There is an air of romance about riding an elephant. Sitting atop its back as the giant animals slowly meander down white sand beaches, or along rushing streams in the thick of the jungle. It’s the stuff stories and wishlists are made of.
But, the truth is, riding elephants should be avoided. In the US, organizations, including the Humane Society of the US and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, are against riding elephants because of the abuse the animals undergo when they are taught to carry passengers, as well as safety concerns.
For most, it's simply a lack of awareness. If everyone saw the videos of elephants being beaten with bullhooks or electric prods, it's doubtful they would still be keen to ride one just to be able to say “I rode an elephant”.
Aside from the abuse, there are a variety of reasons people should skip riding an elephant and opt for more humane ways to experience these creatures.
Here are a few more reasons to seek out an elephant sanctuary that doesn’t offer rides or circus tricks.
Phajaan, or elephant crushing, is a long-standing accepted tradition used in Thai culture. This harmful training method is what elephants undergo to become part of the tourism industry. Young elephants are taken from their mothers and confined to a small place, then abused with bullhooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails. They are also starved and deprived of sleep, to crush their spirits and become submissive to humans.
This is the accepted practice in Thailand, and many elephants you will see in trekking camps will have undergone this horrific process. If this isn’t enough to convince you to give elephant riding a miss, there’s more.
Elephants' spines cannot support the weight of people and doing so all day can lead to permanent spinal injuries. There are further complications from having a chair (howdah) attached to their backs. This clunky contraption rubs on their backs, causing blisters that can become infected. In addition, wear and tear on the elephant’s feet after long-term trekking can cause foot infections and injuries.
Elephants are a lot like humans. They socialize, have families and friends, feel pain, sorrow and happiness. When they are in trekking camps, they are often not engaging with other elephants. They live their lives essentially in solitary confinement at some camps.
Baby elephants are chained to mothers during treks, which can cause the little ones harm, as they must keep pace with the mom as she walks. These baby elephants can't stop to rest or nurse as they must continue trekking. To keep the pace, the guide (mahout) will prod the elephants with a bullhook to keep them moving. The bullhook, which elephants remember from their torture during the phajaan, can immediately strike fear in them. This fear can trigger a reaction that can not only hurt the elephants, but also the riders.
After the trek, the elephants are kept chained when they aren't working. They are not fed enough or given enough water. Many travelers have reported visiting trekking camps to see elephants swaying, pacing and bobbing their heads – signs of serious psychological stress.
If a tour operator offers anything other than spending time with elephants, you should avoid it. If an elephant 'sanctuary' or wildlife park offers elephant riding, circuses or painting shows, you can be certain the elephants have undergone horrific abuse to get them to where they are.
While some places might market their experience as humane and say they don’t use bullhooks, the fact that the elephants are being used for trekking means they are being harmed.
Depending on where in the world you are traveling, there are plenty of legitimate conservation projects that allow you to feed, bathe and spend time with elephants without causing them harm. The Elephant Nature Park or Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Thailand are two reputable places where human–elephant interaction won't compromise the elephant’s safety.
As word spreads about the horrific truth behind elephant riding, tour operators and national parks around the world are taking a stance. In Vietnam, Yok Don National Park has stopped offering elephant rides, instead encouraging travelers to simply observe elephants in their natural habitat. In Nepal, Chitwan National Park ended elephant-back tours,
In 2016, TripAdvisor stopped promoting operators that offer elephant rides as an activity, to take a stance on the cruel treatment. In 2018, Instagram banned the ability to search hashtags related to unethical wildlife tourism, as a method of educating users about the issues. A message about protecting wildlife, with a button to 'Learn more' now appears if you try to search hashtags such as, #koalaselfie, #elephantriding, #slothselfie, and more.
*This article was originally written by Diana Edelman, who spent a week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand in 2010.
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