When I was planning our trip to Sri Lanka last year, I came across all these images of majestic elephants carrying one or more tourists through stunning sceneries of this beautiful country. I started wondering if that was somehow harmful for the elephant, but not knowing anything about the practices behind elephant rides, I assumed that riding a domesticated elephant was a common thing and that for such a huge and strong animal the weight of a few people wouldn’t be a problem.
How wrong I was.
Crushing an elephant
After researching a bit more, it became quickly clear that riding elephants is not harmless for the animals at all. But it wasn’t the obvious – not the weight of the people to carry was the main problem, but rather the fact that elephants have never been domesticated, and in order to even sit on an elephant – you need to break its will.
Similar to horses, they will not let you ride on them until they have been “broken”. But “crushing” an elephant’s will involves much more than a horse’s:
- First the elephant gets chained or put in a small cage for many days. Often they start with little elephant babies, as they are less strong and easier to control.
- The elephant will get deprived of food, water and sleep for days in order to keep it weak.
- Often they get beaten and stabbed with knifes or bull hooks to enforce authority and punishment.
- During the crushing ritual, the social animals are kept in isolation. Many of them suffer from stress and mental disorder.
Just a tourist attraction – not a happy elephant
Once the elephant has suffered through this long and painful process of submission, he is ready for the tourism industry. Apart from elephant rides, some animals are trained to perform tricks or beg on the streets, which happens mainly in Thailand, Burma and India.
Many elephant rides seat more than one person per elephant, using a seating construct called the “howdah”, which can weigh up to 100kg and seat 4 people. This combined weight can cause serious and permanent damage to an elephant’s spine, which unlike a horse’s, is weaker and physically not shaped for carrying. Additionally lungs and other organs can be heavily affected and significantly shorten the animal’s life.
Apart from this physical damage caused to the elephants back, riding an elephant prevents it from its fundamental needs to be happy:
- In nature elephants eat all day – because they need to take in approx. 150kg of plants every day. This is obviously not possible as they are working all day long, one ride after another. Feeding time is often only once after they’ve finished carrying tourists around for the day.
- Elephants are very social animals and enjoy the company of other elephants. But riding-elephants are not allowed to play and have fun as this makes them less obedient and could endanger the people riding them.
- Elephants love mud! Whether African or Asian elephant, they are hardly ever clean, because by throwing soil on them or rubbing themselves in mud, they create a natural protective layer against sunburn and parasites. But elephants in the riding business are not allowed to act in their most natural way. They must stay clean for the tourists who don’t want to ride on a dirty elephant.
Many tour operators offer elephant safaris or rides as a special experience so iconic to many Asian countries. But as organizations like “Wildlife Friends Foundations Thailand” and the “Elephant Nature Park” have drawn more attention to the plight of these animals, responsible travel agencies like responsibletravel.com and Intrepid Travel have removed elephant rides from their program. The goal is to create awareness of the suffering elephant rides cause to the animals and to create an opportunity to slowly shift the focus from tourist entertainment to the well-being of the elephants.
Now, what about the alternative I promised to you? How else can you enjoy an elephant if not riding it?
Enjoy happy, healthy elephants – being simply elephants
To come back to our Sri Lanka trip, I found a project near Kandy which offered the opportunity to get close to elephants in an ethical way. At The Elephant Freedom Project, just a few minutes away from the famous Pinnawala Orphanage, we had the amazing experience spending a day with Sujee and Washtu, the two young elephants living at the project. There they have an enclosure where they can walk around freely, throw themselves in mud and simply enjoy each other’s company.
For visitors or volunteers the project offers activities such as:
- Walking with the elephants during which they are able to stop and eat fresh plants when they want to.
- Cooking a real Sri Lanka lunch with the host family of the project
- Preparing enrichment games for Sujee and Washtu and watching them joyfully finding the hidden food.
- Washing them in a river, while they are enjoying their daily massage bath.
Now, what do you say? Isn’t that an alternative worthwhile?
You can find these types of sanctuaries where they put the well-being of the elephants first, especially in Thailand, but also in other Asian countries. If you love elephants and want to enjoy a unique experience knowing that you are not causing pain or discomfort to these animals, here are some suggestions, just to name a few:
- The Elephant Freedom Project – Sri Lanka
- BLES – Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary -Thailand
- WFFT – Elephant Refuge & Education Center – Thailand
- Elephant Nature Park – Thailand
- BEES – Burm & Emily’s Elephant Santuary – Thailand
- Elephant Valley Project – Cambodia
Cherish elephants – don’t ride them!