Who wouldn’t want to go on an elephant safari? Roaming the jungle on the back of this magnificent animal is every novice traveler’s dream. And even if it doesn’t cross your mind, the opportunity will be right there, waiting for you, asking you, to seize it.
This is what happened to me. When I visited the Chitwan National Park in Nepal and Sri Lanka’s middle belt, elephant riding opportunities were almost unavoidable. So I went for it, and I enjoyed every second of the experience and of being surrounded by all the wildlife. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the plight of these gentle giants.
For fellow travel writer and photographer Penny Frederiksen, the prospect of elephant riding was too exciting during her first solo trip to Asia.
“I wanted to experience everything Thailand had to offer and it seemed that riding an elephant was one of those boxes to be ticked,” Penny told me.
Soon, however, travelers like me and Penny started hearing about the elephant riding debate. Some heard it from animal welfare organizations that started launching awareness campaigns, while other travelers noticed the discomfort of the elephants. This is what happened to my sister when she visited the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.
“I felt that the tourists’ behavior with the elephants was a bit intrusive. I even saw some people trying to force-feed the animals,” she told me
Recent research has shown the dire conditions of the elephants who work in the tourism sector.
According to a World Animal Protection report, 80 % of the 3,000 elephants living in tourist venues across Asia suffer from poor living conditions that involved insufficient diet and overworking. These findings have propelled tourists and tour operators around the world to avoid the practice.
In 2010, the German TUI Nederland was the first tour operator to stop the sales and promotions of venues that offer elephant riding and shows. Soon the Australian Inrepid Travel followed.
In 2016, TripAdvisor finally succumbed to public demand announcing that it would end the sales of tickets for any wildlife activities that involve direct contact between tourists and captive wild animals. By early 2017, more than 160 travel companies limited their options to elephant-friendly tourism activities.
“With age, travel and more information, I now realise many of these elephants are the product of a tourism industry which does not have the animal’s best interest at heart,” Penny said.
The domestication of wild elephants started a long time ago. According to one account, it goes back more than 4,000 years.
“A long time ago, elephants were used to transport heavy things, clear jungles, and plough the lands for growing crops,” said Sri Lankan tourist guide Sarath Kandambi*.
During that time, mahouts in Asia, or the elephant keepers, were hired to train as well as maintain the animals. Through the ages, the traditional mahouts have passed on ancient ancestral knowledge of the best methods and practices of dealing with the elephants.
Like other professions in Asia, working as a mahout used to be passed on from generation to the next, with sons receiving training from a young age. Having spent their childhoods in the jungle around elephants, even novice mahouts understood their animals well and learnt which plants could keep them fit and healthy.
In the late nineteenth century, steam-powered machines – that had been used in the Industrial Revolution – penetrated the farming industry. When this trend reached Asia, many mahouts and their elephants were put out of business, leaving them with no option but to enter the tourism sector. Once in the domain of tourism, both elephants and mahouts became treated as dispensable commodities.
“Large numbers of elephants are sold, separating them from their mahouts as they cannot afford to feed them. This raises another problem where people unfamiliar to the elephants are then put in charge of them,” Penny said.
Last year in Thailand, the warnings of a a bull elephant’s mahout about the animal entering a state of musth went unheard. Instead, the owner paired the elephant with a new mahout. When the tourists arrived, the raging bull snapped, killing the new mahout and disappearing into the jungle with the tourists on his back.
“In order to make elephants submit to rides and other human interactions, they are forced through a horrific training process that involves extreme restraints, separating calves from their mothers, inflicting pain and withholding food and water,” Sarath told me.
While the industry is unkind to elephants, some view it as a much-needed income source for the locals, providing employment for numerous workers and creating additional revenue streams. The industry offers jobs to tourist guides like Sarath, drivers who take tourists to elephant riding sites, and entire villages that supply elephant food.
A possible solution could be to offer training to teach the elephant owners and mahouts better ways to deal with their animals while maintaining a sustainable income.
“A little more thought needs to be done in actually providing a unique experience where tourists can learn about the vulnerability of elephants. I am not sure if tourists can fully understand the plight of the species simply by riding them,” Penny said.
* Sarath Kandami is a tourist guide based in the town of Mirissa in southern Sri Lanka | Cellphone: +94 77 111 7856, Email: email@example.com