A lot of people have elephant riding on their travel bucket list. Elephants are one of the world’s largest and most iconic animals, so it’s no surprise that people want a close encounter with them. However, the truth behind elephant riding is dark and disturbing, and not something I would ever want to contribute to. Elephants used for riding suffer greatly — they must endure a cruel “training” process to tame them, and will then go on to live poor-quality lives as a tourist commodity.
Luckily, there has been a growing awareness of elephant rights in recent years, with many major tourism companies dropping elephant riding from the tours and activities they offer. Here’s why.
How to “train” an elephant for riding
Elephants are large, wild animals, and so must be tamed to make them “safe” for tourists to ride. This usually involves subjecting them to a barbaric process known as The Crush or Phajaan, which roughly translates to “breaking spirit.”
Baby elephants are taken from their mothers and placed in a small confined space, where they’re beaten and starved into submission. As the saying goes, an elephant never forgets, and he will do anything to avoid being tortured again — including carrying tourists around a jungle for hours on end in the heat.
Elephants live in matriarchal herds, which means that mother elephants will go to extreme lengths to protect their young. As a result, mother elephants are often killed in the crossfire when their babies are taken away for the tourism industry.
Phajaan is an accepted practice in places like Thailand — most elephants used for riding in this part of the world will have undergone this cruel process.
The life of an elephant used for riding
The elephant’s suffering doesn’t end after he’s been tamed. Many elephant camps will continue to use bullhooks and chains to ensure they remain submissive, where the bullhooks are a daily reminder of the Phajaan process.
The elephants are usually forced to carry tourists for hours on end. They often go for long periods of time without food, water or shelter, which, particularly in the heat and humidity, is nothing short of torture.
In addition to this, elephants in trekking camps are often not able to interact with other elephants. Some live their lives in total solitary confinement. This is cruel for an animal who naturally belongs in a herd and thrives on interaction with family members.
Does elephant riding hurt them?
Yes, riding an elephant causes them pain and discomfort. It’s important to note that despite their size, elephant backs are not at all designed to carry weight and doing so causes them great pain and discomfort. It can even lead to permanent spinal injuries. The saddles placed on elephant backs must be secured with ropes around his tail and stomach, which can cause sores, abscesses, and other injuries.
Not only this, but when elephants aren’t working, they’re often made to stand in tiny sheds with concrete floors, which can cause foot and back problems.
Elephant riding is not only cruel to elephants, but is also dangerous for humans. In 2016, an incident occurred where an elephant camp in Thailand sent an elephant out for rides, even though it was noted that he was showing signs of agitation and aggression. The elephant snapped and stabbed his mahout with his tusk, before running off into the jungle with two tourists still strapped to his back. One of the tourists was killed when they were thrown from the elephant’s back.
Elephant welfare awareness is growing
Thanks to individuals who have taken a stand for elephant welfare, tourists are beginning to learn the truth about elephant riding. We’re now choosing to visit ethical elephant sanctuaries instead, which is causing a decline in the demand for elephant riding. Those employed in the elephant tourism industry are beginning to accommodate these shifts in attitude, and are striving to provide more ethical experiences.
More and more elephant sanctuaries are being opened up throughout Asia. And, as the truth about elephant riding spreads, tour operators are beginning to take a stand, too. In 2017, TripAdvisor banned elephant riding from its ticket sales, and many other tour companies have since followed suit.
Ethical alternatives: How to see elephants without riding them
I get it: elephants are incredible creatures and it’s amazing to see them in person. But there are ways to get up close without riding them.
Visit an elephant sanctuary
There are numerous elephant sanctuaries dotted throughout Asia, where elephants are treated with the respect they deserve. At these sanctuaries, you can observe and learn about them, rather than ride them. I feel that this is a much better way to enjoy the company of these intelligent creatures and I’m sure they would agree. Here are a few ethical elephant sanctuaries to choose from:
- Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand
- Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket, Thailand
- Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, Sukhothai, Thailand
- Elephant Valley Project, Mondulkiri, Cambodia
- Mandalao, Luang Prabang, Laos
- Wildlife SOS, Mathura, India
Go on safari
In my opinion, safaris are the best way to see elephants, as you’ll be able to observe them in the wild. Seeing them thrive in their natural habitat is just so rewarding. A few destinations where you can go on a safari to see elephants include:
- Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka
- Chobe National Park, Botswana
- Amboseli National Park, Kenya
- Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
- Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
→ Check out this list of ethical elephant experiences around the world, which include sanctuaries, volunteer programmes and safaris.
How do I know the elephant tourism I’m seeing really is ethical?
Sadly, many elephant camps have seen the success of elephant sanctuaries and have jumped on the bandwagon without actually enforcing these ethics. I’ve heard many stories from fellow travellers where they’ve paid for a visit to an “elephant sanctuary” only to find that they are in chains and definitely aren’t treated well at all. Don’t be fooled by companies who use words like “sanctuary,” “rescue” or “ethical” in their name — the name doesn’t always mean anything in this industry.
If upon arrival at a “sanctuary”, you find that elephants are being kept in chains, forced to work excessively, have little food, water and shade, have obviously human-inflicted wounds, or swing their legs (a behaviour that isn’t seen in wild elephants, indicating stress/boredom) you should reconsider the sincerity of the sanctuary.
You can visit World Animal Protection to check for reputable elephant venues across Asia which have been verified as ethical. These places restrict contact with elephants, encouraging you to observe rather than touch them. You’ll likely learn lots about the elephants and how they’re cared for, as well as have the opportunity to help prepare their food.
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