There was a time when I dreamed of going on an elephant safari in Nepal. I imagined sitting atop a gentle giant, gliding through a dense forest searching for wildlife. I photographed elephants in all their decorated grandeur when I came upon them begging on the outskirts of Delhi. I added Thailand’s elephant festival to my bucket list. Then I learned the awful truth about how elephants are really treated.
Captive elephants live a horrid life. They are beaten, chained, and worked to death — all for the entertainment of tourists. Elephants have a thick skin, but they feel pain. They cry when separated from their young. The captured calves are starved, deprived of sleep, and struck with bullhooks (2-3 foot long clubs with sharp metal hooks) and bamboo sticks spiked with nails to crush their spirits and “domesticate” them. As many of you have seen, one such baby recently ended up at a brunch pool party at a resort in Thailand, where drunk partygoers rode the elephant for fun, oblivious to the poor being’s terror.
Abuse is a common practice at elephant trekking camps and tourist shows where pachyderms spend years. To help save these majestic animals, I’ve put together this information so you, too, can remove riding elephants from your bucket list.
- Elephants’ spines are not designed to support the weight of humans. Carrying a heavy load for hours leads to permanent spinal injuries. Can you imagine carrying a 50-pound backpack all day, every day, and enjoying it? I didn’t think so.
- The contraption used to put a chair on their backs causes blisters that become infected and cause pain.
- Long-term trekking causes their feet to endure cuts and illness.
- A new mother does not get maternity leave. She is expected to work the day after giving birth. What kind of hell is that?
- When babies are very young, they are chained to their mothers during treks, forced to keep up the pace without breaks. Would you bring your baby to work and not feed her? I doubt it.
- When they are not working, elephants are chained, sometimes without proper food and water due to a lack of resources at camps.
- Mahouts (elephant handlers) are not trained to humanely treat their animals. They use the bullhook as the only means of control, rather than using voice commands.
- By being subjected to long work hours and prodding by bullhooks, elephants develop severe psychological problems. When you see these animals at camps bobbing their heads and pacing back and forth, it is a sign of extreme stress.
- Be wary of elephant camps that claim to be ethical. Even elephants working at the most humanely run camp have gone through a training period filled with dreadful maltreatment.
- Elephants deserve to be in the wild. They belong with their families, not harmed and mistreated for our sake.
WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD
If you love elephants, you can still admire and spend time with these magical beings in sanctuaries. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Northern Thailand is one such place where formerly battered and neglected elephants are rescued and cared. At ENP, there are no tourist shows, no elephant treks, and no type of interaction that doesn’t put the welfare of elephants first. They wander freely in the company of their own herd, feed and play with their babies, and live healthy lives.
If you’d like to volunteer with elephants, read my article about the innovative program created by ENP called The Surin Project, which frees working elephants from their chains to go on walks to the river. As a volunteer, you get to stride beside them, bathe them, and see them in their indigenous habitat. There’s really nothing more rewarding than restoring an elephant to its natural glory.