Home » “I rode an elephant”: A confession from Intrepid’s CEO

“I rode an elephant”: A confession from Intrepid’s CEO

written by James Thornton August 12, 2019
People riding elephants in Thailand

Mistakes, we’ve made a few. In fact, you probably have too. But for Intrepid CEO James Thornton, who has his own confession to make, being open about our mistakes can make us not just better travellers, but better people too.

“There are plenty of things I’ve done over the course of my life that I’m not proud of. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t made mistakes in their lifetime. If we never made mistakes, we’d never grow into functioning, morally minded, opinion-having adults.

A man standing inside a temple

Intrepid CEO James Thornton.

And so, as CEO of one of the world’s largest sustainable travel companies, a travel company that five years ago made the decision to ban elephant rides on all of its trips, I have a confession to make:

In 2004, I rode an elephant in Thailand.

I know. I don’t feel great about it. In fact, I didn’t feel great about it at the time, and that was before we knew how much these animals have to suffer for our enjoyment. But – and this is going to sound like a complete cop out – it’s just what people did back then.


We’ve all been in those situations, and they can be particularly prevalent when we’re travelling, when something might just seem a little bit off-kilter (lukewarm food, I’m looking at you). But everyone else goes along with it, so you do too.

I’m no veterinarian but those elephants in Thailand didn’t look particularly happy. But there was part of my brain that said, “surely, if this was dodgy in any way, we wouldn’t be allowed to do it.” And so on I went, just another one of the tens of thousands of tourists sucked in by this heavily-touted ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.

A close up of an elephants eye

“Surely, if this was dodgy, we wouldn’t be allowed to do it.”

As I mentioned above, mistakes are an essential part of life. As a company, Intrepid made the mistake of offering elephant rides for nearly 20 years. And as a company, as soon as Intrepid realised that mistake, we invested the necessary time, money and energy to fix it.

In 2010, we partnered with World Animal Protection, a global not-for-profit animal welfare group, to commission one of the first studies into elephant conditions on the ground. We looked at 118 wildlife projects and businesses all over Thailand. The results revealed an industry that was trading on animal cruelty.


In 2014, we removed elephant rides on all our trips. It was an industry-shaking move at the time. Intrepid was the first global travel company to take this stance, but happily, we weren’t the last. Since then, over 200 travel companies around the world, including heavyweights like TripAdvisor, have followed our lead and removed elephant riding from their itineraries.

Now every action has a reaction, so from 2020, Intrepid will be offering new trips and initiatives in Thailand and Laos that help support the animals and mahouts (elephant handlers) impacted by our 2014 decision.

Travellers will be able to watch elephants roam and swim in their natural habitat at MandaLao, the first non-elephant riding sanctuary in Luang Prabang. And Intrepid’s not-for-profit, The Intrepid Foundation, will also be raising funds to help support the organisation.


In Thailand, travellers from will be able to visit the ChangChill, an organisation that supports the protection, conservation and lifestyle of free roaming elephants in the area. These new experiences will be totally immersive, educational and experiential – and they will cause absolutely no harm to the elephants.


I wanted to talk about this on World Elephant Day because I think it’s important for us all to face up to the mistakes we’ve made – whether in travel or everyday life. Positive change doesn’t happen when we’re living in regret, fear or shame. Positive change happens when we’re able to be honest and open with our community and say, “Yep, I messed up. But here’s what I’m going to do about it.”

It doesn’t end with being honest about our mistakes, either. We also have a responsibility to listen to what other people have to say without judging or chastising them. One of the best things about mistakes, actually, is that we can also learn from the mistakes of others. So the more we share, the more likely we are to make better decisions moving forward.

You’re not alone if you’ve ever ridden an elephant. But this World Elephant Day, we ask you to join us and share your experiences to help raise awareness and stop elephant rides for good. Tell us your story on Facebook or Instagram – don’t forget to use the hashtags #StopElephantRides – and tag @intrepidtravel so we can see your post.”

Feature photo by Matt Freer. 

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Penny Bliznakova August 13, 2019 - 7:10 am

What about swimming with dolphins or sharks? Are these a part of you itinerary? Anything to do with animals and tourism up close encounters are all dodgy. I too have made mistakes, and have learned of the underbelly of this industry. Where do you stand on the other animal encounters?

Grace Kingsley August 12, 2019 - 6:48 pm

On a trip to Thailand with yourselves in 2011 I too rode an elephant. It was in the Elephant Santuary in Chang Mai, and I honestly felt the same as you – if it was bad, we wouldn’t be allowed do it. On the trip our guide was very clear in expressing that Intrepid did not support visits to Tiger Village and we would need to do this alone if we so wish (I didn’t). Knowing what I know now, I feel guilty for the elephant ride and ticking it off my bucket list. Well done to you for addressing the issues, owning them, and making changes.


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