Travel, for me, mostly is all about learning new stuff and about prospecting for new experiences. The urge of trying new things as a backpacker sure is addictive, I must say.
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Getting close to majestic wildlife can be one of those new overwhelming and beautiful experiences. Seeing an elephant for the first time in your life from close by is a very intense and amazing experience. Well, I mean ‘it can be’, but it sure was a very special moment in my life when I first touched an elephant’s trunk and felt its thick skin with my hands when I stayed in Sri Lanka in 2016.
Elephants are beautiful animals, so majestic and yet peaceful. They are cute and very intelligent at the same time. Hence, I understand why tourism in Asia and Africa has developed a whole industry around elephants. In Asia, countries like Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, and Cambodia all offer elephant rides to foreign visitors.
The downside to that story is that very cruel and sad things happen to the elephants behind the scenes of the global elephant riding industry. The level of awesomeness to riding an elephant quickly disappears when you start to realize that these elephants undergo many years of abuse and torture.
The elephant trainers have to mentally break these animals in order that they learn how to accept submission so people can ride them.
It’s a sad thing that many tourists are unaware of these events of torture and animal mistreatment. By my opinion, global media should educate more about this cruel reality. When people in the world realize that it’s a bad thing to do to support this industry, they might rather rise up against it. As a result, the elephant riding industry might collapse and the abuse would be stopped.
The tourist industry of riding elephants
Tourists riding elephants often don’t realize that an elephant being submissive to humans is not a very natural thing. These elephants that are used for elephant rides are indoctrinated with fear of being stabbed by the sharp spears of the elephant keepers.
They learned that they will be hurt if they misbehave, so they obey. They often lose their mind and therefore become ill during many years of animal mistreatment.
Illegal capture and trade is still a major issue in the global elephant riding industry. Many foreign visitors in Asian and African countries want to ride elephants, watch them do tricks and will pay big sums of money for it. That’s why the practice of riding elephants is featured by many tour operators in these countries. There is a lot of money to be earned in this booming oh-so-wrong industry.
The nature of an elephant
The differences between a dog, a cat, and an elephant are that a dog is either dominant or submissive in the same way like wolfs live in a pack. It’s rather in the nature of a dog that it can be taught to obey for a reward in a peaceful way. The same thing generally counts for taming horses.
A cat can’t really be taught to be submissive, but people usually don’t expect cats to obey them or to do tricks for them. People commonly rather accept a cat’s nature. They know that a cat will always do his/her own thing.
An elephant is an animal that can’t be taught to be submissive in a peaceful way. Only the indoctrination of fear and many years of painful torture can cause an elephant to obey humans and accept that they will get rewarded for their tricks and obedience.
WWF estimates that there are about 40.000-50.000 Asian elephants left in the world. Habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade, genetic threat and illegal ivory trade are some of the reasons why the Asian elephant became an endangered species.
Protection of their habitat and decreasing the human-elephant conflict can help the animals to be saved from extinction in the near future.
What happens in captivity?
Elephants that are born in captivity are taught to be submissive from a very young age. They are controlled by elephant keepers that use sharp hooked spears for hurting the elephants when they disobey.
The abuse happens a lot in the beginning when an elephant doesn’t accept to be dominated yet. In that phase, the elephant is constantly stressed out by being forced to do certain tricks and things against its nature. They are tortured until they ‘break’ and obey, for which they learned that they will receive a small reward.
An elephant in captivity is often chained in such way that they only have limited movement and are not able to run away or attack a human being. These iron chains are very tight sometimes and cause, together with the stabbing from the hooked spears, deep wounds that leave scarred marks all over the elephant’s body.
In these severe conditions of captivity, elephants often develop mental disorders, health issues, and behavioral problems. They can become sensitive to losing their mind and to having aggressive outbursts towards people. Sudden outbursts by elephants in captivity have led to many injuries and deaths over time. As a result, the elephants are then often being shot to death.
Animals in circuses all over the world
Writing this article reminded me of a video that I watched about an elephant on a rampage in a circus. The same process of torture happens with animals in animal circuses all of the world. In these circumstances, the elephant keepers also try to ‘break’ the elephants into submission. Torturing them in such way can cause the elephants to lose their mind and to become aggressive.
The history of humans and elephants in Sri Lanka
Elephants and humans go way back together in history. In Sri Lanka, even the oldest stories feature elephants that are being captured and tamed by the old Sinhalese kings. Tamed elephants have always been considered as a token of power and influence.
Hence, elephants have always been used through history until today in religious and ceremonial events in Sri lanka and other countries. They were also used in wars in Europe and Asia. Elephants were tamed to listen and to be used as mighty war killing machines.
In Sri Lanka elephants have helped humans for transportation and agriculture for a long time. Until, not so long ago, the industrialization caused motorized ways of transport to replace the duty of the strong elephants.
Although, before the British colonists arrived in Sri Lanka, it was a very illegal thing to kill an elephant. A death penalty was applied by the order of the Sinhalese kings.
When the British colonists arrived in Sri Lanka, killing elephants was considered as a sport. The killers even got a bounty for every killed elephant. The British colonists considered the elephants as a major pest for agriculture. Because when Elephants came close to human territory, they fed themselves with the crops on the fields.
Elephants in Sri Lanka have been losing their natural habitat for over quite some time now. This is the major reason of the conflicts between humans and elephants in Sri Lanka, which still exists today. Elephants in Sri Lanka still get killed now and then because of this human-elephant conflict.
The conclusion of this article is up to you. The choice is yours if you want to stand up against the elephant riding industry. When I was in Sri Lanka, I went to a place where elephants were kept for tourists. In this place, people could feed the elephants, wash them and ride on their backs.
I made the choice not to ride them, or either wash them. I did feed one the elephants some bananas and I enjoyed the experience of touching his skin. It was amazing to see an elephant from up close. Even though I do realize that I did pay a small fee to see them, so I actually supported the industry. But I knew that I really wanted to have the experience to see them from up close. But the experience also made me think about it in a different way.
Seeing the animals in captivity, obeying to their handlers did hurt my feelings. It made me want to be something about it. Writing this article is maybe the first step for me to actually try to do something against it. The purpose of this article is to make people that travel and visit these countries more aware of the real situation behind the scenes of the elephant riding industry.