One 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.
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I love forward to your interaction.
Elephant fact sources: