Elephants are, by far, one of the most majestic animals to ever grace the Earth. Their massive physical size and strength are recognised throughout Central and Southeast Asia as symbols of royalty and power. At the same time, the longevity and complex social structures of elephant herds have led them to be seen as a symbol of wisdom – the most recognised example of which is the Hindu god Ganesha, which takes on the form of an elephant.
For many people, getting up close and personal with these amazing creatures might be the chance of a lifetime, much less the dreamlike experience of riding one. However, although it might be an amazing experience for you, the same can’t be said for the elephant as they are harmed in multiple ways to reach the docile state that you will typically see them in.
Although there are some sources that state this, it is generally not harmful for a human to ride on the back of an adult elephant. However, some elephant tamers might place a saddle or howdah on the back of the elephant, which often stays on its back for extended periods of time. Given that the elephant makes several trips throughout the day, the elephant is at risk of getting blisters on the area that can become infected if not treated. The constant walking (often with little rest in between trips) can also strain the feet and legs of the elephant.
Unlike most other animals like sea lions that are trained through classical conditioning – that is, influencing behavior like tricks by giving rewards for performing those tricks – elephants are ‘trained’ through what is known as “crushing”, which is referred to in Thailand as phajaan. Without having to go into the darker details, elephant ‘crushing’ is as the name implies – aimed to instill fear and trauma into the elephant to make them submissive to humans. The elephants that are tamed through phajaan are subjected to solitary confinement, separation from other elephants, and outright physical torture.
Why Elephant Riding?
Historically, elephants have been tamed by humans and used as transportation and as a primitive form of heavy equipment. This culture of elephant taming has unfortunately persisted throughout the years, and has evolved into a commercial market that continually exploits these elephants for the sole commercial benefit of the tamer. On top of the immense suffering that they have to go through during the crushing process, they continue to suffer abuse throughout their life as a ‘trained’ elephant. They have to work through literally back-breaking labour day in and day out while barely getting enough food or water to survive, with their only rest being time spent alone either locked in a cage or chained to a tree.
What Can I Do About It?
Clearly, something must be done about this systematic mistreatment of elephants. One of the best ways to tackle this as a tourist is to simply avoid the elephant tours that feature ‘trained’ elephants. These sorts of tours often offer things like elephant rides and entertainment in the form of them performing tricks. The fact that these elephants are showing this behaviour is a clear sign that they have been abused to reach this point. If people avoid supporting these tour operators, they will eventually and inevitably be run out of business.
Fortunately, the market for elephant rides and other similar attractions is quickly declining as more and more people are becoming aware of the systematic abuse of elephants happening in Central and Southeast Asia. As a result, these abusive tour operators are slowly shrinking in number, and elephant tour operators and wildlife conservation efforts are doing what they can to save these elephants from further abuse and suffering. By “voting with your wallet” and supporting the elephant tour operators that truly focus on the health and well-being of the elephants they feature, you can do your part to win the fight against the inhumane commercialisation of these animals.