Every summer, thousands of people from the U.S. and Europe are drawn to Asia to experience something exotic, captivating and different. Aside from visiting historical sites, observing religious festivals and photographing majestic temples and landscapes, one very popular activity is going on an elephant ride. Several countries around the continent are known for offering that kind of entertainment, and Nepal is one of them.
Nepali tour operators, travel agencies, resorts and elephant handlers tell tourists that elephant rides are the “green way” to experience nature and spot wildlife. The truth is, although you might be able to see rhinos and deer, riding an elephant is not the best way to do it. In fact, many tourists have complained in online forums that the elephants were mistreated and beaten during the ride, that sitting on top of them is very uncomfortable and that they were not able to see anything because they were too high above the ground.
Nevertheless, these experiences remain wildly popular. On social media, tourists post pictures of themselves hugging elephants, riding elephants and even getting massages with elephants. Friends “like” these pictures enthusiastically and say: “Would love to do this!” or even, “It’s on my bucket list!” But if more people knew what it takes to train an elephant, the comments we would read on social media would be quite different.
So why is riding an elephant so controversial? Why aren't there more organizations asking tourists to refrain from going on an elephant ride? To start with, the Asian elephant, or Elephas maximus, is an endangered species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature - IUCN. In Nepal alone, there are 102 privately owned elephants, while the government has 63. (See report by Animal Nepal) By “privately owned,” we mean that these elephants were purchased by hotel owners after they were caught in the wild and trained so that they could become a commodity for the use of tourists.
And, since they are, well… wild, they won’t obey people unless their spirits are broken through the brutal phajaan ritual. Babies and young elephants are separated from their mothers and taken to a month-long training camp, where they are starved, beaten, intimidated and even blinded so that they become submissive. If you notice the elephants giving rides, you will see how their ears have been perforated. That’s because ropes are tied to their ears to allow handlers to control them through pain. How else would an elephant let five or six people sit on their back and willingly take them for a ride?
In addition to the phajaan, elephants are kept in chains during long hours when they’re not working. They stand in their dung and urine, which often leads to osteomyelitis, a potentially fatal condition common in captive elephants, in which their bones are inflamed and become infected. They also suffer from tuberculosis, although this is not limited to elephants in Nepal. It also happens in zoos in the United States. (See article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC)
The welfare of the captive elephants in Asia needs immediate attention. Thanks to organizations like Elephant Aid International (EAI), we are beginning to see changes. For example, the Government of Nepal has partnered with EAI to build chain-free corrals for its 63 working elephants. These elephants are used by park rangers patrolling to protect the wildlife in Chitwan National Park, an area situated in the south of the country.
Another recent giant step forward was taken by Tiger Tops, the first resort in Nepal to drop elephant rides and to build exceptional chain-free corrals for its elephants. The elephants are grouped based on their personalities and how they get along with one another. I was privileged to visit Tiger Tops’ Elephant Camp recently, where I saw firsthand how their elephants enjoy life off the chains. The vast green areas available to them allow them to roam free, enjoy the shade under the trees, play in the mud and go walk around as they wish. They are also taken for daily baths in a nearby river. They are enjoying the freedom to do elephant things: graze, play, socialize with other elephants, choose which plants they want to eat during their jungle walks, etc.
During our visit we were able to walk into the jungle side by side with the elephants, in complete respect and admiration. Since they are captive and privately owned elephants, a mahout or handler rode them for security reasons. The use of bullhooks is very limited and instead, most of the handlers opt for a bamboo stick. Although it will take some time to completely get rid of the bullhooks, Tiger Tops is the only resort in Nepal that is heading in the right direction. They have a strict code of conduct for visitors which reads: “You are not allowed to ride, pet, feed or take selfies with the elephants.” In fact, they will be hosting an elephant care training session with the founder of EAI in September 2016.
As a responsible tourist and animal welfare activist, for years I refrained from going to this part of the country as there were no places worth visiting. So, once I learned that Tiger Tops had implemented this humane approach and dropped the elephant rides, I wanted to go see it with my own eyes. To my surprise, the area in which the elephants are kept is much larger than what I had expected and the way the elephants are treated and kept surpassed my expectations. The elephants at this resort are really fortunate. That is why I thought I’d share this experience, because it demonstrates that there are other ways for captive elephants to live. We need to support places like this one, which are making a long-lasting change in the lives of their elephants. So, if you are ever in Nepal and you want to be close to the elephants, rest assured that this place will offer you a wonderful time, without compromising the wellbeing of its elephants. It will be memorable. It has been for me.
So what can you do to help? How can you make a difference even if you’re not traveling to Asia or going on elephant rides?
1. Share information about captive elephants on social media: We all know Facebook is a good source, but TripAdvisor and Instagram are also great platforms. Pinterest is also a good site as many people look for information about destinations here.
2. Participate in forums, write blog posts and reach out to those sites who still promote elephant rides and ask them to consider offering jungle walks instead of jungle rides.
3. Support organizations like Wildlife SOS; OneGreenPlanet; Elephant Aid International; and Elephant Watch Nepal, among others, which constantly raise awareness about the plight of these gentle giants.
5. Sign petitions that call for changes in the tourist industry.