Because why not? A trip to Asia isn’t complete without an elephant ride. Right?
There are an overwhelming number of reasons why you should never ride an elephant, ranging from their physiology to how humans treat them.
Just like most wild animals, elephants naturally avoid humans. They’re not as skittish as some animals, but neither do they look to humans for interaction. Just like horses, elephants need to be broken in order to be ridden. But unlike horses, elephant breaking involves a lot more pain, beating and mistreatment.
It is easier to break a baby elephant, but in order to do that you must catch it and then separate it from its mother. This can be done using a ‘pit trap,’ where wild elephants are corralled into a corridor ending in a pit by domesticated elephants and riders. Unwanted elephants, typically protective mothers and other females, will be shot and sold.
This mother and calf were rescued from this pit recently. In India, pits have been banned, but they were never filled in. Now that they are not in use they do not get regularly checked, and therefore an elephant may become trapped and not be found for days.
Once an elephant has been captured it is no longer categorised under the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act of 1992 (WARPA) guidelines, losing them any protection. In captivity they are classed as livestock, just like cattle and sheep, and not recognised as the endangered animals that they are. This leaves elephants vulnerable to the breaking in process called ‘the crush.’
All captive elephants are put through this, tied alone in a small pen, beaten with bullhooks and bamboo, deprived of food and water and taught the basic commands that its captors require. During this time, the elephant’s spirit is broken and its naturally strong family bonds are lost.
This process is only the first of many tortures that elephants will have to endure throughout their life in captivity. Elephants are beaten whenever they do something ‘wrong,’ bearing the scars for the rest of their lives. They have to cope with the weight of a howdah (a large carriage situated on their backs) or saddle with typically 2 tourists, plus their mahout, who tends to sit on their neck. The average elephant can carry 150kg, and with a howdah weighing around 100kg, this should leave space for only one small person. Many tourists operators will not remove the howdah all day, which is not only a heavy burden, but can lead to sores, particularly around the legs and tail where they are tied on with ropes.
Elephants have long vertebrae in their spines. A howdah or saddle placed on top of theses creates a lot of concentrated pressure and therefore a lot of pain.
You can see from the image that there is very little padding between the vertebrae and the elephant’s skin. Mahouts tend to sit on the elephant’s neck, where the bones are not so close to the surface, making it more comfortable for the elephant. This should be the only place you sit on an elephant if you ever have to.
Asian elephants are highly social animals. They maintain complex relationships with other elephants, even those that they may not have seen in over a year. Just like humans, elephants have emotions, form bonds with friends and family and require time to socialise.
As part of riding camps, elephants are given very little time to themselves, and even less time to spend with other elephants. Imagine spending your life in solitary confinement whilst being beaten and forced to carry heavy loads.
It seems to be coming to people’s attention more and more that these animals are struggling in poor conditions. Cases of asian elephants killing their mahouts have been increasingly reported in the news, but is it really that much of a surprise that these usually gentle giants are having to resort to such extreme measures to escape?
There are plenty of charities that are doing their best to raise awareness, money and provide a safe haven for rescued elephants. The charity I am interning with next year, GVI, is just one of many charities rescuing and protecting elephants. You can help the elephants by supporting my internship and these charities: