As the sun began to set, I watched silently in awe as a herd of elephants passed by my safari jeep and disappeared into the thick jungle foliage. The silence was a big surprise, for despite their lumbering size, elephants move almost without sound and for a moment I was transported in their quiet and docile world, as they were not being exploited in mine.
Other than leaving them at peace, a safari is the most ethical way to see wild animals – you visit them in their space, on their terms – and if they don’t want to be seen, they can choose not to be. No chains, no fences, no gimmicks. To experience this myself I took a jeep safari into Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka, which in dry season sees the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world. Here they come together to drink from the Minneriya tank as the land and grasses dry up in the surrounding areas. I lost count of the number of elephants I saw that day, but I will never forget the wonder of just watching them be.
The limited number of jeeps in the park kept their distance and the elephants came to us if they were curious, which a number of the younger ones were. In reality, you don’t want to be too close to a wild elephant, the sheer strength and power they possess means that although peaceful and sociable animals they need to be given their space. Getting a glimpse into the life of a wild elephant was remarkable but it also left me feeling anguish for those elephants still held in captivity.
Not all elephants are able to live a free and natural life. Many are taken from the wild and subjected to a torturous existence for the entertainment or profiteering of humans. They will spend their days hauling logs, performing tricks, being used to street beg, or carrying huge weights on their backs in trekking camps. Riding an elephant might look like fun, but elephants aren’t built to carry weight on their backs. These unfortunate elephants have most likely had their ‘spirit broken’ – a barbaric practice to ensure the elephant forgets its previous life and succumbs to human direction and order. Yet how many of us know this when we see a tour advertising a dreamy looking elephant jungle trek? As a cruel practice which is well and truly hidden from the public eye, I am sure very few rational people would still choose to ride elephants or watch them perform tricks if they knew what they had gone through to be domesticated.
Thankfully elephant rescue centres and sanctuaries exist to combat the poor treatment of these majestic animals, not only rescuing abused and injured animals but also offering mahouts (elephant trainers and keepers) new careers as elephant carers and handlers. For some mahouts, the elephant they own is their life and livelihood and despite treating the animals poorly, they know no better – or have no other option. Providing new opportunities and financial security for elephant owners and trainers is part of the solution in reducing elephant exploitation and cruelty.
With this in mind, second to a safari, an elephant sanctuary is a good place to observe and experience elephants up close and in an ethical manner. I recently visited one such sanctuary in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation centre which conjures up cheery visions of a leafy, lush Jurassic Park and is home to more than 70 rescued elephants. The animals are relatively free to roam the extensive park grounds, they form family bonds as they would in the wild, they bathe in the river and are kept safe from poachers at night. The elephants rehomed at Elephant Nature Park have been rescued from the logging trade, from circuses and from trekking camps and many of them sport both physical and mental injuries, making it very difficult – if not impossible – for some to ever be returned to the wild. Visitors to the park can interact with the elephants in a responsible manner through feeding programmes, elephant bathing and walking with the elephants – but never riding them.
During my visit to Elephant Nature Park, I fed an elephant a copious amount of bananas (the sheer volume of food an elephant requires makes it difficult for some owners to feed them, hence relying on tourism and poor practices to afford to keep them). I took a tour around the park grounds visiting a number of elephants and hearing more about their personal stories (one young elephant had heartbreakingly been hit by a falling log whilst working with its mother in the logging trade and now has a severely deformed leg). I observed elephants just being elephants together, and helped to bathe an elderly female elephant in the river. The bathing was a wonderful experience for me personally. After learning about her sad history, being able to give a little bit of care back to this charming elephant was lovely – and she seemed to be smiling as water splashed over her. To round the day off we watched from the banks as five elephants were walked to the river where they then enjoyed playtime; trumpeting, frolicking and rolling around in the cool water much to the delight of park visitors.
The guides and staff clearly care greatly for the elephants and their welfare and the setup of the park and visit structure is conscientious (they even serve great vegetarian food, as our guide explained: ‘the elephants are vegetarians and today so are you!’). I would highly recommend a visit to Elephant Nature Park if you want to ensure you visit a sanctuary which is doing wonderful things for rescued elephants. Of course, a safari is the most ethical and least disruptive way to see elephants in their natural environment, but second to that you can help to support the rescue and care of previously captive elephants by visiting a certified rescue and rehabilitation centre like the wonderful Elephant Nature Park on your travels. By refusing elephants rides and elephant trekking camps, avoiding circuses and elephant shows and declining elephant art (an equally cruel and controlling practice which actually takes place in some supposed ‘sanctuaries’ – so please do your research before choosing a park or sanctuary to visit), you are helping to end the exploitive elephant tourism industry.
There are many ways to have a more ethical and responsible encounter with elephants, so this World Elephant Day let’s celebrate the wonderful work being done to rescue these incredible creatures from a life of cruel captivity and to protect and revive their natural habitats to secure a better future for them and to enable us to enjoy them in the wild for generations to come.