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The Truth About Elephant Tourism in Asia

The crushing truth

We love elephants, perhaps because they’re a lot like us – intelligent, sociable and emotional, as anyone who has read about the way that herds protect their young and mourn their dead will recognize.

Paradoxically, it’s the reverence and affection travellers feel for these majestic animals that leads to the enduring success of many elephant attractions, and the abuses they perpetuate.

The idea of “domesticated” elephants working in harmony with their human handlers (mahouts) may sound idyllic, but the reality is anything but. Young elephants, whether born wild or in captivity, have to be made fit for human use through a process sometimes describes as “elephant crushing”, involving the systematic breaking of the elephant’s mind, body and spirit.

Babies are taken from their mothers (traumatic enough in itself for both child and parent), after which their “training” may include being confined in tiny pens, systematically beaten with bullhooks or nail-studded sticks, starved, deprived of sleep. Once these hugely powerful animals have been terrified into doing their owner’s bidding, they are considered safe to interact with tourists.

Taking them for a ride

The only way to travel on the back of an elephant humanely is to ride it bareback, sitting on its neck, as Asian mahouts traditionally do. Putting a heavy and unwieldy howdah(elephant seat) on an animal’s back is uncomfortable in itself, even before you’ve loaded it up with tourists.

“Elephants are supremely strong creatures, but they are not indestructible.”

Howdahs also need to be secured using ropes around the elephant’s stomach and tail, which can cause open sores, abscesses and other lasting physical damage including spinal injuries and deformities.

Elephants are supremely strong creatures, but they are not indestructible. An adult elephant can carry around 150kg for limited period, although many elephants carry far heavier loads including mahout, howdah and as many as four adults for rides lasting an hour or longer.

Long treks in extreme heat can also lead to dehydration and exhaustion, while many elephants used for riding also wear chains around their feet, which further adds to their discomfort.

The stress is bad enough for a fully-grown elephant – adults have been known to simply collapse and die beneath their burdens – but baby elephants as young as four have been seen carrying tourists.

Tricks of the trade

Elephants are amongst the most intelligent creatures on the planet and can be taught to do all sorts of things – to play football, spin hoops, ride tricycles, stand on their heads or even paint pictures.

Don’t be misled into thinking this is a natural expression of their playfulness or creativity when in fact they’re simply party tricks they have been forced to learn at the end of a bullhook, or suffer the consequences.

Do elephants paint or perform headstands in the wild? Exactly.

Elephants (particularly baby elephants) are also often used as cute begging props in tourist towns and on beaches, although they’re no better off. Being fed pieces of sugarcane and pineapple by foreign visitors doesn’t replace a natural diet of grass and leaves and ready access to fresh water.

Exhaust fumes, hot concrete, collisions with traffic and the constant stress of being in an unfamiliar environment surrounded by crowds of people and loud music (not to mention the sedatives they may have been dosed with) leads to a fifty percent reduction in life expectancy, while baby elephants used for begging are often dead by the age of five.

Human and economic realities

In an ideal world, all captive elephants would be released back into the wild and no one would ever ride one again. Sadly, this is never going to happen. In many countries there’s simply nowhere to release them to, while some captive elephants would not be equipped to survive in the wild.

The alternatives to elephant tourism are often worse than the cure. Elephants not used in tourism might end up being used for illegal logging, and suffer a fate far worse than carrying a few tourists, away from the public eye or any kind of veterinary help (as well as being regularly dosed with amphetamines in order to make them work harder).

Returning elephants to the wild would also put many at serious risk of poaching.