"Its a life of pain and fear"
With Southeast Asia becoming an ever more popular destination to visit, elephant rides don’t look like they will be going anywhere any time soon….unfortunately.
The Asian elephant much like its African cousin, is a magnificent animal, adored by many. This is where the sweet irony comes into play. It is people’s love of these beautiful beings that drives the industry, that causes their suffering…. And it’s soul destroying to see.
Many people are unaware of the cruel reality of elephant rides, and it’s not hard to get mislead with so many places claiming to be sanctuaries offering a lifetime of happiness for the elephants in their care. In low income areas, tourism is the sole source of income for many locals, and what better way to attract people than to offer an up close and personal experience in a ‘sanctuary’ with an elephant.
But here’s what you should know;
‘Training starts from a young age. Young elephants are very inquisitive and playful, but there’s no time for play in the world of an elephant lined up for riding. As you can imagine, much like a puppy, they don’t want to spend their time standing still, so they are forced to…..and not with positive reinforcement. They are put through a process called crushing, which involves restraining and beating the young elephants with a bull hook to inflict fear and break their spirits in order to get them to obey so they can conform to the requirements of the industry. It’s heart-breaking and quite frankly stomach churningto see but I highly recommend you watch a clip on YouTube to put the process into context. Adults too, are beaten with hooks that are dug into their skin if they ‘misbehave’. It’s a life of fear.
Isolation is also a huge problem with the industry.
Calves are often separated from their mothers, and adults have restricted contact with one another. Elephants are a communal species that live in hierarchical group. Studies have proven the complex emotions of elephants, including grieving, have clearly highlighted the detrimental impacts on behaviour and mental state separation has on them. Calves that are allowed to remain with their mothers are often expected to keep up the heavy working pace of adults and have been documented to die through sheer exhaustion.
When they aren’t working, they aren’t exactly having fun either. Often the elephants are restricted through chain tethers, that they have been seen to try and remove with their trunks in confusion and frustration. This along with the separation of others, causes a great deal of stress and boredom that results in a monotonous swaying action. If you see an elephant swaying it’s not happy or dancing, despite what it initially looks like it’s actually a sign of a great deal of distress.
Of course, another tactic is to reduce the amount of food they are given to make them work for their food. Although rather than being a reward-based training mechanism, it’s more focused around the punishment of going hungry if they don’t comply.
Despite being a large and very strong species, the elephant Is not structurally made for carrying things on their back. It causes them huge amounts of pain and long-term effects such as chronic arthritis.
All of those factors ploughed into long over worked days and what do you have? The heart-breaking reality of what an elephant goes through behind the scenes of a ‘once in a life time’ elephant ride. If only it was a once in a life time experience for them. Although they may seem happy and placid at first sight, you can never be sure what they have been through to get them to the point of you climbing on their backs.
During my recent trip to Bali I avoided all animal attractions and ‘sanctuaries’ that offer this opportunity such as the Bali Zoo. I considered paying an entrance fee to get content to share with you all on this post, however I really don’t want to endorse such a thing for the sake of a few photographs. I know for a fact seeing it in the flesh would have broken my heart, played on my mind for days and ruined my trip. There are several industries that are portrayed by animal activists to be monstrous, when a lot of the time it’s very much false propaganda. However, as much as I wish it was, it isn’t the case for this industry as more and more people documenting it are highlighting.
However, with all this being said the battle against such elephant tourism is a very complex one. There are currently far too many Asian elephants in captivity than their natural habitat can support, so if we could wave a magic wand and release them all from their captive lives, there wouldn’t be enough space to release them all back into the wild. With deforestation remaining to be a huge challenge for conservationists, it’s not likely that this is going to change any time soon. This makes its clear and simple that to live these elephants need captivity, although its questionable whether those in certain establishments would be better off at complete peace……So what’s the answer?
Firstly, I can’t help but question whether there should be a ban on these establishments being able to breed elephants in captivity. With numbers already being too large for our natural world to support (which is why we have to accept the need for captivity in the first place) should we really be adding to those numbers? Especially when taking into consideration the psychological distress and physical damage they are forced to ensure for the sake of a ‘cute attraction?’.
Secondly, as I mentioned previously, a lot of people ride elephants because they love them, you know that bitter sweet irony. So, I personally can’t see why all rides can’t be banned and replaced with other experiences. Bathing elephants for instance is also extremely popular, and whilst it remains to be a controversial topic on the exploitation of elephants, for me it’s far better than carrying people all day for hours on end. A tiny step in a brighter direction that would still see those running the attractions getting paid. Of course, this is in no way a resolution to the world of elephant tourism, but it may be a slighter better compromise short term. If everyone were to pick the alternative to rides, they may stop doing them completely.
And finally, there is a new observation only sanctuary in Thailand called Chang Chill, where you can go and see elephants with no up close and personal interaction.
Of course, however, in order to save the Asian elephant and truly give them the life they deserve we must focus on restoring their natural habitat and return to them the place they once called home. Maybe large reserves are the answer? With locals being employed to manage and protect those living within it, funded by guided walks available to tourists. Whilst I am fully aware that safari like tours can still have a negative impact, it may again be a better alternative to what they currently face every day. Conservation is tricky and never simple straight path, so please do not think that because I’m not preaching about the total ban of elephant tourism that I don’t truly care. The reality is that especially in low income areas, if they aren’t being in tourism its likely they would be killed for body parts as an alternative means of income, or for the destruction they may cause through human elephant conflict.
Again, I apologise for the lack of personal content that I have shared with you around this post. If there wasn’t already a fair amount of press surrounding the topic I would be more inclined to give you my own digital ‘proof’, but I feel that there is enough substantial evidence already documented and available for people to access.
Lastly please don’t forget to share and pass on the information from this post. I know that a lot of the time it’s a lack of education about the topic that makes people take part in rides. Do your research and try to find the ‘best’ out of bad bunch if you are considering visiting an elephant attraction and always remember it’s an industry that causes a great deal of pain and suffering…. is that really worth a picture?