Elephant riding

Elephant riding by tourists is rife in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. Elephants are routinely caught from the wild and often smuggled across borders to supply this burgeoning tourist industry. Whilst public outrage about the welfare of elephants used in trekking camps has caused some large travel agents to remove elephant riding from their itineraries, new elephant camps continue to pop up with alarming frequency in Thai resorts and islands.  This is occurring in order to meet the demand of tourists who are chasing the ‘bucket-list dream’ of riding the world’s largest land mammal.

The Capture

Whilst some elephants are bred for the tourism industry many continue to be caught from the wild. Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals with rich emotional lives.  They live in close-knit family groups, protect each other and mourn their dead.

Elephant calves are the desired members of the group as they are the most vulnerable and easiest to “train”. Several techniques may be used in order to capture calves. Usually the protective members of the herd are killed with automatic weapons, making the calves vulnerable and easily taken by poachers.  The bodies of their slain families can be sold for profit. Another method includes using “domesticated elephants” to corral wild elephants into a narrow corridor where a “pit trap” has been dug. This results in a high injury and mortality rate.

A pit trap used to capture elephants

A pit trap used to capture elephants

The “training”

There are many unethical experiences one can have with an elephant.  These include riding, paying to have them paint you a picture, or receiving a massage from them! Regardless of which exploitative interaction a tourist chooses, there is one certainty about that elephant’s past.  The elephant will have gone through a process called the phajaan in order to train them for this level of interaction with humans.

The phajaan translates to mean ‘the crush’. This ritual is about crushing the animals’ spirit until they are so beaten down into submission, they tolerate abuse on a daily basis for the rest of their lives.

The phajaan usually involves a traumatised calf who is already suffering from the immense emotional burden of having witnessed their herd being killed. The first process of the phajaan is to confine the calf in some way. By either confining them in a tiny crush cage or tethering them, the animal is placed in a stress position and deprived of sleep. They are unable to turn around or move freely for days on end. This torture in itself is the fastest way to break the spirit of any animal, including humans. However, the confinement is just the beginning of the abuse. For days on end the calf is starved and physically tortured using the most horrific implements possible, designed to target the most sensitive areas of the elephant and cause them the most pain imaginable. This torture may continue for days on end until the calf eventually lays limp, no longer having the energy to cry out in pain, attempt to free itself or fight back. Those that survive this horrific process are just at the beginning of the tortuous lives that they have yet to lead.Phajaan 2PhajaanPhajaan 3

The daily existence

Despite their large size elephants are not designed to support the weight of a human on their back and the implications of this cause serious spinal problems over time. Most backpackers know the pain of carrying their rucksack on their back for hours on end, after just half an hour or so your back starts to hurt under the strain of the weight, but what if you had to wear that rucksack for all your waking hours every day of your life? In addition to the weight on their spine, elephants often suffer from painful wounds and infections that result from friction burns on the hide caused by the various types of seating that is often attached to their backs. Furthermore, elephants are susceptible to foot injuries as they may be required to walk for hours on end, sometimes on hot tar-sealed roads.

Elephants are forced to work all their waking hours, and as a result there is simply not enough time for them to take in enough food or water to sustain themselves. Common causes of death in working elephants include exhaustion, dehydration and starvation.

When they are not working, elephants are usually chained to the spot and hence are unable to be truly comfortable, even during their resting hours. Because they are usually chained in solitary confinement the elephants essentially live without the company of other elephants. They are unable to socialize and form bonds with other members of their species, and this alone causes them immense psychological distress.Elephant rideElephant chain