Should we ride an elephant? What happens to domesticated elephants who can not be returned to the wild?
A great article by Debbie Kindness of Incredible India Tours
In recent times, the use of wild animals for tourism has been coming under scrutiny, and rightly so. In India and Nepal, elephants particularly have been recognised as a wild animal that do not naturally inhabit some of the regions they are kept as tourist attractions, or used for tourism purposes (for example, Rajasthan).
Elephants were not designed to be ridden with a heavy howdah (seat) on their backs and these poor creatures are often kept in substandard conditions, along with inadequate care.
Just a month ago, Tripadvisor announced that they were banning ticket sales to some animal attractions.
At Incredible Indian Tours, we have also decided to cease any included activities that involve wild animals, such as elephant back safari’s in wildlife parks. We have never included elephant rides at places such as Amber Palace in Jaipur. These have always been optional activities and our clients are informed as to why we do not include such options.
The Elephants of Jaipur/Amber
Whilst we believe that no wild animals should be kept for tourism purposes, this relatively new movement means that there are a substantial number of elephants that have worked all of their lives and cannot be repatriated into the wild. Their owners/mahouts also need to find new ways of making a living for when they no longer have their elephants, which is something that won’t happen overnight.
Hence there are now a growing number of places that are providing a ‘middle ground’ environment. These are places where working elephants are being given better living conditions and less work.
Examples are the elephant ‘experience’ centres that have now opened up near Jaipur in Rajasthan – Elefantastic and Eleday are two of these. Tourists can now visit elephants at these locations, and have an up close and personal experience with the elephants, including feeding and bathing them. The elephant owners make money to continue looking after their animals and the elephants work less and have a happier life.
Whilst this does not address the issue of elephant tourism, it is at least providing the current working elephants with a better life experience for the remainder of their lives. It is my hope that the trend of riding elephants at Amber Palace will gradually die out from lack of interest from tourists and there will be no need for new elephants to be brought in to work.
The Elephants of Nepal
In Nepal, quite a number of elephants are kept, some privately owned and some government owned, in Chitwan and Bardia National Parks. The majority of these elephants are used for tourists to enter the park on safaris, but a number of elephants are required by park rangers to patrol inaccessible areas.
Without this necessary patrolling of these parks, the numbers of endangered tigers and rhinos would be far less, if not extinct thanks to the ongoing problem of poaching. So, no elephants effectively means no tigers and rhinos. This has created a dilemma for park management in terms of the need to have a new supply of elephants for the park rangers to patrol the parks.
Nepal no longer captures wild elephants to be ‘broken’, trained and used by humans. In both Chitwan and Bardia, elephant breeding centres were established some decades ago to increase the dwindling population of Asian elephants.
Originally they had stud bulls and females, but now the only resident elephants are females and the young male calves. Wild males come to the centre at night to mate with the females. Previously, the young elephants were trained in traditional ways, by breaking the spirit of the animal and hardening them to interactions with humans (although I understand methods weren’t as harsh as in other parts of Asia – the calves were always kept with their mother for the majority of the training).
Some of the elephants bred at these centres are traded throughout the subcontinent but those that aren’t traded are kept for tourism purposes (females) and for the park patrols (males). In recent years, the WWF has been working with the centres to implement new training methods that are less cruel and more in line with how one would train a dog. It is yet to be determined how successful this is, as the training takes many years until an elephant is old enough to work (15 years), and this new training has been in place for perhaps the past 6 or 7 years only.
With respect to taking elephant safaris in Chitwan National Park, there are periods of the year – monsoon and post monsoon (July – September/October) – when the park is inaccessible by jeep.
During those months, the only way to visit the national park is by foot (limited areas) or on elephant back.
At Incredible Indian Tours we now plan our tours to run only when we can guarantee jeeps will be operating (the start date is traditionally 1 October, however sometimes the jeep safaris are delayed until mid-late October) to ensure we can still visit the park without having to use elephants as our safari transport.
The Elephants of Kerala
What I will talk about is, similar to the elephant experiences now operating outside Jaipur in Rajasthan, the elephant experience operations in Thekkady, outside Periyar National Park, such as Elephant Junction and Elephant Park.
The elephants at these parks are rescue elephants and are clearly loved and well treated by their mahouts. The experience you have here includes a bare-back ride, feeding, bathing and being showered by an elephant.
Like the elephants in Jaipur I would hope for a day in the future where a place for rescued elephants is not required and we can only see elephants in the wild in their natural habitat.
However given the ancient custom of elephants being used in Hindu religious practices, I don’t imagine that the human interaction with elephants in South India will end any time soon.
As mentioned earlier, we do not include this activity as part of our tour, but it is of course an optional experience where you can have a truly wonderful up close and personal experience with these magnificent creatures.
In the past I have ridden the elephants, although if I were to visit again, I would forego the ride and simply enjoy the feeding and bathing experience.
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