Elephants Are People Too

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elephant and keeperOne of my longest running dreams is to ride an elephant. I can’t think of anything more awesome than having one of these giants guide me through it’s amazing forest home. Being so close to such a majestic animal can surely be nothing short of awesome.

However, that dream is going to remain a dream because I will never ever ride an elephant.

A Few Reasons why elephants are like people

I love all kinds of animals but those that display habits and levels of intelligence closer to (and sometimes more than) humans hold a special place with me. The grand old elephant fits nicely into that category: the array of emotions, skills and intelligence they show set them much closer to us than we often think. Here are just some of the amazing things that are known about elephants.

Elephants may be able to recognise themselves in a mirror – In 2010, scientists did experiments by painting an X on an elephant’s head. When shown a mirror the elephants immediately tried to feel their own head for the X.

Elephants recognise the bones of their own dead – As far as I can find out they are the only animal besides humans that can do this. Some people even claim they have rituals as elephants stop and observe bones of the dead when they come across them.

Elephants are not born with survival instincts – An elephant baby (calf) is as vulnerable as a human baby. No instincts, just Mom to rely upon on and family to learn from.

Elephants shake trunks as a polite greeting! – It’s been observed that when meeting elephants intertwine their trunks like humans shaking hands!

And you could go on and on….

So what? What does this have to do with riding them?

Almost all travellers eventually find themselves in Asia and surrounding areas. Asia is known for it’s elephants, both the Indian and Asian elephant live on the continent and are native to no where else.

In places like Thailand and India tourists flock to watch elephants do amazing things from standing on tiny boxes to painting crappy pictures. One may also do the ultimate thing and ride atop one of these beautiful animals. Seemingly calm and collected, aided by the trainer who seems so much like a friend, and often in places badged as an eco-park (or some other moral-giving name) it is hard to see what is wrong with engaging in such activities.

If you can elevate your understanding of an elephant to “intelligent self aware being”, then you should be able to immediately see why this industry is wrong. Of course, I may be preaching to the choir but I just want to get this message out and spread amongst travellers  We NEED to stop engaging in elephant tourism and stop allowing the imprisonment, abuse and cheap labour of elephants for our entertainment.

I see it as elephant slavery. To further this idea, below is an excerpt from the Guardian related to the Hottentot Venus. She was a South African women, named Saartjie Baartman, pulled into British sideshow entertainment in 1810 due to her oversized backside and reportendly huge genitalia to match! Although not technically a slave, she had little choice to return home due to the circumstances she faced. Well dressed, “high” society people would pay to stare at this curious woman who stood there barely clothed.

“Baartman’s journey as an object of European curiosity and African exploitation began on the veld of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It was there that Baartman, scarcely more than a teenager, was left both orphaned and widowed after a European-led commando ambushed her betrothal celebration, killing her father and husband. She was taken to Cape Town where she worked for Cesars and his wife as a house servant and wet nurse. Eventually, Cesars and Alexander Dunlop, a British military doctor, smuggled her into England in hopes that her oversized posterior would make their fortune.

Baartman was thrust onto the stage in Piccadilly, in a skintight, flesh-colored get-up, complete with a panoply of African beads and ostrich feathers.”

To me that sounds very much like the story of many elephants that find themselves performing stupid tricks for humans or carrying us around on their backs.

I know I am rattling on. Comparing an elephant painting a picture to slavery is a little extreme for some. I have never even been to an elephant park in Asia so what do I know? Well, this post was crafted in reaction to someone who is working with elephants, helping save them in Cambodia and knows what is happening. From D’s post on What to Not Do in Chiang Mai she notes:

“The truth is: EVERY. SINGLE. ELEPHANT. AT. EVERY. SINGLE. CAMP. has been broken. It doesn’t sound nearly as bad as it is.

Here’s the down and dirty: Babies are taken from the wild, often times their family herd is slaughtered. Before they are brought to the tourist outfit, they are put through the phajaan or crush. For up to one week, their legs are shackled, their neck is tied with a rope to a tree, and they are forced into a tiny wooden box with slats where they are trained. The training includes being beaten with bamboo sticks with nails on the end, being bludgeoned with bull hooks into the most sensitive parts of their body, being deprived of food and water, until the bond with their mother has been severed.”

She goes on to explain how that is not even the worst of it!

The flip side of the problem

Every issue has many sides. People have been working with elephants for transport and farming possibly for thousands of years. The relationship between humans and elephants in some parts of the world are incredibly close. To tell people they suddenly need to stop this isn’t easy.

