Why Shouldn't I Ride Elephants?

Friday, 3 February 2017

Before I visited Thailand I have to say I didn't know all that much about the treatment of elephants and though I'd heard that elephant rides were wrong and knew about the exploitation of elephants to some extent I had no idea how badly the Asian Elephant is treated.

While volunteering at Elephant Nature Park I learnt a lot about Asian elephants, about their treatment (especially in Thailand) and this post has been a long time coming because there are still many people who don't quite realise just how badly elephants are treated in order for you to be able to ride them.

Most of the photos I've used here are mine of the rescued Elephants at Elephant Nature park, if they're not I will state underneath.
So Elephants in Thailand have virtually no rights, they're viewed as livestock despite the fact that they're incredibly intelligent animals with the capacity to feel complex emotions and experience grief, anxiety, and depression. This is the case across many parts of South East Asia and on my travels I saw elephants mistreated across India, Nepal, and Thailand. It's a sad fact and what you see on the outside as a tourist isn't even the worst part of their mistreatment.

Because of their status, by law, they can't be rescued even if they're being mistreated, so organisations trying to help elephants can usually only afford to buy old and injured ones from their mahouts.
Photo courtesy of Eclectic Trekker
Breaking an Elephants Spirit
If you search this on youtube you can find videos on just how incredibly disgusting this process is, but I don't want to share anything too graphic on my blog so if you want to see those you'll have to search yourself.


Elephants have very close family ties and are incredibly loyal, most babies are looked after by their mother, a nanny and their siblings and have no reason to listen to humans or to obey the commands needed for them to be able to be ridden. So they have their spirits broken.

Baby elephants, starting around the age of three, are taken from their mothers. They are then kept either in tiny cages or contraptions with their legs and trunk tied up. Here they are kept from days to weeks on end while being beaten with bull hooks, shouted at, having their limbs stretched, and starved of food and water. This treatment continues until this baby's spirit is broken and they are ready to obey humans.

At this stage a baby can walk past its mother and not even recognise her anymore, and that's what it's for, to break any family ties and to make sure that the elephant will listen to human commands. After their torture they're assigned a mahout, someone who wasn't part of the beatings, and the elephant will see this human as its saviour. This mahout now has control over the elephant and the elephant is ready to be trained to go into practices such as elephant rides, circuses, painting, or illegal logging.
Elephants in Amber Fort, Jaipur - India
The Life of a working elephant
The torture doesn't stop when the spirit breaking is over. For the rest of its life this elephant will be forced to work in horrible conditions often not given enough food, water, or rest and spending most of it's day while not working chained up and isolated.

These elephant's mahouts usually carry bull hooks around, a tool the elephant is learnt to be terrified of and if the elephants misbehave this bull-hook is used to beat them. The sharp tool is often used to target the soft skin of an elephants ear or the top of their head. A lot of the elephants I saw at elephant nature park had scars from bull hooks and one elephant even had a hole in here ear which her mahout at the park had put a flower into.

Some places like to be more subtle and hie the cruelty from tourists so will instead use a pin to push into the soft sensitive skin of an elephants ears.

Elephants that are being ridden usually have benches on their backs to make it more comfortable for human riders. These are not taken off during their resting periods and are incredibly heavy, leading to serious deformations. One elephant at the park had such a serious back deformation she struggled to use her back legs.

And it's not just riding elephant's lives who are grim, almost all working elephants endure lives of torture and end up anxious, depressed and terrified of humans. Many of the elephants at ENP had been sold on by their mahouts because they had been injured so badly working they were no longer of use. And for almost elephants that's the only way they stop working, by getting injured or being to old to work.

So how can you help?
Mainly it's by not supporting places that are exploiting elephants and causing them harm and instead supporting organisations trying to protect the species.

Places to avoid supporting:
- Anywhere you can ride elephants, especially if they have  a bench on their back
- Anywhere you see the mahouts with sharp objects/bull-hooks
- Anywhere elephants are doing anything unnatural, like playing football, painting or performing tricks

There are still ways to see these beautiful creatures without supporting animal cruelty. Organisations like ENP allow you to do things like feed, bathe and just go and watch elephants up close in an environment where they're trying to do the best they can for elephants many of whom have had a lifetime of torture. So donate to organisations like these, visit them and help to ensure a better future for the Asian elephant.
Also educate your friends! If you have friends travelling to South East Asia let them know how bad elephant rides really are and encourage them to find other ways to see them.

Laws have changed in recent years, it is now illegal to use Elephants for logging and hopefully laws will change to try and stop their mistreatment all together.

So I hope maybe you learned something today. It wasn't the most positive article in the world but it baffled me how many tourists I saw riding elephants and how many people I thought knew better with pictures of them riding them. My time in Thailand taught me so much (not just about Elephants) and so I thought I would give something back by writing this post.

Have an amazing weekend.
Thanks for reading!

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