The ethics of elephant riding

The last time I rode an elephant was in 2014 and I deeply regret it. I was a part of a day trip visiting areas outside of Chiang Mai and there were too few elephants arranged for our group. I had to sit at an elephant’s neck, spoiling the view for the Spanish couple already sat in the animal’s harness. “Not possible, not possible” the man protested, understandably cross. For many visitors to Thailand, elephant riding is synonymous with the country, a ‘must do’, a box to be ticked along with tuk-tuk rides and foot massages.

The bull hook

Even though I’d been on elephants as a kid, this trip was the first time I remember seeing the bull hook being used – a pointy hammer designed to pierce thick elephant skin and force them into line. The mahout used this weapon to effectively steer the animal where it was meant to be – closer to the boarding platform or away from some plants.

Up ahead of us, a baby elephant was chained to its mother who was being ridden by two members of our group. The baby was learning its life’s work of ferrying tourists up and down the same short dirt road.

‘Crushing the spirit’

These are far from domesticated animals. There has never been controlled breeding of elephants akin to the way dogs or horses are bred. Though an elephant might be born into captivity, it retains its wild instincts. One of the methods employed to rid a baby elephant of these instincts so that they can be used for tourist trekking is called ‘phajaan’, or ‘crusing the spirit’. The elephants are separated from their family – a traumatic experience in itself – before being enclosed in a tight space like a cage or a hole, routinely beaten, starved and dehydrated until they submit to being ridden.

Health issues

Elephants may be enormous but they’re not bred to be ridden, and their backs are surprisingly delicate. Carrying people for up to 12 hours a day can lead to permanent damage to the spine and stunted growth, while the motion of the heavy benches strapped to their backs can cause sores.

Ethical alternatives

When the use of elephants in the Thai logging industry was banned in 1989, thousands of elephants and their mahouts were left with no source of income. This forced many mahouts into the cities to beg with their animals, a practice since banned in the major metropolises. Tourism was seen as the only sustainable means of supporting both the mahouts and their elephants.

With the Asian elephant’s natural habitat shrinking, releasing thousands of captive elephants is simply not an option. The survival of Thailand’s elephants depends on them co-existing with humans. Fortunately there are alternatives to elephant trekking that both support the local economy and protect the animals’ well-being. Sanctuaries for rescued elephants give them the chance to live a semi-wild life, and allow visitors to spend time with these incredible animals, washing them in the river, feeding them or just walking alongside them.

Popular elephant sanctuaries like Boon Lot’s Elephant Sanctuary, the Elephant Nature Park and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, are becoming increasingly popular as the travel industry shies away from trekking.

For more information or to make a donation to an excellent cause, check out Elemotion.com, an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of Asian elephants.

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