Riding an elephant in Asia often sits next to a number on a lot of peoples bucket lists. Elephants are incredibly beautiful, majestic creatures that most people have an unfulfilled fascination with and the desire to ride and interact with one is often high. Time and time again I see photos of my own friends and others on social media riding elephants in Thailand and Bali completely oblivious to the barbaric industry they are supporting. They carry on about what an amazing experience it was and what beautiful animals elephants are without any idea of the hurt, pain and heartbreak they are putting these highly intelligent creatures through. I often sit and stare at the image, shake my head, and let out a loonnnnggg sigh of anger and frustration. Why? Because riding, painting and giving to the begging elephants is cruel. Really bloody cruel.
I decided to write this piece because i’m due to head back to Bali in April for a wedding. Thailand and Bali in particular are very popular holiday destinations for Australians as it is cheap and not too far away (in comparison to the rest of the world). On arrival into Southeast Asia, you are often bombarded at airports, hotels and on the streets with offers of a ‘unique experience’ of riding, painting or interacting with the elephants for a price. That’s even before they’ve bombarded you with information about the ‘holy’ Tiger Temple. Don’t even get me started on that shithole.
Beautiful elephants chained and waiting for their next round of torture
Here’s why you shouldn’t buy into the baloney.
According to Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary, there were 100,000 Asian elephants in Thailand 100 years ago. Today, the numbers hover around 2,500 thanks to the desire for ivory, their mistreatment in the tourism industry and the reduction of forest land space. The notion of a possible extinction for these beautiful creatures is no longer a concern; it is an incredibly harsh reality.
Elephant trekking is a popular tourist activity in countries like Thailand, Laos and Bali and the human fascination with these beautiful animals continues to fuel the thriving tourism industry in these countries. Most people who participate in cruelty to the elephants are blissfully unaware of the industry they are supporting. And I don’t blame them. Most of what really goes on and the treatment of these animals is hidden behind closed doors.
An elephant is a wild animal and training a wild animal is no easy feat. The elephants you see in trekking camps, the painting classes, begging on the streets and in circuses have all gone through a barbaric and torturous ordeal to break their spirit so they learn to obey their mahouts (handlers). This is called ‘The Breaking Ceremony’. To do this, elephants are put through a process called ‘The Crush’ or ‘Phajaan’ where they are forced into a cage or tied to four different poles by their feet and neck for approximately a week. The elephant can not move sideways, forwards of backwards. They are beaten with bamboo, sticks with nails in the ends, kicked, punched and attacked with the traditional bull hook. They are repeatedly stabbed in sensitive parts of their bodies (the ear), deprived of food and beaten as they scream for mercy.
When these animals are released from the crush, they are covered in blood, scars and rope burns, their spirits completely and utterly ‘crushed’. The elephant is ‘broken’ and no longer has bonds with their family. Then they go through the process again a few days later until they are completely petrified of their mahouts and submissive to man. Every. single. elephant. used for treks, painting, entertainment and begging in Southeast Asia has gone through this process. There is no other way around it for these people.
The Breaking Ceremony
If this isn’t enough to make you think twice about partaking in this cruelty, i’ve got more for you.
Elephants work every single day, whether it is hot or cold, they are sick or exhausted, all so tourists can ride on their back, take some ‘happy’ snaps and exploit them for their own personal gain. They are forced to carry hundreds of kilos on their back for sometimes up to nine hours a day. While elephants may look like giant, strong animals, their backs are not. Imagine carrying a 50 kilo backpack on your back every single day without a break, would you enjoy that? When they are not trekking, in most cases they are chained up with minimal food and water and limited room to move.
If you look into the eyes of these animals forced into a life of slavery you will see immense sadness and empty souls, their spirits completely broken at the hands of man. By riding these animals, attending the circus, giving money or food to the elephant beggars or watching them participate in a painting class, you are supporting this disgusting barbarity.
Elephant tourism is a massive money-making ‘attraction’ in Southeast Asia and one with only one goal in mind – profit. Don’t fall for the bullshit ‘conservation’ spin most of the places offering elephant rides tell you. I’ve seen brochures myself that state things like: ‘Blabla has rescued these elephants after they were discarded when the Thailand logging ban was brought into place in 1989. Blabla is a wonderful sanctuary where you can ride the elephants, watch them do trained performances and partake in a painting class where you can take your own elephant art home’. This is not a sanctuary. It is exploitation for profit and clever marketing, designed to get the suckers in.
Next time you’re visiting countries where the riding of elephants is prevalent, spare a thought for the thousands of these gentle giants that are tortured and exploited on a daily basis. You have the power to influence change by not supporting them. The only reason these beautiful animals continue to be abused and tortured is purely for tourist entertainment and with the amount of beautiful things to see and do in Southeast Asia, there is no need to result to supporting this industry.
There is only one place a wild animal should be seen and that is in the wild. However, if seeing an elephant in Southeast Asia is an absolute must for you, consider visiting one of these reputable sanctuaries that treat the elephants with only one thing in mind – love, not profit. A chance to walk with, interact, bathe and feed the elephants is a far more rewarding experience than contributing to the suffering of one.
Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary
Plenty of fantastic interactions to have with the elephants. You can volunteer at the vet hospital, watch their natural behaviours in the forests and swim with them in the river. They also do a dog rescue project.