very poor country but too much.
Hi Mindy, thank you so much for your blog. I was looking at taking a volunteer vacation in Surin Thailand to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary. I think it’s called the Surin Project. What do you think of those? I have always wanted to help the elephants but I don’t want to contribute to their hardship.
Bounding Over Our Steps
Thanks for your comment and for doing your research to volunteer at a reputable and sustainable place to help elephants. With regards to the Suring Project, I definitely recommend it. We’ve volunteered there and worked very closely with Save Elephant Foundation when we lived in Thailand. You can read about our experience at the project in our posts here: and .
I hope that this helps.
Hi Mindy. My THAI family and I were planning to go to The Surin Roundup as it not far for us to drive to. In light of what we suspected I would rather not go, do you know if we can day visit the surin project as an alternative to going to the round up?
I’m really happy to hear that you won’t be attending the Surin Roundup. In terms of visiting the Surin Project, I’m not sure if they’re set up for day visitors, as they are primarily focused on working with week-long volunteers. However, I recommend that you contact them directly to see if visits are now offered: http://www.surinproject.org/contact_us.html 🙂
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