For as long as I can remember I have had an affinity with these beautiful creatures.
And I feel sorry to say that I have ridden an elephant in the past. Something I feel terribly guilty about.
Let me tell you a bit more about that.
Here’s the thing, I first came to Thailand in 2008. I was 25 years old, it was first ever long haul travel and I was a bit of a newbie to things. I had had plenty of experience travelling around Europe previously. But Southeast Asia was a whole new kettle fish.
But enough of the fish, let’s talk about the elephants.
Back in 2008 I was invited along on a deluxe camping trip in Chiang Mai with the hostel I was staying at. It ended up being a fantastic and rather eventful couple of days which, among many things, included white water rafting, a trek and camping under the stars at a remote natural spa. However, the beginning of the trip started with an elephant trek.
We arrived at the elephant trek camp in the morning. I must admit, I was super excited to see the elephants. We jumped off the van and met with an elephant. A tall, beautiful elephant stood behind a fence. As we moved closer I noticed the elephant swaying from side to side. I looked down. The elephant was chained to the ground by its ankle.
Immediately I felt conflicted. On the one hand, I felt awe for this magnificent animal. But at the same time I felt guilt. I felt bad that this animal was chained up. It was clearly unhappy and unhealthy.
Our group was herded over to a platform where we climbed up some steps and waited as a group of 5 elephants were walked over to us. Just above their head sat a mahout with a bull hook in their hand. On the elephants back was a wooden seat for two people, it was fastened atop a few mats and around under her belly.
We climbed from the platform onto the seat on the elephant’s back and our small herd of elephants made their way off on a small trek around the park. We walked along a small path, through some forest, up a steep hill and through a shallow river. We came across the rest of the trekking elephants. It appeared there were at least another 20 elephants ahead of us climbing up the hill.
It was such a surreal experience to be honest. I felt constantly torn. It was overwhelming. I love elephants, I felt honoured and humbled to be in such close proximity to this beautiful animal. But I was wincing every time the mahout was using the bull hook to steer the elephant. I felt uncomfortable sat on the wooden seat on its back.
Fast forward to 2015. I was back in Chiang Mai and this time I was determined to choose my own elephant experience and make sure I went to a company that took care of them.
During my research I felt saddened that I had taken part in an elephant experience in the past that was blatantly hurting the animals. I learned more about why you should not ride elephants. And it is through this research I discovered the Elephant Nature Park, the sanctuary that we ended up visiting in January (we wrote about it here).
Why You Should Not Ride Elephants
1. Elephants put to work (in activities such as tourist riding, logging, street begging, performing) are put through a ritual called the Phajaan (meaning: crush) which breaks their animal spirit to make them compliant with humans. They do this whilst an elephant is very young. It is literally torture and includes isolating a baby elephant from its mother, confining them to a small dark space, starving them, depriving them of sleep and beating them with clubs or bull hooks. It is literally torture.
2. They continue to use bullhooks to intimidate the elephant into working
3. An elephant’s spine is not actually made to carry a human being. Yes, elephants are huge and look like strong beasts. But riding them does cause them long-term harm damaging their spine.
4. Elephants with chairs strapped to their backs can suffer from blisters which get infected. Their feet get sores from the constant trekking. These sores also get infected and suffer from long term damage.
5. Elephants tend to be social animals. They form herds and have been observed conducting social relationships with one another. However, at tourist camps they are often isolated and this causes them mental distress.
6. Elephants eat a lot. Like, a shedload of food. Elephants eat constantly, for around 12 to 18 hours a day. They also need a lot of water to keep hydrated and cool. When working at camps they are not eating or drinking as much as they require to be healthy animals. They are, essentially, going hungry when they are working.
Elephants are not domesticated like dogs. They are wild animals. If you come across one that is comfortable with human contact than the likelihood is they have undergone the phajaan process to break them.
Thankfully there are now organisations such as the Elephant Nature Park who are rescuing mistreated animals and providing a sanctuary for them to live in.
At Elephant Nature Park there are elephants arriving with all kinds of injuries. One with a nasty landmine injury caused during illegal logging activity on the border with Burma. Another one was blinded by her mahout when she refused to work following the miscarriage of her baby (caused by overworking in logging activities). Some arrive with broken legs, damaged backs and a broken spirit.
The staff at ENP work with the newly rescued elephants to get their strength and health back. They work to help them to trust humans again through positive reinforcement. They observe the elephants closely to ensure they can meet their needs as best as possible. It’s heartwarming to see.
However, whilst there is growing a tourist demand for elephant riding and performing more and more baby elephants will be poached from the wild and forced through the horrendous phajaan ritual. I was naive enough the first time round to go along with the elephant ride. I did not know any better, but I did not do the research either. For that I am guilty.
This is why I want to help spread the awareness about the dark side of elephant tourism. It is cruel, no matter what assurances these elephant trekking/performing camps tell you.
Please, please, please do not ride the elephants.
Do some further research, read around and decide for yourself.
In Thailand my recommendation for a sanctuary where you can meet rescued elephants is Elephant Nature Park. There you can spend time watching, feeding and bathing some of the elephants. Just a day with them was a phenomenal experience. We got to see first hand just how much elephants need to eat! Plus how elephants actually behave when they are happy and not being chained or forced to work.
I hope this post helps enlighten some of you. I wish my 25 year old self could have read this.