Ban Howdah

What is a HOWDAH?

ridingHowdah-300x252Howdahs are the large metal or wooden saddles used by many elephant owners. They often come adorned with decorative and regal looking covers reminiscent of the days of the Maharaja’s but are they necessary and what are they hiding?!

The Howdah is back breaking work and are very bad for the long term health of elephants. Elephants that are used in this line of work often suffer from many injuries such as;

Pressure Wounds
Spinal Damage
Belly Abscesses
Rope Sores
Internal Injuries
Dehydration and Starvation

They will ultimately take years off an animal’s life. Howdahs even cause difficulty in drinking, eating and simple moving or breathing, because of the tight fitting harness, similar to a person wearing a tight corset.

Howdahs are often poorly constructed and the elephants are overloaded and worked for long periods of time, this leads to the frame rubbing their backs, causing blisters, abscesses and open wounds that can become infected. Here at MEF we have treated many elephants suffering with these wounds and injuries.


A wound caused by a Howdah

As a tourist we trust that animals being used for commercial purposes receive the best possible care but as we know this is not always the case. The howdah is often sold as a safety device to reassure riders which while it can be reassuring we believe that as a tourist it is fair and right that you have all information available to you so that you can make informed decisions about animal welfare in tourism.




We hope that by getting up close and personal with these amazing creatures and learning about them in our museum that you will go away with a deeper knowledge and understanding of the elephant and appreciate that we must all do everything that we can to protect and save these magnificent animals. All activities at the MEF are closely supervised to ensure visitor safety and to ensure that no harm or stress is placed on our elephants.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” –Gandhi


YES! Responsible Tourism

Riding bareback or with a slightly padded blanket as we do here at MEF is an obvious, cheap solution to the Howdah issue. Combined with limiting the number of riders at any one time, this will eliminate many of the injuries that elephants working in the tourist industry suffer each year. Simple alternatives such as these will lead to the animal suffering less stress and having a longer, happier life.

The management teams of the organisations using Howdahs are concerned that being able to take fewer people on rides at one time will lead to a dramatic loss of income, like us they have to pay large amounts of money to ‘hire’ the elephants, we hope that by making the elephant owners aware of the problems caused by howdahs they will realise that a healthy elephant will live longer and more income can be generated.

So next time you think about riding an elephant ask yourself…

Whats under the covers?

“May all that have life be delivered from suffering” – Buddha

Here at MEF we have launched a campaign to raise awareness among the elephant owners an would like to see the Howdah banned, starting in Sri Lanka and then hopefully worldwide!

Please join us by following the twitter campaign @MEFLiftTheCover, send in any donations that you can to support us and spread the word via facebook!

This campaign is dedicated to Sumana who we sadly lost in 2011. As seen above she had deep and infected wounds from a Howdah. We miss her terribly and want to stop others suffering as she did.


  • Blanket or bareback
  • Elephant less stressed
  • Tourists ride guilt free
  • Trauma and injuries eliminated
  • Elephant’s lifespan extended
  • Resulting in healthier elephants






March 2012 Update

New legislation published by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority gives new rules to abide by regarding Elephant Safari Tours- defined as using captive elephants to provide a unique experience.  A company providing elephant rides must register but yet it is unclear how often these facilities will be checked and what happens if you fail to register.

Sri Lanka subscribes to and upholds the 5 freedoms that a captive animal must enjoy- freedom from;

  • Malnutrition
  • Terminal Physical Discomfort
  • Injury and Disease
  • Fear and Stress
  • and to express normal patterns and behaviour

These five basic freedoms cannot be upheld by anyone using the Howdah on an elephant. The document goes on say that

  • The structure should be tied preferably with suitable matierials without causing any damage to the skin or injuries to the elephant.
  • Passenger weight should be well balanced on either side and no damage should be caused to the back bone of the elephant
  • Maximum of 4 passengers to be taken on an elephant back
  • On completion of the tour the structure and other materials used to be removed carefully from the elephant
  • The rides must not be permitted on tar/ public roads

Bearing this in mind, whats wrong with this picture?



There are SIX people on this elephant- the limit is Four. The elephant is walking on a public tarred road. Volunteers here at Millennium Elephant Foundation spotted this elephant working close to Sigiriya, they asked a few questions and were told that this elephant can be seen walking past every hour for seven hours a day. Guidelines state that elephants may only work maximum of 5 hours a day and must have a break with the Howdah removed after a ride longer than one hour.

Sadly legislation is not being followed and tourists are unwittingly encouraging the abuse of these animals.

We have also been informed by a vet that sadly Madhu who used to live with us here is now suffering from skin wounds caused by a Howdah, he also looks malnourished and is not walking properly. This poor elephant is under 20 years old and still growing therefor having untold damage done to his spine. We have also seen him tethered to a tree in between rides with the Howdah remaining in place on his back. Legislation says it should be removed after each ride.

Madhu is becoming ill from Howdah use


Poster by Mathaga against Howdahs