It might be on your bucket list: to ride an elephant. They're big, strong creatures who enjoy human interaction and can easily carry my weight, right?
I was lucky enough to spend a week hanging out in the jungle with a herd of 4 elephants through Elephant Nature Park's Journey to Freedom volunteer program. During the week, we ventured through the jungle following the herd, harvested special types of grass for them to eat, and talked with the local Karen Hill Tribe about conservation efforts. I've been in love with elephants for as long as I can remember, but my week with Journey to Freedom shed some new light about the role elephants have in Southeast Asia's tourism industry. Here's what you need to know about why riding an elephant is NOT as glamorous as it may seem:
1) A Broken Spirit: Many elephants are illegally captured in order to enter the tourism industry, either begging on the street, performing in circuses, or giving rides to tourists. In order for them to be compliant and obey their mahouts (trainers), they must first be broken. An approximate month long process where the elephant is tied up and abused until they obey out of fear. Check out this short video for more information on the breaking process.
2) Strong, But Not Invincible: Elephants are large and mighty, there's no doubt about that. But what you need to understand is that an elephant is not only giving you a ride. The elephant you see for an hour will see about 10-15 other groups of tourists that same day, probably without a food/water break. Not only do they have to carry you, they have to carry a 50kg iron seat on their back as well. Healthy elephants have a hump on their back. An elephant that has been giving tourist rides for many years will have a flat back due to constant weight bearing.
3) Mistreatment: The breaking process is just the beginning of the mistreatment these animals will face. Mahouts use bullhooks to control the elephant, often on a sensitive part of the body, like behind the ears. I even saw some elephants with holes in their ears and damage to their eyes from the bullhook. Misbehaviour often results in abuse from the mahout.
Malnourishment: Wild elephants eat approximately 150-300kg of food a day (and only actually digest about 50% of it), and drink approximately 150L of water. During my week with the herd, I learned that they love banana leaves, and they NEVER stop eating, unless maybe its time for a mud bath or a quick nap. The elephants living in trekking camps receive a diet of fruits such as watermelon and vegetables such as corn husks and cucumber. While these may be a tasty treat for the elephants, it it not nearly enough food and does not give them the proper nutrition they need.
Elephants are meant to live in the wild. Not on the street, in the circus, or in a trekking camp. They are meant to roam free, not remain chained up and forced to perform for their lives.
The good news for us travellers is that there are other, ethical options to get up close and personal with these beautiful creatures. Elephant sanctuaries for rescued and retired elephants are becoming much more prevalent around Southeast Asia, as many tourists are opting out of riding, and looking for a better way to interact with the gentle giants. Here's a list of some popular sanctuaries with a good track record to check out:
It is important to remember that there is NO such thing as ethical riding. There are many camps that will advertise how happy their elephants are since they stopped using Howah's (iron chairs), but these elephants have still gone through the breaking process, are still working 12-15 hours a day without proper nutrition, and are kept in small stalls.
During my time in Pai, a small town in Northern Thailand, I had several interactions with elephants. Some were wonderful. Others, not so much. Some friends and I were driving on our motorbikes, enjoying the Pai countryside, when we passed a trekking camp. The elephants were chained less than 100 metres from the road in small, concrete stalls. Many of them were swaying back and forth, which is a sign of distress. One was resting it's head on the wooden post, it's trunk limp, trying to rest before being forced to give another ride. They looked tired and beaten down. Their eyes were lifeless. If that wasn't enough to cause tears to well up in my eyes, the next interaction sure was. A few days later we drove down the same road. I was curious to see the state the elephants were in, but when we drove by, they weren't in their stalls. We kept driving, and within a few short minutes, we found them. 3 elephants, big, beautiful elephants, walking on the concrete road designed for motor vehicles, many of which zoomed past with no concern. The elephants all had a large iron chair on their back, a mahout on their neck with a bullhook pressed into their temples, and two tourists, happy as can be, sitting on their backs. The smiles on the tourists faces compared to the sadness and despair in the elephants eyes made me sick, and caused me to do something I never thought I would. As we drove past, a surge of frustration and anger came over me, and I yelled a big "fuck you" to everyone riding. I don't know why. I knew it wouldn't change anything. I knew the mahouts were just trying to earn an income. But something took over me in that moment, and I haven't been able to shake it ever since. It started a fire in me that I don't think will ever go out. And I hope it never does.
I wrote this post particularly on elephants because I've had a lot of personal experience with them and have done a lot of research on this issue. However, there are many animals that are forced into the tourism industry as well. Tigers and lions are drugged and forced to take photos at various tiger temples around Southeast Asia, and swimming with dolphins in places like Mexico are just a couple examples. If a wild animal has been trained to play nice with tourists, or is being drugged to do so, it is is no way ethical.
There is still a lot of debate about sanctuaries, and whether or not tourists should be allowed to have any interaction with animals at all. Many people believe that wild animals should remain wild, and that humans should keep their distance. While I agree with this, I also believe that sanctuaries are doing a wonderful thing by allowing retired and rescued animals to have a better life, filled with so much love from caring people. Elephants who have been working their whole lives and have survived off of watermelon and corn at certain meal times, have slept in a cage, and are used to being told what to do, and where to go, have a difficult time transitioning to surviving in the wild. Sanctuaries provide a safe, free space with health care and better nutrition to help enable elephants to live a happier and more free life.
The end of elephant riding, and animal abuse in general, starts with us. The backpacker; the tourist; the consumer. It is our job to protect these beautiful creatures: elephants, tigers, lions, dolphins, orcas and any other animals that are kept in captivity to live a life for human entertainment. The best way to do that is through awareness. Do your research. Educate yourself on the treatment of the animals you're going to see, then make your decision if its worth the one hour experience. I clearly remember the confusion on the tourists face when I shouted at them. They really didn't understand that there was anything wrong with what they were doing. If we educate ourselves and others about these unethical activities, they will start to disappear. Elephant trekking has already decreased, and will continue to do so, so long as we the consumers don't buy into it. So do your research, travel smart, and spread the word: ride bikes, not elephants.
Not Your Average
"Whatever is good for your soul, do that"
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