Every year, thousands of people flock to Thailand and other Asian countries to see elephants and ride them. What many of these tourists do not know, however, is how badly these animals are treated, or how these people are putting themselves at risk of disease and possibly death.
First off, elephants can physically carry people on their backs. The idea that they cannot is just another part of the huge amount of false information circulating the internet. Elephants are giant animals, and carrying around 300 pounds, the weight of a rider and saddle, is about the equivalent to a human carrying a backpack. However, people should still not ride elephants.
To train an elephant to allow strangers on its back, these animals are stolen from their mothers at a young age and “emotionally and mentally broken” according to PETA. Elephants are denied food, hit with hooks and other sharp metal instruments, and are chained for long hours in training. “Elephants used for rides are so overworked they’re dropping dead from stress and exhaustion,” said a veterinarian for Vietnam’s Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center.
According to the Humane Society, elephant rides are “accidents waiting to happen. There is no predicting wen elephants will respond aggressively to harsh treatment or when a seemingly innocuous incident will set the on a fearful rampage. With their large size, even a small misstep can be deadly.” Elephants are wild creatures and should not be ridden or in close proximity to humans that are not their trained handlers. Riding elephants puts people at a huge risk of injury or in some cases, death.
According to elephantexperts.org, “Almost all elephants that are used in tourist rides have been through the process of ‘breaking of the will.’ It is called by different names in different languages, for example pajan in Thai. After initial training, the usual handling system also relies on pain as the controlling mechanism, although many tourist operations today have instructed their mahouts to only punish elephants when tourists are out of sight.”
What about elephant sanctuaries that allow visitors to pay large amounts of money to touch, bathe, feed and play with elephants? Elephant sanctuaries are sometimes scams, and mistreat animals worse than the places they were rescued from.
“Elephant camps throughout Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian countries are notorious for duping the public into believing that their activities benefit elephants – often by claiming to rescue them or offer them “sanctuary” – but the reality is far darker. The international watchdog organization TRAFFIC has documented that wild elephants are being captured and broken to allow public contact. Young calves are taken from their mothers and tortured until they give up all hope and submit. Elephants are tightly chained when not being used for rides,” said PETA.
Sanctuaries for elephants have been gaining popularity, as tourists grow aware of the terrible conditions, one example being the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. These elephants have not been tested for tuberculosis, which is commonly spread from elephants to humans. This park is also known for having visitors feed the elephants fruits and bathing them multiple times a day. Elephants should not eat this many fruits as it rots their teeth and should instead eat a diet of mostly branches. Bathing elephants multiple times as an attraction can dry out elephants skin and cause many other medical issues. Dan Koehl’s blog highlights his concerns after his trip to the sanctuary as long with correspondences between him and the owner, who ignored his messages while seemingly pocketing a nice sum.
To help, people can donate now at PETA’s website or volunteer when they go overseas. Two sanctuaries in Thailand that are accepting volunteers are Elephant’s World and Wildlife Friends Foundation in Thailand. To volunteer closer to home, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is also looking for volunteers. Another way to help is by informing others of the dangers of riding elephants and helping encourage family and friends to visit real sanctuaries, instead of scams or locals who offer elephant paintings or rides.