Should you visit elephants in South East Asia?
I’ve been to two as part of pre-arranged tours and both have left me feeling uneasy and uncomfortable. But I think part of this may be because I was spoiled in Africa.
When I went to Nairobi I visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust which rescues, raises and re-introduces back into the wild, African elephants orphaned by poaching and a loss of habitat. The centre is open only an hour a day when groups of animals walk down to be fed, watered and play, with people able to come and watch. The rest of the time the elephants go wandering around the park. It was a really great trip and I took some of my favourite animal photos there. I even had one trunk tickle my feet.
In comparison to that, my two day trip to Kanchanaburi, Thailand included an elephant ride. I was a little unsure about this as I have heard tales about how animals are treated and forced to work, but I went with an open mind. As the others in the group were on a one day trip, I stayed at the elephant centre waiting for them. I watched as elephants loaded with saddles, some wearing chains, were walked up to a platform by their ‘drivers’, knocked gently with sticks to get into place as sweaty tourists clambered on excitedly. Off they went for around 20 minutes, not much shade around the course, dropped off their human loads and were rewarded by bunches of bananas, bits of watermelon and sugar cane bought for them by the thankful and smiling tourists. I bought some fruit and fed some of the elephants before they were loaded with people and taken on another ‘trek’.
I was ushered by the guide to go and watch the elephant show. I sat in the shade behind a group of over enthusiastic Russian tourists and watched a very small elephant, with a chain around her foot, being given darts to throw at balloons tied to a rack. Her trunk as directed by her handler who had one of those sticks with metal hooks on the end. She missed all but the Russians clapped and cheered. Next she had to do some painting, which basically involved the handler dipping a brush, getting her to grasp it with her trunk and then him guiding her trunk and the brush to paint a tree. She then did a handstand and a dance to ‘Gangnam Style’, wiggling her bottom and lifting one leg in time to the music. This could have been amusing, but I saw that she was lifting her leg because the hook as being knocked into it. By the end of the show I was very nearly in tears. It just seemed so sad and she was going to go through it all again in about 10 minutes and keep performing until the tourists had left.
The next day I was back, this time it was my time to ride an elephant, I tried refusing, but it didn’t work, I was harried up the steps and there was no retreat. The girl ‘driving’ the elephant was gentle with it, didn’t use her stick, got down to pick up tamarind to feed it. On the whole, the elephant set her won pace, wandering around the course, at one point stopping for about 5 minutes eating miniature eggplant from the field. The driver dropped her stick and the elephant picked it up for her. She didn’t seem distressed to be working.
When it came to going for another elephant ride in Chiang Mai, I told our guide I’d rather walk with them or just feed them somewhere and she looked put out, explaining it was safe but I insisted and was driven back to the pick up point. Here I was left with two elephants and fed them the bananas I’d brought for them. When the others got back about 20 minutes later their elephants were fed and walked to the taps, where they drank and hosed themselves down. I think I had a better experience not riding them than I would have if I’d been made to. It gave me a chance to think about it, spend some time with the animals and not feel guilty about being a human.
I realise that elephants have worked with humans for a long time and that local people rely on elephant tourism for their income. I also recognise that there are more elephants in Thailand with tourism than there would be without. Apart from the elephant ‘show’ the animals I saw looked like they were treated with respect and care; when I went for a ride I saw that they were allowed to wander and rest in the shade, take breaks, it wasn’t all trudging about in the sun.
I think if you are planning to come to Asia and visit elephants then it is important to check with your travel agent that it is an ethical programme being followed, and if you have the money go to one of the camps that doesn’t allow rides, but you can wash and play with the elephants. There is loads more information here.
Please let me know what you think in the comments below!