I’m going to Thailand next month and elephant riding is at the top of my to-do list! 😀
That’s a very common excitement coming from travelers who are going to Thailand, India, or other elephant countries in Asia. Who doesn’t like elephants? These giant but gentle animals are beautiful, smart, and human friendly. Taking selfies while riding on their back is in the check lists of many tourists.
As an animal lover, I did (past tense) not find any problems with elephant riding and yes, I did ride an elephant many years ago, even though only bare-back ride. After spending years working in the wildlife conservation field, the truth slowly shows its ugly face. Information was revealed to me during numerous rescue works, bits by bits like puzzle pieces waiting to be framed as a bigger picture. Poisoned elephant in the wild, treating skin infection, and pictures of happy faces riding elephants are somehow linked together. After understanding the facts, I realized that elephant riding is not encouraged anymore. Here are the reasons why:
1. Controlling a baby elephant is easier than adult elephants. Obtaining an elephant when they are babes can bring more advantages for the owner. They can use the baby’s cute face to beg food and as photo props because they are cute enough to be in your picture or in your birthday party. So how to get a baby elephant? Simple, just kill the mother and buy the baby elephant once it’s rescued. If the baby is born in captivity, they will be separated from their mothers as early as six months old. All baby elephants have to undergo a ritual called ‘phajaan‘ which literally means crush, i.e a process to crush the baby elephant’s soul to make them submissive to human. The ritual involves torturing a baby elephant by a group of people where the mahout then appears acting kindly to be a ‘hero’ for the baby. The baby elephant will then trust the mahout, believing he’s the only good person among the torturers. Here’s a video of the cruel process as published by One Green Planet. A little internet research of ‘phajaan’ will bring you one step closer to the truth.
2. Elephants are not domesticated animals and they will never be as tame as a dog or a horse. They still have their wild behavior which makes them harder to be controlled. The trick to conquer them is by using sharp metals. It has to be sharp enough to prick the elephant’s thick skin or else it won’t work. The elephants will then follow the mahout (elephant keeper)’s order because they are afraid to be hit by the sharp metal hook.
In the picture above an adult elephant named La Ong Dao was recently rescued from her owner in Pattaya where she was abused for tourism. Of course her owner said they took a good care of their beloved elephant and that she was healthy. People without zoology, biology or veterinary background will easily agree and ride her because the owner seemed very kind with La Ong Dao, but with a closer look, you can see one of several pus-filled holes on her forehead caused by elephant hook. You won’t find these infected holes easily because they are covered in mud and dirt.
3. Riding elephants without chairs can be tiring for the rider’s legs. That’s why in some places you can see wooden and metal seating frames are attached on top of their back. Very convenient! For the people, but not for the elephants. The sharp edges of these chairs rub the elephant’s skin and cause blister and skin abrasion while they walk long distance treks, which leads to skin infection.
“Then I assume bare-back riding is okay.”
The answer is still no. Naturally, elephants use mud and dirt to cover their backs from sunburn, similar to the function of sunscreen and clothing in human. Nobody wants to sit on a dirty elephant covered in mud, hence riding them leads to suffering from sunburn and skin problem.
4. No matter how expensive you are willing to pay for elephant ride, this amount is never enough and the elephant owners will follow their human nature to earn more and more money. How? By making their elephants work non stop carrying endless tourists on their backs during the day and beg for food during the night. Earlier this year two elephants dropped dead in Vietnam because they were overworked. Can you still say you spend your money to contribute for the local communities?
I can’t blame you for riding elephants only if you were not aware of the facts. But now you know, and if after knowing the facts you still continue on riding elephants and ignoring the ugly truth, then I apologize to say you are a selfish human being. Your ego is not worth the elephant’s suffering.
But we only live once and elephant riding is once in a lifetime experience!
You know what the funny thing is? The elephants are saying exactly the same thing. They also only live once and what seems to be a fun ‘once in a lifetime experience’ for you (and thousands of tourists out there) means a long life torture for them.
If you’re a real elephant lover, show your love by volunteering at real elephant rescue centers instead of riding them. Remember, a real rescue center does not let their visitors ride their elephants and they don’t chain their elephants. If you want the list of reputable elephant rescue centers in Thailand or South East Asia, simply contact me and I’m happy to share the information for free. I’m not paid by any institution to promote their places. I only recommend places where high animal welfare standard is practiced.
Now after understanding the life of an exploited elephant, do you still want to ride them? Why and why not? Share your thoughts in the comment below.