Are the people on my Facebook feed just really aware of the world or is elephants suffering in the tourist industry really huge news at the moment? I can’t say, but I’ve ran into several articles lately telling why you shouldn’t go for an elephant ride. Among the articles I read were the one about the Scot being gored to death and the one about the death of a captive elephant.
|Elephants carrying tourists at Amber Fort|
And I have to admit… I was a little bit hesitant to write about the topic. As I’m typing this, I still am and I’m unsure whether I want to publish this, but I feel like I have to, if not for anything else than to add my voice to the little stream that hopefully will reach a few travellers out there.
First off: don’t ride an elephant.
Or rather, don’t ride an elephant unless you’ve done extensive research. I don’t believe that every company that arranges elephant rides is evil, but there are so many out there that don’t have much concern for the safety or the well-being of these amazing animals. Even though they’re big in size, they are not designed to carry people on their backs – in fact, a few sources (such as this and this, if you’re interested in more profound detail) cite that they could only carry the maximum load of about 150 kg (300 pound). The chair that the industry often puts on the elephants for tourists to ride weighs by itself more than 100 kg. Then you have the elephant trainer riding, plus a few people in the chair… It’s not too difficult to add one to one and see how carrying a load like this for hours every day can lead to serious spinal damage.
|Where tourist elephants go to sleep. Note the shackles and cement floor.|
|Where elephants are kept in cities.|
Then there’s the training. I’ve never actually seen any elephant training videos – I don’t have to. I believe when they’re described to me and I don’t particularly want to see an animal getting hit by a big hook. You can train an elephant using softer methods than violence and pain, but it takes more time and where both the trainer – mahout – and the elephant need to eat, they are needed for work quickly. Regular operators don’t have the time for soft training, and usually not the knowledge to do so.
But then there’s the tricky part – in the world where logging (which, also, is quite cruel for the elephants) in the traditional way has almost everywhere given way to the machines, the only way mahouts can make a living with their elephants is in the tourist industry. As elephants are an endangered species, making elephant tourism completely illegal would starve and kill countless elephants and take their not-so-wealthy mahouts out of job.
|Working elephants at Amber Fort|
I can’t stand animal cruelty. One of my earlier memories is being in a zoo and watching a couple of little boys throwing rocks at flamingos, and I just remember thinking: barbaric! I never kill bees that stray into my apartment but I take them outside. For all this I am so ashamed to write this confession:
I, too, rode an elephant.
To make matters worse, I knew what I was doing. Most tourists ride elephants because they’re ignorant to the bad treatment and just see it as something exotic to do to pass the time. I knew better, and I still did it.
I was reluctant to ride an elephant when it was first suggested. I did my research and got confirmation that I definitely should not ride an elephant. However, I still loved them and was eager to get a chance to spend some time with them, so maybe I could just go somewhere where they let you feed and hang out with the elephants while learning more about them? The Lonely Planet India guide book offered a surprisingly perfect combo: you would get to do all that stuff, plus if you wanted you could ride the elephant bare back. They were all rescue animals, and I thought it looked great. I googled some reviews and all of them said that the owner honestly cares about his elephants. The only negative one I read was some old lady complaining that the owner favoured younger girls when choosing who got to ride the animal.
As the rickshaw driver smoothed to a stop, I knew immediately that something was wrong. We were still too far into the city to be able to do “jungle walks” as the proper park had promised. I sat frozen in the rickshaw. “This isn’t the right place”, were the first words to come out of my mouth. But the driver was up and out and insisting this was it and that I should follow him, and I crashed under peer pressure and followed him inside the walls.
I kept looking around and repeating that it was all wrong. It was just a small backyard, nicer, yes, than the one we had seen the night before but obviously the green grass and the pool were just a front put up for tourists. There was no way for the elephants to roam. They weren’t shackled, but there were trainers sitting around watching them. The animals still carried the chairs on their backs. We were told that when they’re not here on their break (so entertaining clueless tourists is a break?), they’re working in the Amber Fort, carrying people up.
I told them that we were in the wrong place because in the right one you could do bareback rides and the elephants didn’t have to work any extra hours. They answered that it was a new safety regulation and no one was allowed to ride them without the chair.
I asked about the owner of the place by his name, which I had learnt reading the reviews earlier. They introduced the guy walking towards us as him and said that all elephants in India are owned by the government and no one can own them privately.
I told them that the prices were twice bigger than they should’ve been. All they could do was tell me that I didn’t have to purchase all the extras if I didn’t want to.
All the things that were wrong… And still, still there was doubt in my gut that maybe I was the one that was wrong. I beat myself up in that moment thinking I should’ve searched for pictures so I would know what the actual place looked like, but I hadn’t. I couldn’t help but think that after all it was India and not everything had been so far exactly as it was advertised. The rickshaw driver and the elephant guy all went up against me when I tried to argue with them, even when bringing out the fact that elephants shouldn’t be carrying as much weight as they did there. Maybe I should’ve marched. Instead I caved in, gave them my money and fed, painted and rode an elephant.
I could say I was bullied into it. I could say that I wasn’t thinking straight – after all, I was so sick that day that I had contemplated in the morning if we could meet the elephants some other day. I could give all these excuses but none of them would really be good enough to explain that I just didn’t have the confidence to say no when I should’ve. Standing up for it can’t make it right, but at least I am taking responsibility for my own actions.
Later that day when we got back to the hostel I went straight into my bed and stayed there. I don’t think I cried; I was too numb to. The flu was wrapping me in a tight embrace as well and I felt sick, physically and emotionally.
Funny how our rickshaw driver had talked about believing in karma earlier at the elephant park. He got his when the hostel manager, enraged by that a rickshaw driver the hostel had hired had intentionally taken us to the wrong place, called the guy and terminated all contracts between him and the hostel.
I have forgiven but not forgotten. I still think about the “elephant experience” of that day and feel guilty about it. I didn’t only harm the wonderful elephant I interacted with but gave a significant amount of money to the owners of the place so that they could continue their dishonest business. When I think about it, I feel sick to my stomach. So here is my advice: do your research and stick to it assertively.
What can you do, though, if you’re getting disheartened by all this misery but still really, really want to get in touch with elephants? Find a company that does bareback rides, doesn’t overwork the elephants and employs rescue elephants – meaning they haven’t been specifically trained for this company’s purpose but rather rescued from people treating the animals badly by people who are interested in giving the elephant a good life. It may sound a bit like cheating since you know that these animals have still most likely been trained as brutally as any other working elephants, but at least you know that it wasn’t done by the people you give your money to. And the money will go towards maintaining the health of the animals. Of course even better would be not to ride an elephant but spend time with them otherwise, like feeding and washing them.
I believe elephant parks should decrease in number but not disappear completely. Instead, mahouts should be trained how to train and treat their animals right, and the parks should be a learning environment for people who want to get up close to these incredible animals – not a picture opportunity for your holiday album.
And maybe one day I will find a way to atone for my mistake that only further helped the suffering of captive elephants.
Is riding an elephant on your bucket list?
All of the pictures in this post were taken in Jaipur, India.