Of course when it comes to tourism elephants are commodities but many handlers probably live day to day and need the cash they generate from their elephants. If we all stop going to elephant shows and riding them then these guys may be out of business and struggling to feed their families.

How to solve this issue…. I don’t know!

So where should you see / interact with elephants?

I’m not going as far as saying you should never see an elephant. There are ways to humanely see them. Like D, you can volunteer and help rescue them. You may be able to gain more information through an organisation such as the  Save Elephant Foundation.

Then of course there is the Zoo. A Zoo can be controversial as some may harbour horrible conditions for animals which they view only as entertainment props. However, there are considerably more that are taking in animals that are only from rescues or in dire need of conservation. This new wave of careful, conservation and education-based Zoos could still be seen as morally wrong in some ways but I believe I have seen elephants that are cared for with true passion by the keepers. My advice is to research the Zoo before heading over and giving them your hard earned cash.

Below you can see a video of me getting a little closer to a walking elephant than I bargained for at Auckland Zoo!

Share your thoughts, share this post and lets stop people riding elephants….

Thanks so much for reading this post. It was a bit of a rant, and I may sound crass, but it’s a subject I really care about.

If you agree / disagree / have a story or want to expand on any comments then please share your words below in the comments section.

Also, if you are active on social media such as Twitter or Facebook then I would love it if you could share this post and help get people thinking about their decisions regarding elephants. There are social sharing buttons to the left of this post and below.

I love forward to your interaction.

Elephant fact sources:

I'm a Digital Nomad. I can't get enough of experiencing new places and keeping my lifestyle minimal to ensure I can easily move to my next abode. Maybe one day i'll settle but right now I can't see that happening!


  1. Dave Barger

    February 4, 2013 at 10:39 am

    I understand your concerns, and I’ve met quite a few people with the same views. Bottom line is that it is a worrying concern, the health and safety of these amazing animals. Being careless and bored at one time, I finally did decide to ride one, and it really wasn’t that cool anyways! It’s just a ploy to drive tourist business. Sure as hell won’t take any rides in the future…

    • Forest Parks

      February 5, 2013 at 5:11 am

      Hi Dave, thank you for commenting. Even though you did ride one I am glad you noticed the dark side enough to not recommend it onwards.

  2. Diana Edelman

    February 4, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    There are ways for the elephant owners to make money without have to put their elephants into the tourism industry. Save Elephant Foundation runs programs which do just this and give mahouts a chance to make money by having their elephants live in villages. People pay to do home-stays and volunteer to help in the village, and the money goes back to them.

    • Forest Parks

      February 5, 2013 at 5:07 am

      Thank you so much for that info Diana. I am far from an expert in this subject but know I don’t want to contribute to harming these animals and just want more bloggers to get on the same track.

  3. Samantha J.

    February 6, 2013 at 10:13 am

    I absolutely love this!! I am headed to SE Asia in a few weeks and my dream has always been to ride an elephant. Once I started looking into it and saw how horribly they are treated I decided there is not a chance that I would ever do this. It breaks my heart!! More “white” tourists need to stop giving money to companies who treat elephants like this, until we stop the demand for riding, watching, and playing with elephants, this industry will continue on unfortunately.

    • Forest Parks

      February 6, 2013 at 8:26 pm

      Hey Samantha, I totally agree (just to note it’s all all tourists, not just whities ;) but I get your point). There is so much work to be done in the field of animal rights and abstaining from activities that tread on the rights of those affected is a great start. I lived in Egypt for 2 years and never rode a camel for the same reason. I gave plenty attention and spare food though. They are social animals (like elephants) and don’t seem to mind our company too much as long as we are kind and keep a respect for their way in this world.

  4. Wanderlusters

    February 8, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    It’s so sad but we see this kind of inhumane treatment of animals for tourism prevalent all over the world.

    While hiking the Grand Canyon we came across a donkey trekking tour. Corralled in a pen each night they traverse the steep slopes of the canyon carrying heavy tourists during the day. I know they are traditionally used as pack horses but I find it hard to imagine they enjoy lugging 200 LB + along the same route on a daily basis. In Nicaragua we saw countless horse and cart combo’s offering tours of the colonial cities. Unshod and unhappy they stand in the heat of the day waiting for their next fair.

    Well done for making a stand, I really hate to see animals exploited for financial gain.

    • Forest Parks

      February 9, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      Thanks Wanderlusters. I generally avoid all animal related entertainment unless it’s within a genuine educational / conservation experience. Although some of them are far from perfect too so it is quite hard to get it right all of the time!

