The elephant in the room

The dark side of elephant safaris


When it comes to elephant protection, the spotlight tends to be on poaching. The plight of our continent's gentle giants, however, doesn't end there. A new report reveals how scores of captive elephants across southern Africa are abused for the sake of treating tourists to the so-called "experience of a lifetime".

If you have ever travelLed to Thailand, India, or other Asian countries, chances are that you have come eye to eye with groups of elephants carrying cheerful holidaymakers on their backs. You might even have ridden one yourself. What, after all, could be more thrilling than climbing on the back of the world's largest land mammal and being ridden around, in slow motion, through indigenous forests, pristine river beds, and lush valleys?

As idyllic and harmless as the above-mentioned scenario might sound, elephant rides in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia are far from innocuous. For many years, nature conservation bodies and animal rights organisations have been reporting on, and fighting against these practices. These “unique and unforgettable experiences”, they say, go hand in hand with some of the worst imaginable forms of animal abuse.

One simple Google search suffices to get an idea of what is going on behind the scenes. Besides various tour operators and holiday resorts that offer elephant treks and safaris, the search term "Elephant Ride Thailand" reveals a never-ending list of stories around the dark, sad, and cruel side of what is hailed as one of the must-do experiences when visiting South East Asia.

Crushing their spirits

One of the most sobering and graphic accounts is An Elephant Never Forgets. This haunting documentary, released by GroundBreak Productions in 2013, leaves very little to the imagination. The footage gives the viewer a heart wrenching insight into the often deplorable living and working conditions of Thailand's entertainment elephants.

One particular scene shows a young calf, maybe three years of age, with a handler sitting on its back. The grown man is beating the animal, which is desperately trying to get away from its tormentor, with a bull hook—over and over again. Not much later, the camera zooms in and takes a close up shot of large, hand-size open wounds on the animal's head and neck.

The documentary also shows how juvenile elephants are tied up and chained down in small wooden cages, with little or no room to move. Men are standing on top of the cage, beating the animals with sticks and spikes, literally into submission. This practice is referred to as ‘Phajaan’, and has the simple, and cruel objective to “divorce an elephant's spirit from its body”.

Kate Nustedt, international Director of Wildlife Campaigns at World Animal Protection (WAP), is very much aware of what is going on in Thailand and other parts of South East Asia. The organisation she works for has been fighting against the use of wildlife for entertainment purposes for many years, elephants included.

“Phajaan, or 'The Crush', has the objective to break a young elephant's spirit. The process takes around a week, basically until the animal gives in and allows a human to climb on its neck without any protesting or resisting,” she says. “An elephant in the wild would never tolerate this, not in a million years.”

Breaking Africa's elephants

Nustedt stresses that the cruelty and abuse associated with Phajaan, and thus with elephant rides, is not confined to Asia. A new WAP report, titled Breaking Africa's Elephants, shows that with the rising popularity of elephant safaris in southern Africa, the practice has made its way to this part of the world as well.

“It was once considered impossible to train African elephants to do tricks and carry tourists around, simply because they are so much bigger than Asian elephants,” says Nustedt, adding that this has changed.

“The first commercial venues offering elephant rides in Africa opened in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, after which the phenomenon spread across southern Africa. We have identified 25 tourism venues in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia that are offering elephant rides and safaris. Seven of these also force their animals to do tricks and perform in shows.”

It is big business, she says: “One elephant can easily give 10 to 20 rides a day.”

When perusing the websites of some of these venues, the bulk of them specifically promise that their elephant training techniques are based on “positive reinforcement of animal management principles” (the Elephant Sanctuary, Hartbeespoort Dam) and “trust, ask and reward, the total opposite to the methods used in India” (Kwa Maswala Private Game Reserve, south of Kruger National Park). Knysna Elephant Park along the Garden Route adds that their elephant rides are “conducted according to strict welfare guidelines, with no use of saddles”.

Nustedt stresses that whatever is promised and what happens in reality are often miles apart. “We know that it is not possible to humanely train an elephant to do tricks and ride people around,” she says. “An elephant in the wild would never allow someone to sit on its back or do tricks.”

A lifetime of abuse

Breaking Africa's Elephants doesn't beat around the bush in this regard. One of the report's main conclusions is that many, if not all, African elephants that are used in the safari and trekking industry have been subjected to Phajaan-like treatment.

“We had a team on the ground which visited various commercial elephant venues across the region, and documented what they encountered,” Nustedt says, explaining that vets and wildlife experts formed part of that team. “They know how to spot the signs of abuse and neglect. Various elephant handlers have confirmed that young elephants they have trained, have been subjected to the same breaking process as is used in Asia.”

The researchers also found that Africa's entertainment elephants, like their counterparts in Thailand, are often abused throughout their entire working lives.

“The suffering of elephants continues after breaking. The confinement of elephant camps means they are unable to form natural social relationships. This, and the size of their captive world is hugely damaging to their physical and psychological wellbeing,” the report says.

“Although most captive African elephants will be allowed supervised foraging in the bush for some time in the day, their nights are spent chained in small enclosures. And because elephants kept in captive situations are typically given little veterinary care, a relatively minor illness can quickly become a big problem, causing unnecessary long-term suffering.”

Nustedt adds that an elephant in captivity can live up to 50 years. “This is a long time of abuse,” she says.

“The sad thing is that the people who ride these elephants, the tourists who've been sold these wonderful experiences, don't know what is happening behind the scenes. They don't know what these elephants have to endure, and only see a happy elephant that wants to give them a ride.”

Targeting the industry

With the holiday season around the corner, and both Thailand and southern Africa being important travel destinations, WAP has launched a new campaign to inform tourists as well as travel stakeholders about the plight of entertainment elephants, in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. The aim of the Wildlife, Not Entertainers initiative is to eventually outlaw elephant rides and elephant shows for once and for all.

“Firstly, we want to tackle the issue by making tourists understand what goes on behind the scenes,” Nustedt says.

“We want to educate the people who buy elephant rides about the reality these animals are facing. Most people who want to ride elephants, want to because they love them. Once they know the truth, most of them will never ride an elephant again.”

Secondly, the campaign targets the supply side—the tour operators and travel agencies that are selling elephant rides and safaris on behalf of their clients. “We have had really positive responses from the sector. Quite a few large tour operators have committed to stop selling elephant rides. This number is growing steadily,” Nustedt says.

She adds that the campaign will also open the debate with some of the venues that are using elephants to entertain their guests. This is, however, not yet a priority. Nustedt: “At this stage we are targeting the buyers and sellers first. We will be using these successes as leverage when engaging with some of the venues where we think we have the best chance of transforming their offering.”

When asked about the chance of succeeding, Nustedt is optimistic. “We have a lot of experience with these types of campaigns,” she says, noting how WAP was one of the organisations that played an instrumental role in ending bear dancing in India. “This means that it can be done.” ▲

Miriam Mannak

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