I’m very fond of watching documentaries about nature and animals. When I was a little girl I used to watch them all the time. I remember, elephants were one of the animals that fascinated me the most. They are not only largest land mammals, but are also highly intelligent and sociable animals that are known to develop strong, intimate bonds with other members of their family. They have excellent memory and even mourn their dead. And they live in a families led by a female! No wonder, two of the my greatest wishes since childhood, were to see an elephant in the wild and to interact with the domesticated elephant. When my husband and I decided to travel to SE Asia, I knew I need to fulfil my at least one of my childhood dreams.
Because I’m very cautious when it comes to interactions with the animals, I wanted to learn more about Asian elephants and choose the best possible way to interact with them. More I’ve read, more I realised there is a dark side of elephant tourism many people are unaware of.
Poaching and crushing the elephant’s spirit
Young elephants are frequently poached from the wild for the tourist trade. When they are are taken from the wild, the adults trying to protect their herd member are killed. According to ThailandElephants.org, on average four to five wild elephants will die as the result of one elephant being taken for the tourism industry. Taking into account there are approximately only 41.000–52.000 Asian elephants are left living in the world, that’s worrying fact!
In order to make those captured young elephants not used of human contact to obey, a technique called “Phajaan” or “crushing the elephant’s spirit” is used. This method is terribly brutal. Elephants are placed in a cage and tied with ropes to keep them from moving. By restricting them, depriving them from sleep, food and water, and physically abusing them (e.g. beating with sticks, chains and bull hooks as well as stabbing into the ears and feet) they mentally break them and make them submissive to their owners. Fearful of the human captors elephants will do anything to avoid being hurt again.
‼️Deeply disturbing video of Phajaan – brutal process of the breaking the spirit of the elephant.‼️ ©WTTF
Elephants born in captivity usually go through the same brutal method as their wild captured counterparts. Alternatively, they are trained via method of positive reinforcement. Although, any kind of form of training still require removing baby elephant form its mother at the young age and often causes lasting emotional and mental distress for the both – mother and baby elephant.
Why riding an elephant is not ok
Some might ask, why not ride an elephant – it is strong an powerful animal. Carrying a human cannot really harm him. How else could elephants would be ridden for centuries? Answer is, elephants don’t have very strong backs. Adult elephant can only support app. 150kg of weight on their back for up to four hours per day. Putting the heavy howdah – metal seats weighing around 50kg on elephant’s back is highly uncomfortable even without the added weight of the mahout (human handler) and the tourists. Such overweighted working elephants in SE Asia work much longer shifts. Single rides often lasts an hour or longer and are often held in heath without adequate access to water, food and shade.
Long overweighted rides are harmful for the elephants. The weight of the howdah and the ropes with which those metal seats are secured can cause open sores and abscesses as well as lasting spinal injuries and deformities. Long treks in extreme heat and not adequate access to water, healthy food and shade can also lead to dehydration, and exhaustion. Not to mention use the damage spiky metal hooks used to control the elephants during the rides can make.
The only humane way of riding an elephant is to ride it bareback, sitting on its neck, like their mahouts traditionally do. But even such kind of riding demands elephants to go through the brutal training that broke their spirits. Same training is required for the elephants to learn tricks and activities, like for instance painting pictures, playing football, ride tricycles, et others, that can be seen at the elephant shows and circus.
Elephants are often require to work in the environment with exhaust fumes, hot concrete, traffic, loud music and crowds of people. All this cause much stress to the animals.
Misuse and mistreatment of elephants is something really horrible. The only way to stop with the abuse of these majestic animals is to be responsible traveler and avoid venues that exploit elephants. Don’t attend activities, such as trekking with the elephants, elephant shows and circus, elephant rides et others. If there will be little demand for such activities, the need for savage training techniques will hopefully decrease.
Fortunately, growing awareness of animal welfare issues brought to life new cruelty-free ways of elephant tourism – elephant sanctuaries/refugee centres where elephants are held in conditions that closely resemble their natural habitat and are allowed to behave like elephants again. Those sanctuaries are saving elephants from the riding and logging camps and giving them better life. By allowing tourists to visit elephants, and interact with them with respect, they can still generate revenue.
In the ideal world, all the elephants would be freed from the captivity and would happily wander the woods without danger to be killed or captured. Sadly, this is never going to happen for various reasons. Some captive elephants are simply too damaged and are not equipped with the necessary skills for survival in the wild. Also, in some countries, elephant’s natural habitat is gone. There is simply nowhere to release them to. Elephant sanctuaries and refugees are most likely the only appropriate alternative for the elephants in captivity.
My husband and I visited one of such establishments where they keep elephants rescued from the riding, trekking and logging camps. We fed them, walked with them and washed them. From what we’ve experienced, we think we chose good ethical sanctuary. More detailed report about my visit coming soon! Until then, you can enjoy the video of our visit:
Tips on chosing the right establishment
When I was choosing the ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand, I found out there are tons lot of places that advertise themselves as sanctuaries. Further research showed, not all of them treat their elephants in an ethical way. When I checked the latest online reviews, I found out even one of the sanctuaries that came highly advertised in various articles as being ethical, changed their policy and now allows bareback riding. Therefore, I urge you to do a research on a place you’re planning to visit.
To help you chose the right place, here are some pointers to see if the place you’re visiting really is ethical as copy/pasted from RoughGuides article:
To sum up, it is on us, tourists and travellers to chose not to support cruel practices that are still wildly used in elephant tourism all across the SE Asia. Don’t interact with the captured elephants at all! If you have to interact with them, chose the ethical cruelty-free establishments! Only by doing so, we could change the future for captured elephants.