Don't Ride Elephants!
The idea of riding on elephants is romantic, and is a bucket list item for many people. Many people say that it's because they adore elephants and that is why they want this experience. I don't doubt that, and I don't doubt that they are the animal lovers that they claim. However, even a tiny bit of research tells you that it is not in an elephant's nature to perform tricks or give rides to humans. If you don't read any further, but truly love elephants, then please just do some research before you do it.
Let me be honest. I have loved elephants for a long time. I don't remember when this love began, but it has steadily grown. In the beginning, wanting to have the experience of riding an elephant was on my bucket list as well, because I just thought of it at face value, that is, me smiling on an elephant, who in my day dream, was smiling as well, and who was well-treated, and it was a mutually enjoyable experience. Obviously, as I got older, and I began to be more aware of animals, and what's natural for them and what's not, I started research into how humane it is to ride an elephant. I mean, simply type into your google search bar, Is it cruel to ride an elephant, and without even reading the articles, the titles scream don't do it. So, please, don't do it.
Elephants are the largest land animals on this Earth. Even more amazing is the often human-like characteristics they possess that make us feel even more drawn to them. We see the way they treat each other, the way they can cooperate, come together, take care of each other, mourn for one another, coupled with their intelligence and sheer magnificence, and it's no wonder we want the opportunity to be around them. However, to make these elephants perform for humans, or reach a point where they let humans ride them, they endure years of 'breaking in' or 'crushing'. The training process is cruel. The acts are cruel. The captivity is cruel. The treatment is cruel.
I just wanted to go into a little bit of what elephants go through from the wild to being 'human-friendly'. Firstly, baby elephants are gold in the tourism industry, as they are often seen as easier to train. Elephants are very protective by nature, and as such, the mothers and others in the elephant tribe would not easily let the baby be taken. To get these baby elephants, the mother and other adult elephants around are killed, and the babies taken away. Once captured, they go through the 'phaajan' or 'training crush' which means breaking the elephant's spirit. The elephant is placed in a small, strong cage, or tied with ropes and chains, with the goal being to make the animal unable to move. This is supposed to create enough fear that the elephant will no longer kick, or even raise its head. This is so that in the future when the elephant is told the commands learnt during the crush, it obeys. It is not uncommon for other tactics of deprivation of food, water, sleep and abuse (use of bull-hooks, chains, sticks to beat the elephant in sensitive areas) to be used both during this process and afterwards to remind the elephant that it needs to remain submissive. Once the elephants are broken in, and being used for rides, or in acts, they are often made to walk miles for full days on hot tar pavements, which are torture on their feet. They often end up with cuts, and abscesses, but do not receive the necessary veterinary care. They are kept underfed, and dehydrated, and shackled. Elephants need to be in the company of other elephants to thrive, or they emotionally suffer, so when they are not just in captivity, but in solitary captivity, it is often an unbearable torment. Elephants, although huge creatures are not meant to carry the weight of humans, and the damaging seats which pierce their skin, and especially not for the periods they are subjected to, and as such suffer permanent spinal injuries. Through it all, these elephants are overworked, to the point where they will most likely die from this, often suffering heart attacks in the heat on one of their many long days. Keep in mind that elephants never forget, so even if they are eventually saved, they will forever be aware and tortured by the cruelty they endured.
Our desire to be close to elephants is a major reason they are being captured, hurt, and tortured. In this age of social media, everyone wants that Instagram shot riding an elephant, or taking a selfie or ten with an elephant. These are the reasons that more and more elephants are being captured and taken into captivity, and forced to work in the tourism industry. If we stop supporting them, the demand will decrease, and then disappear, and maybe then elephants will have a chance to be free.
Elephants are not only facing extinction because of tourism. They are also facing extinction because of greedy, cruel persons who hunt them for their ivory, and habitat loss, but in this article I just wanted to focus on why not to support elephant tourism. As travel becomes more accessible to everyone, it has become a bigger industry, and therefore it's more important now than ever that people are educated before they take part in experiences they probably would not support if they were truly aware.
If you truly want an authentic elephant experience, there are sanctuaries that have elephants where you can visit, and in some cases, get up close and personal and even feed them, etc. However, if you ever see an establishment calling itself a sanctuary, and in the next breath offering elephant rides, be aware enough to know that is not a real sanctuary, and do not support. Please. I have come across quite a few of these, because whenever I'm going to any country, I always check for elephant sanctuaries.
Trip Advisor in 2016 stopped selling tickets to wildlife experiences which included touching the animals. This included elephant riding. Well done Trip Advisor, on this ethical step. Once more companies get on board, it will send the message that these 'attractions' are not okay. Once they are not supported, and easily accessible, they will become less of a tourist attraction. I believe in giving people alternatives. I am telling you don't ride an elephant, but I am definitely not telling you not to have an elephant experience.
I wanted to highlight just a few of the options available, but there are others, so do some research before your trip, and be a part of the solution, not the problem. Please. I've just focused on Thailand because it's one of the major hubs for elephant rides.
Located in Chiang Mai, the park offers short visits, day visits, and overnight visits which are very interactive allowing you to assist with the feeding and bathing of the elephants. There are also other animals on the sanctuary, so if you're a true animal lover, it'll be a treat.
The Elephant Refuge and Education Centre is located about 160km west of Bangkok. This allows 1 - 4 week volunteer opportunities where you get the full elephant experience, with educational and hands-on opportunities.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is located in Phuket, and allows daily or overnight visits, with the nightly stay at the nearly local village.
Elephant Hills is located in Khao Sok, part of Southern Thailand's largest primary rainforest, and offers 2 - 4 day luxury adventure tours, where you get to wash, feed and interact with the elephants.
Located in Kenya, the facilities are only open to the public for one hour between 11am-Noon, when the orphans arrive for their mud-bathing and feeding. This costs US$7. There are no volunteer opportunities available as the DSWT believe that caring for elephants is a long term commitment due to the emotional nature of the animals, and as such, all volunteers commit to at least a ten year period. This is extremely admirable.
***I am actually reading a book about the history of the DSWT foundation which does amazing work, and hopefully I will finish within my ten days so I can also include a review of that, so stay tuned.
To summarise, this is what elephants go through to become tame enough for tourist interaction:
1) Baby elephants are torn from their mothers;
2) The Crush;
3) Living constantly in fear, in a master and slave relationship with the mahout and elephant;
4) Walking on hot, tar roads for hours without reprieve;
5) Trained with spiked chains and ankush/bullhooks;
6) No veterinary care;
7) Dehydration, cracked feet and abscesses;
8) Being shackled for long periods in the heat;
9) Elephants never forget.
Happy World Elephant Day 2017! I know this was not a happy, or pleasant post, but it's reality, and it needed to be shared. Join me by subscribing to my blog as I share ten days of informative posts and articles showing why elephants are on the brink of extinction, and how each of us can help. Please share this post to make as many people aware as possible. Also, engage people in conversation about the topic. It's interesting, informative, and can help save an elephant's life.
Light and love always!