There is an air of romance to riding an elephant. Sitting atop its back as the giant animals slowly meander down white sand beaches lapping with azure waters, or along rushing streams in the thick of the jungle. It’s the stuff stories, and bucket lists, are made of. Who doesn’t want to say: “I went to Thailand and rode an elephant” and then whip out their Facebook and scroll through the images from the adventure to all of their friends? But, the truth is, riding elephants shouldn’t be on anyone’s bucket list.
In America, organisations such as the Humane Society of the US and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have come out against riding elephants because of abuse the elephants undergo to learn how to accept riders, and safety concerns.
So, why are people still riding them?
For most, it is simply lack of awareness.
If people saw the videos (which can be found all over the internet) of elephants being beaten with bullhooks or electric prods, or worse, would they be so keen to hop aboard these animals for the sake of saying “I rode an elephant?” Probably not.
Electric prods and bullhooks aside, there are a variety of reasons people should skip riding an elephant and opt for more humane ways to get up-close to these creatures.
Still debating whether or not you should ride an elephant? Here’s more reasons you should skip the trek and head to a sanctuary that doesn’t have rides or circuses.
A long-time tradition in the Thai culture, the Phajaan or crush, is the training method elephants undergo to become a part of the tourism industry. As young elephants, they are torn from their mothers and entrapped in a small confine, then ritualistically abused with bullhooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails, as well as starved, deprived of sleep and worse, to crush their spirits and become submissive to humans.
This is the general and accepted practice in Thailand, and the ones every elephant has undergone that is at a trekking camp or circus. If the fact the in order to be trained to be a part of tourism isn’t enough to convince you skip riding an elephant, there’s more.
Their spines cannot support the weight of people. Carrying people on their backs all day can lead to permanent spinal injuries. Imagine carrying a 50 pound backpack for nine hours a day, every day on your back. Even after an hour or so, you can feel the weight of the backpack. Imagine what it would feel like to have it on your back nearly all of your waking hours. And, the long-term damage that can come from having it on your back all day. It’s the same with elephants.
Not only is there the issue of their spines not being made to carry people, but the actual implications from having the chair or Howdah attached to their backs. The contraption rubs on the back, causing blisters that can get infected. In addition, there’s the wear and tear on the elephant’s feet. Long-term trekking can cause foot infections and injuries.
Elephants are a lot like humans. They socialize, have families and friends, feel pain, sorrow, happiness and more. When they are at trekking camps, they are often times not with other elephants. They live their lives essentially in solitary confinement at some camps.
Babies are chained to mothers during treks, which can cause the little ones harm. When they are chained to their moms on a trek, they must keep pace with the mom as she walks, which is often times difficult. In addition, they cannot stop and rest or nurse. They must continue trekking. Often times to continue trekking, the guide (or mahout) will prod them with a bullhook to keep them moving. The bullhook, which elephants remember from their torture during the phajaan, can immediately strike fear in them. For the small few, this fear can trigger a reaction that can not only hurt the elephants, but also the riders on them.
Aside from the actual trek, the camps chain these elephants when they are not working. They don’t feed them enough, or give them enough water. Many people report visiting trekking camps and seeing elephants swaying, pacing and bobbing their heads – signs of serious psychological stress.
Don't believe everything you hear ...
A good rule to remember is that if a tourist outfit offers anything other than getting to spend time with elephants, it is not friendly to them. Any outfit that offers riding, circuses or paintings means they have undergone horrific abuse in order to get them to where they are. Remember, all of these elephants have suffered through the abusive and torturous crush. And while some are more friendly than others, and don’t employ the use of bullhooks, the sheer fact that the elephants are trekking means they are being harmed.
What can you do if you don’t want to ride elephants? Depending on where in the world you are, there are plenty of true conservation projects that allow you to feed them, bathe them and spend time with them without causing them further harm. Parks like the Elephant Nature Park or Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Thailand are two that are reputable and allow human-elephant interaction without compromising the elephant’s safety.
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About the Author
Diana Edelman is a former career-breaker. In 2010, she traded her comfortable job in PR for a backpack, heading solo to Europe and Africa for some soul-searching. Recently, she traveled to Thailand and spent a week as a volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park, bonding with elephants. Her popular blog, D Travels Round, shares entertaining stories from her travels, along with providing advice and featuring photographs from all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @DTravelsRound.
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