For the past several years; elephant tourism has been booming all over Asia. At first glance it looks like a pretty awesome experience. Tourists from all over the world pay big money to get that token photo riding on the back of one of these beautiful giants. The part that I hope to shed some light on is what goes on behind the scenes. The part that you don`t see; the dark side of elephant tourism.
Is It Natural To Ride An Elephant?
Lets start from the beginning. In the wild; it would be impossible to get close enough to touch an elephant never mind ride one. They would spend their day roaming the jungle, eating, scratching, and socializing with the herd. So why is it that these elephants are giving rides, doing tricks, and completely submissive to humans? To answer some of these questions we have to take a look at the whole picture.
First question: how are these elephants obtained? Elephant trafficking is rampant all over Asia with an emphasis on the Myanmar-Thailand boarder. While Thailand has the largest elephant tourism industry; it is prevalent in many other countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Nepal, and China.
There are two main ways to acquire an elephant. Those born into the tourist industry are often sold or traded. The second method is to capture them from the wild. In these cases the mother and surrounding adults are generally murdered. Next the highest bidder will obtain the elephant through illegal trafficking.
Breaking The Spirit of An Elephant
When a baby elephant is born or captured into the tourist industry; it goes through a process called “Phajaan”. Phajaan means “elephant crushing” or “breaking the spirit of an elephant”. First ripped from its mother and placed into a cage or hole; the elephant is completely tied up unable to move. This process goes on for days at a time using starvation, sleep deprivation, and beatings. Many reports include the use of bull hooks, nails, sticks, and chains to beat these creatures into submission.
Terrified of humans and seen only as a vehicle; the elephants are literally driven into the ground. They suffer from high rates of exhaustion, poor nutrition, and untreated infection. Imagine giving tourist rides for 8-10 hours per day and spending the rest of your life chained to a metal post. Pretty terrible, right?
So What Can We Do?
Now I`m sure most of you are as horrified as I was when I began learning about this. The good news is that people like you and I have sparked a shift. The elephant tourism industry relies on one thing alone: the money brought in by those wanting to ride an elephant.
When tourists no longer pay to support this process; other options start to emerge. Some unbelievable people have started to stand up to years of tradition and break this cycle of abuse. Over the past few years; there has been an increase in elephant sanctuaries around Asia. They offer an alternative to riding including education on the industry, feeding the elephants and observing them in their natural habitat. Although its a slow moving process; the change starts with all of us. Our part in this is really quite simple. Love an elephant; don`t ride one.
Reputable Elephant Sanctuaries & Programs
Unfortunately not all companies claiming to be a sanctuary are completely truthful. Here are a few ethical programs we support. Please feel free to comment with other reputable companies or your elephant sanctuary experiences!