As more travel companies decide to stop selling elephant trekking, holidaymakers are saying no to it as well, preferring elephant bathing and feeding experiences instead. But is it that simple?
There was a time when elephant trekking sparked far less controversy. These huge grey giants with their tough skin seemed indestructible—how could one person and a saddle hurt them on a ride through the jungles and forests of Southeast Asia, India and Sri Lanka? And when you asked the mahout, the elephant trainer, if the spike or bullhook used to control them caused any pain, they’d say “No, it was just a warning.” or “An elephant’s skin is too thick, it’s fine.” And the place you were at was a ‘sanctuary’ after all, centered around conservation and protection, right? Perhaps even then, many probably suspected this wasn’t true; that or the notion that anyone would be cruel to a gentle giant simply didn’t cross their mind.
But once the ethics surrounding elephant-riding gained more publicity, it inspired companies such as Intrepid Travel, believed to be the first, along with STA Travel, TUI, Responsible Travel and most recently, TripAdvisor, to ban all elephant trekking activities. While many individuals had already chosen not to, there’s no denying that when big companies take a stance, a powerful message is communicated—that there is something wrong with riding elephants.
“Genuine sanctuaries do not buy or sell wild animals and do not use animals for interactions with travelers, such as walking with lions or in performances.”
Geoff Manchester—Intrepid Travel
Understanding that elephants are wild, not domesticated, animals is imperative. They cover huge distances in a day and, as sociable intelligent beings, typically travel in family herds. Those used in tourism and the logging industry, apart from rescued elephants, would have been forcibly removed from their natural habitat before undergoing a process known as phajaan or ‘crushing’, more commonly referred to as ‘breaking the spirit’. It is as awful as it sounds, with animals, usually juniors separated from their mother, placed in small boxes, and beaten until tame.
Geoff Manchester, co-founder of Intrepid Travel, was a key player in their decision to ban elephant trekking on Intrepid trips. The decision followed research into captive elephants by World Animal Protection (previously known as World Society for the Protection of Animals/WSPA) who the company has worked with since 2000. “We believe wild animals should be viewed in the wild, and we only visit sanctuaries or rescue centers with the highest animal welfare standards possible,” he says. “Genuine sanctuaries do not buy or sell wild animals and do not use animals for interactions with travelers, such as walking with lions or in performances. They also don’t breed wild animals, unless part of an official recognized breeding program where animals are being responsibly released back into the wild.”
But is it as simple as ‘riding bad, bathing good?’ Finding genuine sanctuaries, even ones which ban elephant trekking and promote experiences such as elephant-bathing, can prove muddling. According to Nick Marx, director of the Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Rescue and Care Programmes in Cambodia which runs Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC) near Phnom Penh and the Wildlife Release Station in southwest Cambodia, this issue is far from black and white. He points out that camps promoting ‘non-riding elephants’ still purchase elephants, thus potentially continuing a trade in wild elephants. He says, “In many cases, it’s to continue their own lucrative businesses, which focus on encouraging guests to meet their elephants.”
“Years of abuse and back-breaking labor, followed by an early death. Forget the ‘nobility’ of [logging camps]—cruelty and hardship was an elephant’s experience here.”
Nick Marx, Wildlife Alliance
It is not necessarily the practices which are wrong, Marx says, but how the elephants are trained and treated. “For example, there’s cruelty in the way elephants at some camps in Thailand are trained to paint. Our elephants at PTWRC are trained with positive reinforcement, using only food titbits as the incentive. Elephants like to eat and our elephants liked to paint because of the stimulus of the interaction and food supplements. However, we’ve stopped this practice for fear of being tarred with the same brush as the camps that use cruel methods of training.”
What’s clear in Nick’s mind is whether you ride or bathe elephants, either method is preferable to the hardships they suffered in logging camps. “Years of abuse and back-breaking labour, followed by an early death. Forget the ‘nobility’ of such places—cruelty and hardship was an elephant’s experience here.”
“That’s why an outright ban on making money from elephants isn’t feasible.”
Nick Marx, Wildlife Alliance
And that’s the sad and unpalatable truth. With a lack of funding, elephants from the logging industry must ‘earn their keep’ and mahouts need an income to support their elephant—which is where elephant trekking comes in. That’s why an outright ban on making money from elephants isn’t feasible, at least not until there’s an alternative, sustainable income for mahouts. And even if there was a way to replace that income, the loss of habitat through deforestation and land development, means there is not enough land for the elephants to roam, meaning they’d starve or eventually return to work in the logging industry.
However, while the success of camps may have given a new lease of life to previously captive elephants, it’s also seen more elephants poached from the wild—at a time when wild elephant numbers are dwindling. This requires inventive solutions such as one in Thailand which pays mahouts to let the elephants roam free and allows visitors to accompany them on treks instead—this maintains an income stream and protects the animals. There’s also another issue. While the anti-trekking message is getting across to Western tourists, there’s increased interest in elephant-riding from a new generation of Asian tourists.
Ultimately, elephant camps, whatever they offer, can turn out to be profitable businesses—and they are not always conservation-driven. “Both kinds are earning very nicely out of their elephants, despite the moral stances some take,” says the Wildlife Alliance’s Nick Marx. “However, when these same organizations have the opportunity of taking a problem elephant that needs assistance, they will have nothing to do with it.”
I leave the last word to Marx. “The truth is elephants should not be in camps, nor in captivity. They should be living in freedom in the forest. But if they are in camps, whatever the practices, there is no need for violence or cruelty.”
There are many places to enjoy alternative ethical, peaceful elephant experiences. The best updated resource is the ‘Where to visit’ page at The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation otherwise known as EARS.
Read more about elephant conservation at Save The Elephants.