Are you traveling to Southeast Asia soon? As you get excited about your trip, you’re likely reading more and more about things to do and what to see and where to go. The region is composed of 11 unique countries, each with rich cultures and histories, incredible landscapes, and exhilarating adventures, and of course, exotic wildlife, like elephants. Asian elephants are divided into three categories: the Sri Lankan elephant, the Indian elephant, and the Sumatran elephant. They weigh in at about three to four tons, and they’re endangered.
You’ve probably seen tours letting you get up close and personal with these magnificent animals and even offering you rides. Don’t do this. We’re here with an explanation as to why you should not ride an elephant.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, Southeast Asia has been marked a “hotspot” for illegal wildlife trade. This trade happens as the demand for exotic commodities goes up, and those living in poverty in the region see the trade of such highly priced exotic animals as a way to lift themselves out of their conditions. Elephants are one of the most highly bought and sold animals in the trade — ivory from the tusks or yes, rides and shows from those trained.
Many of the elephants that are available to ride have been illegally bought and sold into the tourism industry. In order to train an elephant to be docile around humans, the elephant has to be taken as a baby and separated from its family. Taming them is often a brutal and violent process that includes starvation, and the use of metal tools on the animals. The babies are beaten into submission and held in small cages.
Animal Activist Alliance Thailand, a group protecting the rights of all animals in the country, published a video in 2012 highlighting the process. The graphic video shows poachers beating elephants and the physical scars inflicted by various weapons, as well as the mental and emotional scars inflicted on the animals. Elephants are shown displaying coping mechanisms and ticks that are not known to be natural behavior.
The ancient process of taming an elephant in the region is called “Phajaan” or “the crush” because it literally crushes their spirits. This process conditions them to fear humans, getting them to work out of that fear. Elephants are shown to be extremely intelligent and social creatures. Ripping them away from their families and forcing them into confinement, combined with the physical abuse can cause the animals to develop PTSD. Remember, an elephant never forgets.
Not to mention all the damage that continues to occur after the elephant is deemed “tamed” enough to work. An elephant’s spine is not made to support the weight of a fully grown human. This may sound surprising given their size, but remember, they were never meant to carry human cargo. Many, as a result of years of carrying humans on their backs and working out of fear, die of exhaustion. Just almost two years ago, a story broke about a 40-45-year-old elephant who died of a heart attack while carrying tourists in extreme heat in Cambodia.
Additionally, the seat or “Howdah” the rider sits in causes extreme irritation of the skin. Without treatment, this irritation can lead to infection, and eventually worsening health. The elephants are not properly fed or given water, causing many to die from dehydration or starvation as well. They are kept without adequate exercise and in small, hard, concrete spaces, leading them to develop foot or joint injuries.
Many places exist in the region claiming to be sanctuaries. While many wonderful sanctuaries exist to protect elephants and provide lifetime mental, physical, and emotional care, there are some that tout the name while still causing harm. Be wary of some of these “sanctuaries” that claim to give humane rides or frequent up close and personal interactions with elephants. The elephants would still have to have been tamed to allow you so close, and many true sanctuaries don’t allow such interaction, or not frequent interaction, so as not to disrupt the elephant’s daily healing routine.
An approximated 100 elephants are being killed a day by poachers, according to the United Nations, and while there are no exact statistics on the number brought into tourism each year, it is known that only an estimated 35,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild. Given these statistics, riding an elephant is only contributing to a business that’s leading the animals to extinction.
Read more about Southeast Asia on ATR