By Ian Wood
Ian Wood is a freelance photographer and writer based in Sussex, England. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and newpapers around the world including BBC Wildife, Wildtravel magazine, Nat Geo travel and the Telegraph. His new book 'Swimming with Dolphins, Tracking Gorillas' is out now.
If people saw the videos – which can be found all over the internet – of elephants being beaten with bull hooks, electric prods, or worse, would they be so keen to hop aboard these animals for the sake of saying “I rode an elephant”? Possibly not.
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 bull hooks 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 one every elephant has undergone that is at a trekking camp or circus. If the fact they have to undergo such cruelty in order to be trained to be a part of tourism isn’t enough to convince you skip riding an elephant, there’s more.
What is it?
Elephant riding in Africa is a recent development, encouraged by its popularity in Asia. Countries like South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe are now offering elephant-back safaris, not with Asian elephants – but with the larger, more unpredictable African elephant.
Only a few venues are internationally recognised for their efforts in caring for rescued elephants and allowing tourists to observe natural elephant behaviours without exploiting them.
What you should know
Elephants used for trekking and tourist rides
- Elephants are made to work for shows or treks every day without rest. The harnesses and saddles strapped to their backs can be extremely uncomfortable for the elephant often causing chafing, sore backs and other problems.
- There are even reports of pregnant females collapsing during a show or trek before giving birth minutes later. Only if she is lucky will the mother be given a day to rest. After that her new-born calf will just have to keep up. Baby elephants need a lot of rest and care, but because they are a tourist magnet, neither mother nor calf is given a chance to enjoy a natural relationship and both suffer as a result.
- Elephants, unlike many other species, die younger in captivity than in the wild. Early death is a well-recognised indicator of poor health and biological stress.
- Many elephant camps or ‘sanctuaries’ are badly managed, with elephants spending prolonged periods chained up and sometimes exposed to the sun in concrete yards.
- Unnatural social grouping, malnutrition, lack of space and stimulation lead to a host of pathologies ranging from skin and foot ailments, increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, arthritis and circulatory problems. This can lead to stereotypic behaviours. Outside ‘tourist visiting hours’, many elephants display stereotypic behaviors such as repetitive swaying from side to side and pacing around the perimeters of the enclosure.
- Elephants do not breed well in captivity and the mortality of young is very high compared to that of wild elephants. Breeding rates in captivity are about ten times lower than in the wild. The average captive female elephant produces only one calf in her lifetime, compared to six for a wild elephant.
Controlling and training elephants
- How do you get a wild animal, a majestic giant to be controlled by human beings? It is often achieved by food and sleep deprivation and regular beating using the ankus or bullhook, and physical restraint such as chaining and shackling.
- Elephants are intelligent animals with complex emotions and social bonds. Such experiences can leave them traumatized, and highly unpredictable and potentially aggressive animals.
Accidents, injuries and illness caused by close encounters with elephants
- Elephants can pose a real threat to human safety. Captive elephants are still wild animals and may behave unpredictably. Continually being around tourists can also cause stress and the risks to visitors are often underestimated.
- While countries such as Thailand, Laos and Sri Lanka refer to their captive elephants as domestic elephants, it must be understood that this is an anomaly. Elephants have never been truly domesticated. They are still wild animals and it is impossible to provide appropriate conditions for them in captivity.
- Elephant riding for tourists in Africa is a recent development, encouraged by its popularity in Asia. South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe are now offering elephant-back safaris, not with Asian elephants- but with the larger, more unpredictable African elephant. (The Travel Foundation)
- Most tourists are unaware of the health risks through direct contact with elephants. Zoonosis is the official term for transmission of disease from vertebrate animals to humans. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immunity are at higher risk.
- Elephants can carry diseases such as tuberculosis (TB), poxviruses and Salmonella.
- Elephant trekking operators and other captive elephant attractions often use “buzzwords” such as ‘eco-tourism’ and ‘elephant conservation’ to appeal to travellers with little substance.
- Captive elephants used for trekking or in shows do not contribute to elephant conservation. Asian elephants are an endangered species. Elephant habitat protection and human – elephant conflicts are the key issues that need to be addressed.
What you can do
- Support genuine elephant conservation efforts
- Support sanctuaries that provide lifelong care for rescued and abused elephants
- Do not participate in elephant rides or trekking
- Do not visit elephant camps or ‘sanctuaries’ where the animals are made to perform or give rides
- Read Responsibletravel.com’s article ‘Elephant Trekking Holidays – Right or Wrong?’ and view responsible elephant holidays
Where does this occur
Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe