Spending times with elephants is an amazing experience and many people actually have elephant riding on their bucket list. Sitting on the back of this majestic animal and letting it carry you through the jungle might sound really exciting at first but once you do it something just doesn’t feel right. I’m ashamed to say it but I was one of those people that put elephant riding on the top of their bucket list. However, ever since I did this, I’ve had this overwhelming sense that something isn’t right. In the years following this trip, I researched and learned a lot about elephant riding and wildlife tourism in general. I learned the truth about riding elephants.
I learned about the abuse these animals endure and the conditions they live in. After that, I am ashamed to say I contributed to it, unknowingly or not. Still debating whether or not you should ride an elephant?
Here are more reasons you should skip the trek and head to a sanctuary that doesn’t have rides or circuses. That’s why I am writing this article: because I know that there are many people like me that consider these tours because they aren’t aware of the harm their actions are causing. Here are some reasons not to…
1. A life spent in captivity
There are approximately 50,000 Asian elephants and IUCN Red List lists them as “endangered”. Elephants are used for tourist rides or safaris in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The WAP (World Animal Protection) came out with a report titled “Wildlife on a Tightrope“ in which the living conditions of captive elephants in Thailand were documented. The report includes 118 venues in which were a “home” to more than 1,600 elephants. Most of them offered elephant rides or other kinds of attractions.
This report stated that more than half of those elephants live in terrible conditions bound by “extreme restraints”. Many of them weren’t allowed to socialize with other elephants and some of them didn’t even receive veterinary care. These elephants were separated from their mothers when they were only a few months old. Various methods were used to break their spirits and get them to “behave” and perform. One of them is…
2. The crush process
Riding an elephant may seem like a fun and harmless, innocent activity but that can’t be further away from the truth. Elephants are wild animals that are not supposed to be ridden by humans. Always remember that they allow you to get on top of them because they have been subjected to cruelty at every turn.
National Geographic aired the first documentary about the so-called Crush process in 2002. In the video, you could see men who terrorize a wild baby elephant in a cage for days in order to crush his spirit and prepare him for a life in the tourism industry.
Another brutal way in which elephants are forced into captivity is the pit trap method, where a herd is corralled into a corridor where a pit has been dug. If this is not enough to convince you to skip the elephant riding activities, hold on- there’s more.
3. The elephants’ health
The elephant spines can’t support the weight of people and carrying us around on their backs all day can lead to permanent spinal injuries. This would have a similar effect of wearing a 50-pound backpack for nine hours a day, every day. Imagine the long-term damage that might come from that. Doesn’t sound really good, does it?
Additionally, the implications from carrying a howdah chair on their backs to make you feel more comfortable are even worse. This chair rubs on their back and causes blisters that can very easily cause an infection, especially when performing longer treks.
4. Their social interaction
Just like humans, elephants are living creatures. They like to socialize with their own kind and have families and friends. Unfortunately, they cannot have any of that in most tourist venue. They spend most of their lives chained and without interacting with other elephants.
5. The living conditions
This point partially overlaps with all of the four previous points but it doesn’t end there. I’ve seen treks in which baby elephants are chained to their mother and must keep pace with the adult elephant, which is obviously difficult and they will get tired sooner or later. This is when the guide or mahout will prod the baby elephant with a bullhook to make it keep moving. This bullhook is something the elephant will remember for the rest of his life and something that will have the power to immediately strike fear in them.
So, Why Are People Still Riding Them?
I think for most people it’s simply the lack of awareness that causes them to indulge in these activities. If they would see the videos or read more about this topic, I think most of them would decide to cross elephant riding off their bucket lists. Even if we leave the bullhooks and electric prods aside, there are still many good reasons to skip this activity and find a more humane way to interact with elephants.
This problem, however, is still far from simple, as there are some places that actually take good cares of elephants. However, if they offer elephant rides or similar activities, they probably are not. As with many other things in life, knowledge is power. So now you know, what can you do about?
Firstly, be careful about the so-called ‘sanctuaries’
Many of these so-called sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers are nothing more than a mask. They abuse and exploit the elephants for profit like many other tourist venues. The problem here is that most travelers think that by supporting these businesses, their actions are ethical. They assume that the trek is nothing harmful and that the elephants aren’t subjected to any brutality.
But they are.
If you’re doing anything that involves riding an elephant, watching them perform or do some other tricks, you’re certainly not doing the elephants a favor.
Secondly, sign a petition
Additionally, you can sign the World Animal Protections’ pledge against cruelty and abuse on wild animals used for entertainment. Your signature can help make a difference.
But what about the locals and their livelihood?
The biggest argument the traditional wildlife tourism industry has is probably the paradigm that boycotting these activities could worsen the livelihood of traditional communities who rely on their elephants as a source of income, leading towards social and economic problems.
Personally, I don’t see this happening.
In my opinion, the locals could still earn a living by operating in a responsible and ethical way. There will always be responsible tourists who want to see and interact with elephants even if they aren’t allowed to ride them. Additionally, many more travelers aware of this issue would support these businesses, allowing them to generate even more revenues.
How to recognize an elephant-friendly sanctuary?
- You know you’re experiencing an ethical elephant encounter when elephants don’t participate in any entertainment activities. There are no rides, no activities or shows.
- The venue has a transparent record
- No captive breeding takes place because it is not always successful and can sometimes even lead to physical injuries. Additionally, it takes attention away from rescuing and taking care of the elephants.
- There’s no commercial trade of elephants taking place. The ethical venues acquire their elephants either via donations, confiscations or as part of an alternative livelihood initiative.
- The elephants should have social interaction in natural groupings and should be able to move freely.
- Appropriate and accurate education is provided and venues provide an appropriate education for their visitors in order to raise awareness of animal welfare concerns.
Finally, remember that just like in economics 101, the demand creates the supply. In this case, the demand for animal entertainment creates the supply. As long as people (you) are interested in this, these poor animals will be used and abused for profit.
Related: myth-busting: no one really gets paid to travel the world.