1. At least one species of Asian elephant is an endangered species. Consider that one of three Asian elephant species (Elephas maximus maximus from Sri Lanka) is nearly extinct; in just five years it may no longer exist on this Earth. In Thailand, there are only an estimated 500 elephants left in the wild, when just 10 years ago, that number was 40,000. In Cambodia, it is believed that the wild Asian elephant is already extinct.
Remember that this highly intelligent, emotional and social animal is one of only a few species that passes the human self-identification test, cries as a sign of emotion and displays marked death rituals. The elephant, revered as a god in many cultures, merits some sense of dignity as its 7.6 million years of evolution draw to a close. Doing tricks for tourists is not the reverence this highly conscious species deserves. Extinction is forever.
3. The strongest part of the elephant is its neck, not its back. Yes, adult elephants are massively powerful beings. However , their strength lies in their necks, the axiom of motion for their heads and trunks. When an elephant wears a chain around its neck, it probably feels much like when you wear a large necklace. But when you place a 100-pound seat on its fragile spine with three 150-pound humans in that seat, it probably feels more like tying a 30-pound weight to the outside of your knee. Your knee is not meant to hold weight like that and neither is an elephant's vulnerable spine. Over time, your knee will tear. And the elephant's spine, over time, tears as well.
4. Female elephants routinely suffer forced breeding. When a male elephant goes into musht, or heat, he becomes aggressive, dangerous and unpredictable. Instead of chaining the male, feeding him a low-glycemic diet and allowing interested females to approach him for mating, the tourist industry uses a practice called forced breeding, which entails chaining a comparatively small female by all four legs and allowing an aggressive bull to have his way with her. Because the bull is so dangerous when in musht, and because the female literally cannot move, it is not uncommon for the female to be crushed and crippled in the breeding process.
Remembering how intelligent, emotional and conscious the elephant is known to be, it’s not surprising that besides crippled females, another consequence of forced breeding is that the surviving impregnated mothers sometimes attempt to kill their newborns. Unfortunately, this response is not at all unusual for this healthy, family-focused species and is obviously a sign of great distress. Camp owners now immediately separate newborns from their mothers to prevent attempted infanticide and only later venture to reunite them. If successful, you will see a baby elephant chained to its mother while giving you a trekking ride. That baby does not get to play as young animals need to, but it is forced to work alongside its distressed mother—who may have tried to kill it at birth after forced breeding.
5. Many tourist elephants are dosed with methamphetamines. That’s right, you may be riding an elephant hooked on meth. Elephants in the tourist industry are seen as money-generating machines in the impoverished countries they populate. Some mahouts, or camp owners, will give their elephants speed to force them to work almost 24 hours a day—so they can engage in tourist performances during the day and street begging at night. When the elephant's addiction starts taking its toll, the animal is removed from sight and often allowed to perish during withdrawal shortly thereafter.
6. Elephants are routinely controlled using painful bull hooks. Look on the skull or behind the ears and knees of the elephant you are watching paint that picture. Notice the white scars from past abuse, or worse yet, the bloody, red or pink marks showing the continued use of the bull hook. Some camps claim they use no bull hooks and their workers carry sticks (for show) when tourists are around. But they take bull hooks in hand when tourists are away.
Yet the bull hook is unnecessary. As we all know, the elephant is a highly intelligent and extremely gentle creature. That’s why many conservation parks and select zoos in the United States employ bull-hook-free training called Protected Contact Training. True conservation parks in Asia (of which there are very few) successfully use an alternative, bull-hook-free training called Positive Reinforcement. No matter what a tourist camp may tell you, these tried-and-true, violence-free training methods prove that the bull hook is not an essential elephant-management tool. So if a camp is using one, it is more concerned about forcing the elephant to do unnatural things for tourists' money than in protecting or respecting an endangered species.
7. Travel guides and tourist packages often don’t provide complete or accurate information. All travel programs worth supporting are worth researching. Unfortunately, tour guidebooks are limited by their authors' perspectives. Although they may have traveled the country and written about their adventures, they may not have researched the social, cultural, environmental, wildlife conservation or political implications. If travelers rely on a travel guide book exclusively for their understanding of a culture and the animals that are a part of it, they are likely to end up on night safaris, trekking on an elephant's back and patronizing a "conservation" camp where elephants paint pictures or another quick and easy tourist holiday that doesn't take much thought or conscience.
Tour packages sold at tourism offices are geared toward taking tourists' money, not necessarily doing the right thing. Tourism offices in Thailand are actually paid a commission by the camp to which they sell you a package. Exploitive elephant camps have much more money to pay off tourism offices than true conservation camps. If well-intentioned tourists depend on travel guidebooks and tourism offices to plan their vacations and don’t do independent research, they probably won’t even hear about the true conservation camps that are out there.
That's why this article exists. The author is not being paid off by a business that makes money on tourism. No one is sponsoring the author's perspective. And no one should have to pay you to share this article with your entire social network—especially acquaintances who might ever head to Southeast Asia.
All of this information may seem like a big downer to your intended elephant-loving vacation without a solution. Well, let there be light: If you truly love elephants and want to connect with them while knowing you are protecting their safety and potentially extending their species’ existence on this Earth, check out my “Six Things to Do Instead of Riding an Elephant.” And it's very important that you share this free-press information with everyone. Here’s a shortened link: http://bit.ly/qgActC (or click the "Email This" or "Share This" links below right). Sometimes it's just that people don't know. And now they do.