Do you love elephants? And would you pay for a ride on one’s back just to get a selfie? Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: riding these gentle giants remains high on most travellers’ wish lists but, the unfortunate truth is, cruel practices are used to tame these wild creatures. Like you, the other tourists wanting to see these wonderful creatures up close are not driven by a wish to hurt them; ironically it’s usually for the love of elephants!
With Save The Elephant Day on April 16, here are some tips to make sure animal welfare is at the heart of any elephant experiences on your trip:
Know the facts
According to ElephantVoices, there are an estimated 15,000-20,000 captive elephants around the world, most of whom live in harsh conditions.
Taming these wild creatures to interact with tourists is accomplished through phajaan or ‘crushing’ – the traditional torture training method that includes confinement, chaining, forced starvation, beatings from a bullhook to break the spirit of the elephant during infancy. This physical and psychological trauma is often overlooked by the many tourists passing through elephant riding camps as the abuse happens behind the scenes.
In Asia, the popularity of elephant riding has also resulted in an increase in wild elephant capture to satisfy demand for this type of tourist attraction. Many people also don’t realise how dangerous riding these wild animals can be for tourists themselves. Just this February, British tourist Gareth Crowe was killed when thrown from the back of an elephant who turned on his handler in Thailand.
Shun elephant riding
The elephant entertainment industry in Asia is immensely successful, thanks to the numerous foreign tourists who want to ride elephants and watch them perform tricks. Visitors must question the industry-wide claims of owners being unable to afford and manage upkeep without offering rides.
Instead, make a choice to volunteer and donate to spend time with elephants in a hands-off way, which lets them live as much of a natural life as possible. The industry can change – but only when travellers do.
Keep your distance
To avoid disturbing or upsetting these peaceful creatures, pick a safari that lets you spot elephants in the wild or observe herds from a viewing platform.
The most responsible elephant sanctuaries are those which aim to rehabilitate abandoned animals and return them to the wild when ready. The famous Elephant Transit Home, near Sri Lanka’s Udawalawe National Park, offers a humane alternative to keeping rescued elephants in permanent captivity. On a visit to the ETH, you can observe injured and orphaned elephants from a respectful distance at feeding time. Spot more of the gentle giants in the wild on a jeep safari in Yala National Park before drifting off to sleep in a tent in the midst of the park.
Play your part in the rehabilitation of elephants
What could be more joyful than interacting with these magnificent animals and helping them heal? The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, funded by Save Elephant Foundation, allows you to walk with the elephants, watch them play and roam as a herd. The rehabilitation centre also lets you learn about how to contribute to the residents’ ethical treatment and even prepare them a tasty lunch.
Do your bit to help local communities
It’s not just elephants that can be exploited but local communities too. Look for a trip that strives to benefit the locals by supporting grassroots projects or offering employment opportunities by hiring and training local people.
Head off the beaten track, deep into the jungles of Tangkahan, Sumatra. Avoid the elephant trekking and head for the Elephant Camp where you can treat the elephants to a wash in the river, surrounded by nature and a chorus of exotic birdlife. In 2001, the community banded together to protect the rainforest and since then a team of Sumatran elephants and their mahouts help safeguard the national park. This remote camp hires and trains local ex-loggers to be guides. And the funds raised go towards the community itself and their patrol against illegal logging.
Choose a responsible travel company
When booking your trip, make sure you check out the ethical, environmental and sustainable credentials of the company you intend to book with.
Passionate about experiencing wildlife responsibly, Rickshaw Travel has made it its mission to stand up for elephants and have replaced all elephant riding excursions with ethical experiences. They have also partnered with World Animal Protection, an animal welfare charity working to end animal cruelty.
If you choose to see elephants on your holiday, please remember the importance of experiencing wildlife responsibly. Be part of a positive change and travel to experience wildlife the way nature intended it… in the wild. Happy Save The Elephant Day!
Rickshaw Travel provides ethical tours to Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Thailand. Following in-depth research into animal welfare and customer feedback, Rickshaw Travel no longer offers elephant riding in any of its trips. For more information, head to rickshawtravel.co.uk.