In late 2014, a working elephant named Laxmi Kali died just a few days after carrying her last load of tourists into the Nepali jungle. She was 70 years old and suffered from malnutrition, tooth loss, and a severe spinal infection caused by carrying the heavy howdah, the seat on which tourists ride.
At the age of 70, most humans have retired. But Laxmi Kali had no such luxury — she was forced to work, suffering, until she could no longer go on. A sister safari elephant died at the age of 35 around the same time, suffering from tuberculosis. Sadly, this isn't rare. The only unusual thing about these elephants' deaths was that they were actually noticed, after being documented by a local organization. Most working elephants suffer and die in silence.
Visitors who come to South Asia often hope to go on an exotic adventure riding an elephant. Exotic is not the adjective I’d use to describe this activity. These magnificent animals are brutalized in order to make them “suitable” to work for tourists.
The elephants’ health and wellbeing are compromised on a daily basis by the obsolete methods in which they’re kept. In my last article I wrote about how they’re chained when off work; how they suffer from tuberculosis; how many of them are blinded on purpose; how they’re overworked; malnourished, etc. A recent survey carried out by a local animal welfare organization found that the private elephant owners keep their animals in substandard conditions, despite the complaints made by animal activists as well as tourists. The same goes for the working conditions of the mahouts, who are just as neglected as the animals. The salary of these keepers is approximately USD$80 a month, despite working up to seven days a week. Although the elephants make high profits for their owners, a minimum amount is invested in their food and healthcare. They are also prevented from socializing and are constantly beaten. (Warning: link shows graphic video of elephant "training" camp.)
A news article in one of the Nepali newspapers states that the hotel owners foresee a yearly investment of USD $3 million in elephant safaris to cater to the ever-growing number of tourists. Hotel owners feel the urge to get elephants so that they can take part in this business. But, where will these animals come from? Past experience highly suggests that the elephants that come to Nepal will be smuggled from India. This is a cross-border crime that needs immediate attention from authorities in both sides of the frontier.
It's time to talk about the real cost of elephant safaris for the tourist trade. Most visitors just don't know how their dollars contribute to animal abuse. And while business for hotel owners is thriving, the hope to prevent the same future for new elephants is, sadly, decreasing.
You may be wondering if there is a solution to the problem and the answer is: yes, there is! Even if you’re not planning to come to Asia soon, please share this article on social media, sign the petitions that help captive elephants around the world, support organizations that raise awareness, and above all, refrain from participating in activities that abuse elephants for entertainment purposes.
Some German organizations have already removed the elephant rides from their Nepal itineraries. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Other useful links:
- EKantipur (2014) Safari elephants ‘lack’ proper care
- The Telegraph (2014) Elephant Rides Dropped over Welfare Fears
- My Republica (2014) German travel organizations have agreed to remove elephant rides and other tourist attractions involving elephants from their program
- Travel Nomads (2011). Why Elephant Riding Should be Removed from your Bucket List