Elephant riding – is it fun as it seems to be?

You may think elephant rides are exciting because you can enjoy the view on top of a gentle giant with a sense of conquer and power. But is that it? If you ever think about joining this elephant exploitation-based tourism activity, you should know the cruelty behind.

Separated from mothers and families at an early age

Just like us, baby elephants are born in the good care and love of the entire family, their loving moms and their aunties (other female elephants in the group). Everybody keeps an eye on the little one. Elephant calves nurse frequently throughout the day and are entirely dependent on their mother for all of their nourishment for the first years of life. Elephant mothers are very indulgent and fuss over their calf, fondling them, and allowing them to suckle on demand.

In order to have elephants to use, people used to capture baby elephants from two to four years old from the wild. They chased the elephant groups, made them see heart-breaking scenes of their families being torn apart and took the baby elephants away for the next step – “crush” or also known as “breaking”.

Went through terrible torture and learnt to accept their helplessness

This stage is purely torture. Elephant babies were not allowed to drink water and not to have food so that they became weak and that when people approached them and gave them what they needed, the elephants were not as much aggressive as they had been before. Then the elephants must be shackled by thorny vines and buffalo-skinned ropes to a tree branch on top of their head. They could neither turn their heads nor use their trunks to take off the shackles due to the thorns. After that, they learned to follow the commands of their trainers.

Picture of Thong Kham chained

Throughout the process of taming wild elephants (and from then on), bullhooks are used. A bullhook has a hook and a sharp pointed head like a spear on top of the stick. The tool is used to hurt the elephants when they fail to follow the commands. Trainers often use the bullhooks on the forehead or behind the ears of the elephants, which are the most sensitive spots on their bodies, for easy control. During the taming and training process, negative reinforcement method is used. The elephants are always under stress. They learn to obey people’s commands and if they fail to do so, they will be punished heavily without getting a hint on what should be fixed.

Picture of bullhook

Having been through all of these, elephants often suffer from trauma.

Poor living conditions

Once wild elephants become captive elephants, they are under continuous stress and in fear of being hurt by bullhooks. They are aware that bullhooks cause discomfort and terrible pain so they try to comply by every single command in order to avoid the painful and unsettling experience.

Physical needs

Elephants in the wild spend most of their day roamming in immense forests and grasslands with their families, wandering and looking for food and water and then enjoying some mud bath or just playing (especially elephant calves). However, elephants who are forced to give rides do not have such pleasures. They are often chained to a tree or a post sometimes even all day long, waiting for their turns to give rides to people. They have very limited or even no choice at all. They cannot choose when, what and where to eat. While elephants in the wild are quite picky with regards to their food and water such that the grass must be fresh and the water must be neither too warm nor too cold, those in captivity must accept whatever offered to them. Everything they need must rely on their mahouts or their caretakers.

Health problems

A lack of nutritious food and adequate water, lack of exercise and the burden of carrying heavy weight on their back day in day out add up to elephants’ severe health problems. Elephants who give rides often suffer from exhaustion and overwork. They also have arthritis, joint problems and spinal injuries. Imagine you have to carry a heavy backpack and walk on the same boring track every day. What a nightmare!

Elephants’ feet are not meant to stand on hard surface like concrete. Many captive elephants have foot problems and infections while they do not access regular veterinary care. The cumbersome chair and the daily rubs on the back also cause irritating blisters that can get infected.

Mental needs

Additionally, elephants are highly intelligent creatures. Living in a place where their mental capability is not challenged often, they feel bored. Combined with the constant stress they have to bear and the restricted environment they live, as a result, captive elephants show abnormal behaviors such as stereotypic behaviors. These are repeated without clear purposes.

Social needs

Not only their physical and mental needs are not met but their social needs are also ignored. Elephants are social animals. In the wild, elephants have complex social networks. Female elephants have close-knit relationship with their families whom they never part until they die. In addition, just like us, elephants also have characteristic personality traits. They may like this individual elephant a lot while hate another’s guts. Therefore, being forced to group with strange unpleasant elephants really get on their nerves.

Low life expectancy

With all the stress and suffering giving-ride elephants go through all their life, you can understand why they do not live to the ripe old age like their counterparts in the wild.

Please don’t state that you ride elephants because you love these gentle giants and you want to support the mahouts to make a living. If you care enough, you should notice the dwindling elephant population and you can support elephants’ caretakers to change to a more elephant-friendly tourism model.

Let’s say no to elephant rides.