Parts of this post were taken from the article “Why Elephant Riding Should Be Removed From Your List.”
There is an air of romance and magic around riding an elephant and people tend to follow this when they travel. Sitting a top the back of the giant beast slowly meandering through the rain forest, thinking of all the amazing instagram photos you will have. This romantic thought quickly turns to horror, and the truth is riding elephants should be avoided at all cost. We will break down why you should not ride them and another way you can support and interact with elephants on your travels.
To make an elephant “rideable,” the founder of Animal Experience International Nora Livingstone explained to me, is a grueling process, and often one that begins during infancy and results in the separation of an elephant family. “A baby is taken away from its mother and tortured until it’s broken and timid. Elephants that are used in tourism are often chained up by themselves,” she continued. “Imagine being a 5,000-kg social animal and only being allowed to walk two steps in either direction because of a chain around your leg that digs into your sensitive skin and causes you to bleed. And now, imagine being completely alone [away] from your family.” This practice isn’t just native to Thailand but is common in many parts of Africa, too, according to the CEO of Trafalgar, Gavin Tollman. He explained that there are 415,000 wild elephants left on this vast continent, a striking (and shameful) decline from the 3.5 million that roamed at the start of the 20th century. Here, in addition to being captured for tourism, they are also hunted for their ivory tusks, with little to no current regulation to stop poachers. And even with laws, hunters discover loopholes.
The torture of elephants is also rampant in India, so much so that it has a unique name, according to Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder and CEO of Wildlife SOS. The process used by abusers is called phajaan, she explained, which translates to “breaking of the spirit.” This results in a form of PTSD: “Many elephants used for riding in India have been observed as displaying behavior indicating extreme mental distress and deterioration, such as head bobbing and swaying,” she said.”
Phajaan, or elephant crushing, is a long-standing accepted tradition in Thai culture. This harmful training method is what elephants undergo to become part of the tourism industry. Young elephants are taken from their mothers and confined to a small place, then abused with bullhooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails. They are also starved and deprived of sleep, in order to crush their spirits and become submissive to humans.
This is an accepted practice in Thailand, and many elephants you will see in trekking camps will have undergone this horrific process. This is one of the many reasons you should not ride an elephant.
Not only is the mental abuse psychologically scarring, but elephants will get blisters on their backs from having to wear the (howdah) a chair that is attached to their backs. These blisters can become infected and cause serious health issues. As well as Elephants’ spines cannot support the weight of people and doing so all day can lead to permanent spinal injuries, not to mention the wear and tear on their feet from having to walk all day.
It has been proven that elephants are very social animals, they have families friends, mourn the death of their loved ones, and remember. In these camps, they are often excluded from each other and separated from their families some camps they live essentially alone.
Baby elephants are chained to their mothers during treks, which can cause them harm, as they must keep pace with their mother as she walks. These baby elephants can’t stop to rest or nurse as they must continue trekking. To keep the pace, the guide (mahout) will prod the elephants with a bullhook to keep them moving. The bullhook, which elephants remember from their torture during the phajaan, can immediately strike fear in them. This fear can trigger a reaction that can not only hurt the elephants, but also the riders.
After the trek, the elephants are kept chained when they aren’t working. They are not fed enough or given enough water. Many travelers have reported seeing elephants swaying, pacing and bobbing their heads at trekking camps – signs of serious psychological stress.
What are the alternatives?
There are still lots of places where travelers can interact with elephants ethically, according and help support the end of elephant riding.
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand where you can volunteer and visit to help. We have been involved in dozens of rescues which have created our thriving elephant herd. The park provides a natural environment for elephants, dogs, cats, buffaloes and many other animals under our care I have visited this place and cannot recommend it enough, they are doing amazing work and education about elephants. https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/.