  5. Kevin

    February 9, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    I never really knew about the dark side until this post. We did ride an elephant once, and it actually wasn’t that great of an experience as the elephant sneezed all over my girlfriend! We never suspected this sort of thing though, as it seemed like a friendly experience, and the elephants even did a painting show for us afterwards. Good on you for taking a stand and spreading awareness of this issue.

    P.S. The new site is looking great!

    • Forest Parks

      February 9, 2013 at 11:00 pm

      Kevin, I know it is well hid but sadly so much that is wrong is and we need to self educate on nearly everything in this world (you are a crusader for that I know!). We all make mistakes through lack of knowledge.

      Armed with the knowledge we can make the choice based on personal morals.

      Thanks, need to work harder on the layout but doing it between everything else so it’s going slow!!!!

  6. Shailesh Jangra

    February 27, 2013 at 9:00 am

    Elephants are very intelligent animal. They can easily understand what we want to say. This big animal is not our enemy and we can easily build a friendship like we did with dogs. In India you can easily see co-operation of elephants and humans specially in forest areas.

    • Forest Parks

      February 27, 2013 at 7:26 pm

      Hi Shailesh, I don’t know much about mutual bonding between Elephants and people but it would be nice if it were possible.

  7. Jonny Blair

    March 10, 2013 at 5:03 am

    Hi Forest – yes I went elephant riding in Sri Lanka recently and I have to disagree slightly – by getting looked after by the sanctuary the elephant is living a better and safer life than it could have led were it left to roam in the wild. By carrying people for 15 minutes a time is better than how cows and pigs are treated – pushed into the back of a trailer and then slaughtered. Are you a vegetarian? Each to their own and happy travels! Jonny

    • Forest Parks

      March 10, 2013 at 5:26 am

      Totally agree Jonny, the treatment of most animals when it comes to us and them is horrendous. I am vegetarian and slowly trying to push to all out veganism. We can’t be perfect in this world but we can try and do our bit.

      Sure you could argue that now they could be worse off roaming free but that analogy is something that us travellers wouldn’t take if laid upon us. We would be safer if confined to our local town but we choose to wander the globe, do to some degree as we please and effectively roam free. An elephant should have that choice too.

      I am sure some places treat the elephants ok as adults but the abuse they received as children to create the tourist friendly animals isn’t worth it in my opinion. If the tourism didn’t exist far less elephants would go under that abuse. It’s a selfish thing we do to them. I’ve never ridden an elephant or even been to these places so my opinions lack any bottom but I seriously suggest you talk to the lady with all the knowledge, D over at http://www.dtravelsround.com.

      You can walk into a palace and see a beautiful place but the walls can be rotting behind the decoration…. Just saying a lot of crap can be dressed up to look nice and that’s the way this whole elephant business is.

      • Jonny

        March 22, 2013 at 8:20 am

        Thanks for the reply Forest – wasn’t totally having a go – just justifying my reasons for getting on an elephant. I’ve done it now, and therefore won’t need to again. In retrospect there is a lot of things we don’t consider as travellers – we seem to buzz off exciting things without envisaging the consequences or reasoning behind them. Jonny

        • Forest Parks

          March 22, 2013 at 8:36 am

          Absolutely Jonny, it’s much easier to consider things after and although I try not to regret what i did in the past I attempt to learn from it. We all do things ‘wrong’ all of the time. I’m sure some of my clothes come from sweatshops, i’m sure some of the vegetarian foods I eat came from farms with terrible conditions for workers…. Life is damn near impossible to live totally piously.

  8. Melody

    March 22, 2013 at 5:49 am

    Seriously! I can’t stand this! Been cruising around Thailand and trying to hatch plans to help all the elephants escape.. lol but seriously, it’s so sad. Or the ‘climbing monkey attraction’ .. where you go give them money to see a monkey, chained to a palm tree, run up then down. Uh..

    The things people do for money. I liked what Diana said about there being other ways for them to make money with their elephant besides tourism.

    Another great post.

    • Forest Parks

      March 22, 2013 at 7:21 am

      Hi Melody, you should get in contact with D and see if there is anyway you can get in on a rescue or help in anyway.

  9. Forest Parks

    April 7, 2013 at 4:47 pm

    That’s a sad thought :(, Like Dolphins being in small tanks and having their sonar bouncing off every wall :( :( :(!!!!! Please always feel free to link your blog, I love my readers telling me what they are up to.

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