Projected as the quintessential bucket-list activity and the supposed highlight of the ‘idealistic’ Asian holiday, elephant trekking and riding has become a huge trend in animal tourism. World Animal Protection (WAP) claim that there are 3,000 captive elephants in Asia alone used for tourist rides and wildlife experiences. Many report the activity as fun, amazing, incredible, life-changing… however for the elephants, the star attractions, these descriptions hardly correlate. Life changing however, those are the words that match.
In order for elephants to become available for rides and performances they must first go through a series of excruciating ordeals that groom them for a life in animal tourism. This sad tale includes family separation and abduction, a grooming process called the ‘crush’, intimidation and scarring from bull-hooks and nails and a lifetime of confinement. All necessary for humans to tame and dominate a free-spirited wild animal into submission.
Abduction and Family Separation
Unlike cats, dogs and horses, elephants are not considered a domestic species. WAP report: “The fact that humans have been using elephants for a long time does not make them domesticated. Elephants require brutal training to accept human contact. Even then, they retain their natural instincts which are meant for the wild.” According to Animals Asia, breeding elephants in captivity is notoriously difficult and requires very high standards of welfare. They state that in Vietnam, no elephant has successfully been born in captivity for 40 years. This requires that the majority of the elephants sourced for riding parks and circuses are first captured in the wild. Poachers focus their efforts on baby elephants, as a mature elephant is much harder to manipulate and train.
Elephants are instinctively a very family oriented species. According to the Independent; ‘Elephants are known to develop strong, intimate bonds between friends and family members. There have been reports of elephants forming lifelong friendships with each other, and they even mourn the death of their loved ones.’ Elephants capabilities to mourn their deceased has been linked to their impressive memory retention capabilities. Unfortunately an elephants memory makes it highly likely that they will remember the trauma of their separation and hold onto that fear for years, reflecting on the day they were stolen from their family/herd.
The Guardian reported exclusively on how this is achieved, with undercover footage of poachers capturing elephants in Zimbabwe for sale to Chinese Zoos, footage can be seen below.
‘First, a viable herd is identified. Then operatives in a helicopter pick off the younger elephants with a sedative fired from a rifle. As the elephant collapses, the pilot dive-bombs the immediate vicinity so the rest of the herd, attempting to come to the aid of the fallen animal, are kept at bay. When things quieten down, a ground-team approaches the sedated elephants on foot, bundles them up, and drags them on to trailers. Finally, in the most disturbing part of the footage, a small female elephant, likely around five years old, is seen standing in the trailer. Her body is tightly tied to the vehicle by two ropes. Only minutes after being taken from the wild, the animal, still groggy from the sedative, is unable to understand that the officials want her to back into the truck, so they smack her on her body, twist her trunk, pull her by her tail and repeatedly kick her in the head with their boots.’
When helicopters to deter a baby elephants family from protest is unavailable, it is known that in many accounts, particularly in Asia, elephants are often killed to make a capture easier for the poachers. The Thailand Elephants Organisation claim that on average 4-5 wild elephants will die as a result of one elephant being taken for the tourism industry.
The Crush – Training for submission
Wild Elephants will not naturally submit to orders and accept human contact so they must be trained into submission. Traditionally, and to this day, this is done using a method called the ‘phajaan’ which according to Thailand Elephants,loosely translates to ‘the crush’ meaning to ‘divorce the baby elephant from its spirit’ or to ‘split the will’ of a baby elephant.
‘Phajaan or ‘Crushing’ is the traditional Asian torture of young elephants to break their spirit. It is done so that they are submissive to humans. The ”ceremony” of Phajaan is said to have originated from the belief that the tribe’s shaman can separate the spirit of an elephant from its body, in effect driving the wilful and wild spirit out of an elephant and leaving it under the control of its handlers, i.e. mahouts. In reality, however, the Phajaan has nothing to do with the separation of spirit and everything to do with torturing an elephant until it is so fearful of its human captors that it will do anything to avoid being hurt again.’ – Thailand Elephants
Below is undercover footage of this process, viewers discretion is advised as it can be quite upsetting to witness. However, it is the harsh reality elephants have to face in order for you to enjoy an elephant ride.
