Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why I Took "Ride an Elephant" Off my Bucket List - And Why You Should Too

Riding an elephant looks fun and glamorous - but it isn't worth it.

I have always wanted to ride an elephant. I think it stems from when I was a little girl - I have a vague memory of the circus coming to my hometown and people riding the elephant there.  I was too young and not big enough to be allowed to ride, so my young self vowed to perch on an elephant when I grew up.  The goal made it to my travel bucket list (#36. Ride an elephant) and I have been waiting for my chance to check it off, complete with accompanying glorious photographs and an adorable tale.

I had no idea what life for a commercial elephant is really like.  I did watch the movie "Water for Elephants" and saw the scene where the circus owner whips the elephant, nay BEATS it, into submission so that it won't be rowdy for circus patrons.  That scene made me bawl - I cried and cried at the injustice of it.  I knew, of course, it was a movie scene and that that particular elephant hadn't been harmed, but I was crying for all the elephants out there who HAD been abused by circus owners.

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The movie "Water for Elephants" hinted at the abuse these noble creatures suffer.

But I didn't put two and two together that although circus practices may have changed (and truth be told, they probably haven't), other establishments might be treating elephants the same way, just in a different setting.  Then I read an article that changed my whole perspective.  You can find it here. If you don't want to go to the site, I will summarize the article as best I can here without plagiarizing it.

Basically, the article focused on elephant trekking outfits in Thailand - the kind of places where you show up, pay your money, and get to ride an elephant around the jungle for half an hour to a full day, depending on the package you buy.  I have friends who have done this, and I was envious of their seemingly amazing adventure.  However, all is not what it seems, and too many travelers and tourists arrive at these place misinformed, not realizing they are contributing to a major animal abuse problem.

Elephants are intelligent yet wild creatures.  No real, free, healthy elephant would actually bend down and allow a human to climb onto its back and lead it on a trail ride through the jungle.  Elephants are independent and occasionally violent and grumpy - they often view humans as a threat (and after reading that article, we definitely ARE!).  In order to 'train' elephants to accept human riders and follow lead ropes and guides, wild elephants are stolen from their mothers at young ages, caged, and beaten and humiliated into submission.

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A baby elephant, torn from its mother and frightened, suffers abuse to break its spirit.

Methods of 'training' include prodding and beating with bullhooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails, tied down to concrete flooring, starvation, living in their own filth, isolation, and sleep deprivation, just to name a few tactics.  They are kept in conditions such as these until their wild spirit is crushed, and they are terrified of humans to the point where they will do whatever is asked of them.

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 A bullhook, the type used to prod and beat elephants while they are being 'trained'.

Once 'trained', their lives do not get easier.  They are made to trek all day, with heavy weights upon their backs (chairs called Howdahs and then the rider in them).  Their spines are not designed to carry loads, and over time these beautiful creatures suffer spinal damage.  The Howdahs rub against their skin and cause blisters that often get infections.  The feet of the elephants are also damaged from the incessant trekking, causing cracking and infections.  I highly doubt sick elephants get the loving and tender care they require, either.

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The sole of an elephant's foot after years of trekking with humans.

I encourage you to read the article in full - it talks about living conditions, how babies are treated, and more. It also talks about solutions.  The first and most obvious way of helping is to avoid attending these businesses, and to spread the word so that others do not contribute to the industry as well.  If you DO still want an up-close and personal encounter with an elephant, there are elephant sanctuaries that allow you to feed, bathe, and generally hang out with elephants - without riding them or causing harm.  For example, Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary not only rescues abused elephants, they are also purchasing land for wild elephants to live on in safety.  Find out more at their site here.

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Elephants suffer psychological and physical abuse, for the pleasure of tourists.

Therefore, I have vowed to change my bucket list item from "Ride an Elephant" to "Volunteer to Help an Elephant". I want to give it a bath, not break its back.  Please say you'll vow to make a change too!

6 comments:

  1. I'm glad I read this! Thank you for changing your bucket list *a hug for all elephants*

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    1. The more we spread awareness and share this information, then hopefully fewer people will partake in elephant riding. I don't want to make people lose their livelihoods, but maybe they'll consider converting their businesses into sanctuaries rather than riding establishments.

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  2. Well said. It often feels like that in Asian countries but when you dig a little deeper you realise things aren't what they seem. I have wanted to ride an elephant but in Cambodia when I had the chance I just couldn't, something just seemed wrong. Same as when we saw monkeys dressed in jackets riding bikes. At first everyone was like 'how cute' but then we all went, this isn't cute, this is just plain wrong.

    Unfortunately many tourists support this sort of treatment and don't realise. Getting caught up in the excitement of travel and wanting such experiences. I definitely am more aware now than I was when I started travelling.

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    1. Awareness is key, I agree. I have never seen monkeys in jackets riding bikes, but you are right... you have to take any animal that has been trained to do the bidding of a human with a grain of salt. Cute or not, it is important to look into how they were trained and decide if you can ethically support that treatment. Thanks for commenting! :)

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  3. Great post. Alyse and I did ride on an elephant in Laos. It had always been a dream of ours but to be honest we had no idea how badly they were treated, how they are taken away from their mothers so young, etc. etc. until after we rode them. As soon as we got on top though, I'm not going to lie, I felt badly. It's not that our "driver" was being mean to the elephant it's just the shear weight that we were riding on its neck/back. I felt like I wanted to get off immediately. Great job spreading the word!

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    1. I'm sure most people who ride elephants have no clue what is going on in the background. But it makes sense when you think of how wild elephants are in the wild (to the point where some enjoy trampling safari Jeeps and such), and what it would take to make them so meek as to let people actually ride them. Laos, on the other hand, is a place I've always wanted to go - I'm headed to your blog now to read all about it! :)

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