Elephant riding is a popular tourist activity in many countries around the globe, especially in Asia. For many people visiting destinations like Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Nepal, clambering onto the back of a mighty and majestic elephant is often high on the list of things that they want to do whilst on holiday.
Some establishments take visitors on elephant-back treks through the jungle. Other operate in built-up surroundings, heading to famous landmarks and ancient buildings, and yet others let people ride elephants and pose for selfies in a relatively small and controlled area, such as a zoo, wildlife area, or attraction park.
A lot of tourists, however, do not fully understand the repercussions that this elephant-riding industry creates.
This is why we don’t do elephant rides on our trips.
Many Elephants are Captured Illegally
Large numbers of visitors who want to ride elephants creates a large demand for captive and “domesticated” beasts. This demand leads not only to greater numbers of elephants being actually born into captivity, but also the illegal and unethical capture of wild elephants.
Whilst fully grown elephants are almost impossible to “tame”, baby elephants are often brutally and ruthlessly snatched from their parents in the wild, taken to a very different life, to a world of distress and pain. The adult elephants are left grieving for their missed child, and the baby elephant is thrust into a bewildering state of anguish. Additionally, in order to effectively capture young elephants, protective parents and herd leaders may be killed.
Asian Elephants are Endangered
Asian elephants are endangered, with declining numbers of elephants living in the wild. The causes are widespread, from poaching to loss of habitat, but the capture of creatures certainly doesn’t help to create a sustainable wild population.
The Taming Process is Barbaric
In order for an elephant to be compliant, allowing people to ride on its back and to be lead around in a fairly docile manner, it needs to be tamed. The taming process is, however, very different to that for a regular domesticated animal, such as a dog or a cat. It is not as simple as the animal being around people, engaging with people from a young age, and naturally being accustomed to human contact. Elephants are tamed through fear and pain.
The process starts when an elephant is just months old. It is removed from its mother, confined in isolation, and tortured in order to break its will and spirit. Food and sleep deprivation, routine beatings, being chained, being placed in tiny, claustrophobic spaces where they are unable to move, and having their skin torn and pierced with hooks are all parts of the taming process.
The Elephants Will Live a Life of Fear
Once a young elephant has been broken, the trainers must keep the growing beasts under control. Maintaining an elephant of fear is essential for a large elephant to submit to the will of human beings. This is how tourists can ride elephants, and how elephants will perform tricks, such as painting, posing for pictures, and similar.
You may notice that many elephant handlers carry a stick with a hook on the end of it. This is known as a bullhook. Whilst they may not actually use this bullhook to hurt the adult elephants, it is a reminder of the intense pain felt as a baby; it is the sorrowful memory and the fear of more pain that keeps the elephants under control. There are still times when a handler will use the hook to make the elephant do as they want, digging the hook into a thin area of flesh to cause pain.
Elephants Are Not Designed to Carry Weight
Despite their large stature, elephants are not designed to carry much weight on their backs. Their backbones are not designed to carry people around. Placing seats and people on an elephants’ back is painful for the creature. As well as spinal damage, skin irritations can result. That’s before you factor in the long hours that working elephants are often on duty, with heart-breaking incidents of when some elephants have actually been so exhausted that they have dropped on the spot, having literally been worked to death.
Whilst some establishments do take excellent care of their adult elephants – they are their livelihood after all – there are also those that don’t place animal welfare high on their list of priorities. Elephants can be malnourished and dehydrated, their feet can be covered with sores after being forced to walk on terrain, like roads, that is abnormal for them, chains can dig in and create painful wounds, and they may not receive proper veterinary care when sick.
The Elephants Will Be Deprived From Their Family, and Live a Life of Misery
Elephants are intelligent and social creatures that form bonds within their community. Captive elephants are often deprived of the opportunity to interact naturally with other elephants, thus suffering from social isolation, loneliness, and mental distress. Elephants have excellent memories, and, in the case of captured elephants, long for their family and the life they had before. Elephants born in captivity know, by instinct, that the life they are living is not the life that nature intended for them.
The Industry Abuses People
Whilst many accounts of why tourists shouldn’t ride elephants focus solely on the animals, an often little-discussed aspect is the abuse and ill-treatment of people that can also go hand in hand with the mistreatment of the magnificent beasts.
Elephant trainers and handlers are often not the owners of the elephants, instead being paid a relative pittance to care for the animals. The skills are often handed down through the generations, with young children being taught how to control and handle elephants before they have learnt much more about life. Some handlers have a deep respect and love for their animals, whilst others do it solely as a means of making a living.
Regardless of the levels of attachment and emotion involved, handlers often need to work long hours purely to support themselves and their families. This not only leads to the over-working of the elephants, but of the people as well, many of whom would be in terrible financial difficulty if they took a day off. Being sick, for the elephant or for the person, simply isn’t an option.
Desperate migrant workers may be used to do certain tasks, leading to a high risk of injury, sometimes death.
You Are Risking Your Personal Safety
Even the “tamest” of elephants are still, at heart, wild animals. There is always a risk of elephants fighting back, trying to escape, and riders being injured or killed in the process. You almost certainly wouldn’t try and approach a wild elephant in the jungle and climb onto its back, so why would an elephant wearing a brightly coloured cape, body paint, and a seat be any different? Additionally, there are many times when male elephants on heat, known as musth, are forced to work. Elephants on heat are unpredictable, temperamental, and aggressive.
If you love elephants, and animals in general, riding an elephant should be far, far from your thoughts. There are still plenty of ways that you can enjoy seeing creatures in the wild or in rehabilitation centres that work with abandoned, orphaned, and rescued animals.
Why not consider a jungle trekking or safari experience in a place with large numbers of wild elephants? Or, you could visit centre that cares for animals, a place that offers educational experiences, promotes conservation, puts the well-being of their elephants and workers at the heart of what they do, and does not allow visitors to partake in activities, such as riding, that will harm the animals.
There are plenty of alternatives for elephant-lovers to appreciate the majesty of these beautiful creatures and enjoy the thrill of being in relatively close proximity without harming or hurting the animals and, at the same time, promoting sustainable and environmentally-aware tourism options.