Torture methods used in this process include confinement to a small crate, starvation and water deprivation, stabbing of the skin with bull hooks and pulling at the ears, stretching of the limbs and screaming and yelling to induce stress. This process usually runs for 3 days to up to a week. Circuses use a similar process to ‘tame’ their elephants which can be seen in visuals and further explained here.
Bull-hooks are often carried by the trainer/mahout (owner) during rides and tourist experiences to remind the elephant of potential punishment and to illicit fear. I have personally seen this in Cambodia, including an elephant whom had had its ears ‘modified’ to include metal handles so the mahout (owner/trainer) could pull the elephant in whatever direction. (Pictured below)
Elephants used for rides in tourist areas are available all day and are kept isolated and chained to posts or trees when they aren’t being used. Elephants used for rides in trekking/riding camps are also usually available all day, they are just forced to spend their non working hours confined to a cement style barn which is known to be terrible for their sensitive feet. Some trekking camps (and fake sanctuaries) also offer elephant bathing to their tourist guests. Do not be fooled into thinking this is a cruelty free alternative to your desired encounter, elephants whom are ‘bathed’ by humans have also usually gone through a similar experience as the crush to conform to accept human contact and are quite often chained all day outside of these activities too. Wild elephants wash themselves in the wild and do not need groups of tourists to bathe them with brushes and hoses multiple times a day.
‘Elephants require vast spaces to roam, socialize, and express their natural behaviour. In the wild, they live in matriarchal herds and are active for 18 hours per day, foraging for fresh vegetation, playing, bathing in rivers, and travelling as far as 30 miles a day.’ says PETA. This is a far cry from any experience a captive animal will ever receive.
Before considering one of these activities ask yourself these questions: Does this experience benefit both myself and the animal or just me? Has this animal been captured and forced to perform for the benefit of profits and tourist enjoyment? Am I doing this for the right reasons?
We need to remind ourselves that animals are not inanimate objects at our disposal for entertainment and gratification. They are not amusement park rides or selfie props, they are real living creatures. They have a heart-beat, emotions, family and priorities just like we do. It is selfish to deny them of this for a couple hours of fun.
Google, Don’t Trust Instagram
Although wildlife selfies are being combatted in a big way with new regulation, (see below) there is still a huge issue with bloggers promoting these experiences through their channels, highlighting only the positives. Whether its due to naivety, lack of education or a simple disregard towards the negatives- promoting these activities supports an industry that has a lasting, damaging impact on wild animals. It is not enough these days to take someone’s word when they suggest a location they visited is ‘cruelty free’, or a ‘sanctuary’. We need to be vigilant and find out for ourselves. Time after time again I have seen well respected bloggers supporting locations of complete cruelty. A location that appears to me the most popular was a place called ‘Pinawalla Elephant Orphanage’ in Sri Lanka… images on Instagram make it appear to be a refuge for wild elephants or a peaceful, secluded watering hole.
However, this is not the case. In fact, it didn’t take me longer than five minutes to discover this as it only takes scrolling through the hashtag to see chains, bull hooks and abused elephants performing for guests entrainment. To my absolute HORROR I discovered that the elephants which appear to be happily bathing in the water are actually kept there by chains. For what? A photo opportunity of water banked elephants of course! See evidence of the chains and what bloggers Yaya and Lloyd of Hand Luggage Only had to say about their experience below:
“To my horror, I saw the handlers bring down some of the elephants and actually chain them in the middle of the river. Underneath a thin layer of water was a mountain of chains holding a vast proportion of the elephants in place. They literally couldn’t move. Several were even forced to lie down in the water and would be threatened and hit once they tried to stand up. This was all done before most of the visitors arrived and only occasionally could you see glimpses of the chains underwater. – Hand Luggage Only”
Here are some of the disappointed Trip Advisor reviews…
From picturesque dream experience to the reality Pinnawala Elephant ‘Orphanage’ is a huge reminder of how important it is that we remain vigilant and critical in all that we see online. Don’t just trust a pamphlet or a blogger, do your research and find out for yourself whether a location is cruelty-free. Question everything… funding and promoting these facilities is the sole reason they exist. What the tourist wants, is what the tourist gets. Until we take a stand and stop supporting these industries with our dollars, they will remain open and operating to collect profit. Personally, I won’t go to any exotic animal facility as most are highly akin to zoos. I would much rather go on safari and see them in the wild in Africa. You cannot learn anything of an animal’s natural instincts and lifestyle when they are kept in captivity and tamed to comply by bull hooks and fear.
