Elephants are systematically poached from the wild in order for tourist attractions to keep stock of their moneymakers. Often times, older members of the herd are killed and babies are kept, because, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to see a baby elephant on their travels? Operators know this, therefore it is most common that young elephants are captured illegally and taken to remote areas of countries to undergo a “breaking of the spirit”. Even if an elephants is born into captivity, they still undergo this horrific process.
A centuries old ritual, baby elephants are placed in small wood enclosures (often referred to as “the crush,” as it is designed to crush their spirit), wrists and ankles are bound tightly, and then knives and other sharp objects are placed in their most sensitive areas (ears, eyes, feet, bum, trunk and other parts of their bodies). In this manner, they are trained and broken.
This process goes on for days. During this time, they are routinely deprived of sleep, food and water, and are beaten and bloodied until they learn how to accept human commands. Many young elephants don’t make it through this process. At the end of the crush, the ties to their family herd are gone and they are slaves to people.
The elephant is a big, strong, and potentially dangerous animal. To get them to become submissive to man does not come easily. The only way man knows how to get the results they want — and quickly — is to break their spirit. This process happens in every country where elephants are used to work for humans. What’s worse? It’s been happening for more than 6,000 years.
Be wary of any:
- Elephant rides
- Elephant shows (circus performances, playing music, playing sports, etc.)
- Elephant paintings
- Control of the animal with hooks or other pain-inflicting instruments
If you aren’t sure about whether a place is really a sanctuary, ask questions:
- Where do the elephants come from?
- What is their life like in the sanctuary?
- Are they able to interact with other elephants?
It looks like the elephants are happy. Aren’t they?
None of us speak “elephant” or are elephant whisperers. Often times, people write reviews on sites like Trip Advisor which states the elephants certainly looked happy, and loved giving rides. But, the reality is, unless we can communicate with them, we simply cannot project our human feelings and emotions onto these animals. I wonder if the people who wrote they looked happy noticed the scars on the animals’ heads or ankles. Or knew about the abuse they went through prior to being brought to a trekking camp.
If the truth about riding elephants in Sri Lanka and the rest of the world won’t change your mind, then please consider the following:
- Only ride an elephant on his or her neck, not on a heavy bench;
- If a operator uses hooks, nails or other means of controlling the animal through fear of pain, skip it;
- Look for new cuts (often times they will be covered in a purple antiseptic spray, or covered up entirely with a bandage or plastic bag). New injuries likely mean abuse happened recently, and at that particular location;
- Are they chained before/after riding? If so, find another place to ride;
- How much access to mud and water to bathe do they have? Again, elephants need mud to protect their skin from the sun and bites, and water to cool off;
- Are elephants allowed to have other elephant friends? Important to an elephant’s well-being is the ability to have relationships and socialize, even if it is not their original family;
- Are the elephants swaying in place or rocking? This is a stereotypical behavior and a sign of emotional stress.
What’s the Best Way to Experience Elephants?
Hands down, the best way to experience elephants is in their natural environment. Sadly, their natural environment, in many parts of SE Asia, has been encroached upon by humans and now these areas have conflict which makes it unsafe for people to go.
Safaris, like in Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka, are one way to see elephants in nature. But, even these safaris run on the border of irresponsible as there are too many vehicles getting too close to the elephants. Still, it is by far the best alternative.
Touring national parks is another way to see elephants in the wild in SE Asia, however it is dangerous and elephants have been known to attack vehicles. Only opt for this if you can hire a guide who understands elephant behavior, otherwise you are putting yourself at risk.0