Red Flags from ‘Sanctuaries’ and ‘Rescue Centres’
Many ‘sanctuaries’ or ‘rescue centres’ are also sinister tourist attractions in which exploit the presence of exotic animals for profits. To be sure you don’t participate in an animals suffering look for Red Flags.
- There is no such thing as cruelty free elephant rides or experiences. Wild animals do not naturally accept human contact. They accept it only after copious amounts of harsh training that results in fear of retaliation. To read more myths on elephant tourism please see here.
- Be cautious of a sanctuary claiming to work on ‘conservation’ if they have no prior confirmation any animals have ever been released into the wild. Wild Animals that have been ‘domesticated’ to interact for these selfies/performances cannot be released back into the wild as they possess no natural instincts in which afford them survival in predator/prey or land domination interactions with other animals. Animals brought up in captivity also do not have the ability to hunt for their food as they are brought up being fed by humans, missing out on this crucial development of these wild animals which can be fatal if released under similar circumstances. True conservation facilities do not release animals bred in captivity that have been conditioned against their natural instincts and do not attempt to profit from the animals in any way that may put the animal at risk of stress. Instead, they may capture and release only on the occasion of an injury.
- If Animals are being used by captors to elicit profits through performances, selfie posing, rides or any other form of entertainment this is a clear indication of exploitation of the animals and is also a huge red flag.
- Facilities that use weapons like bull hooks, wooden sticks and chains to ‘tame’ animals into submission or performance acts are an indication of cruelty as these weapons only work when animals associate the threat of the object with pain.
- I also have a personal rule that I will not participate in any use of an animal (whether that be for food or entertainment) that I would not be comfortable having inflicted upon a human or myself. So obviously no, I would not like to live my entire life in captivity for the sole purpose of appeasing to tourists. Wild animals belong in the WILD!
Social Media Apps Promoting Change
Social Media and Tourism apps such as Instagram, Tinder and Trip Advisor have made dramatic improvements to the governing of how ‘Wildlife Selfies’ and Animal Tourism is promoted on their sites.
Instagram has now created a pop up warning system that alerts members of the potential harm to animals when searching hashtags involving wildlife exploitation. Hashtag examples include #tigerselfie #elephantriding #dolphinkiss #slothselfie to name a few.
In 2016 Trip Advisor stopped selling tickets to Animal Tourism activities through their site and have created an online portal that shares information of the treatment of animals in tourism. When a traveller opens an attraction from the animal tourism industry the activity will be listed with a paw print emoji and the words ‘features animals’. When you click on that link you are met with a pop up explaining the feature of animals which prompts readers to learn more on their online portal.
Tinder has also taken a stand by releasing a blog post requesting users stop posting ‘Tiger Selfies’ after pressure from Peta to “removing the tiger stripes out of tinder swipes”.
What Can I Do Now?
Make the Pledge and Sign up to the World Animal Protection Wildlife Safety Code to ensure your selfies are cruelty free and support WAP with their endeavours to end animal tourism exploitation HERE. Making a donation to WAP will also go a long way in helping fight the battle to end animal exploitation.
If you have any of the following social apps- Facebook, Tinder or Instagram you would be familiar with the holiday snaps taken by tourists or even friends posted online with an exotic wild animal. If you have a friend or family member that has participated in this, or will be visiting Asia soon with the intent of getting a ‘Elephant Selfie’ please tag them in this article.
You may also choose to wear your message by purchasing a T Shirt by vegan brand Wholesome Culture, this a great way to spread awareness by acting as a human billboard. My shirt says “Ride bikes, not elephants”… super cute!
What do I do if it is me that has unethically participated in this? Take your photos down and do not over glamourize the experience to others in stories or image captions as this will encourage others to follow suit. Remember, although it may have been a once in a lifetime experience for you your service fee was an assurance of the continuation of that animals suffering. Instead use your experience as an opportunity to open discussions about what you saw, your new understanding and what you have learnt since the event.