Editor’s Note: Carmel De Bedin is Hong Kong Director of Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival foundation (EARS), which supports ethical tourism initiatives throughout Asia and campaigns against animal exploitation. The views expressed below are entirely her own.
An elephant in Angkor Wat, Cambodia collapsed and died from exhaustion
She had been made to carry tourists in sweltering heat
Elephant rides are unnatural and potentially deadly for the animals
The number of deaths attributed to elephant tourism is on the rise, for humans and elephants alike.
After years of ritual abuse at the hands of mahouts – elephant handlers – the animals have mentally or physically suffered enough and this is causing more elephants to rampage and more elephants are collapsing while working than ever before.
In April, an elephant called Sambo died in Angkor Wat from sheer exhaustion after being overworked in soaring Cambodian temperatures: her heart simply could not bear any more stress.
Sambo was in her forties when she collapsed. A healthy elephant could be expected to live another 30 years.
Sambo’s death is symptomatic of a wider problem, with Southeast Asia now experiencing its worst heat wave in over six decades.
Meanwhile, earlier this year a Scottish tourist on holiday in Thailand’s Surat Thani province was killed when the male elephant he was riding shook him from his back.
Why shouldn’t I ride an elephant?
Ethically speaking, this answer is very simple: elephants are not born wanting to carry selfie-snapping tourists, they are not born wanting to wear a saddle on their backs, they are not born to be subservient to human beings.
Human beings make elephants do this, by abusing them and inflicting pain from a very young age.
To put it bluntly, these endangered animals are beaten into submission.
Their spirits are broken and they are forced to work in inhumane temperatures for hours without adequate food, water, shelter or rest.
To make matters worse, saddles are often left on the elephants all day.
While not working, they are chained in place, prohibiting any natural behaviors.
Foraging, throwing mud or sand on themselves, bathing in water or social interaction between the animals – all of these actions are normal behaviors for elephants and forcing them to lumber saddles around, especially while not working, renders their natural activities near impossible.
What can I do instead?
Ethical elephant tourism is a growing sector in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.
Sites such as Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai allow the animals to exhibit natural behaviors in a sanctuary setting as natural and wild an elephant habitat as possible.
Tourists may still engage and interact with the elephants but in a setting that protects both the animal and the tourist. There are no saddles and the elephants are allowed to simply exist without fear, pain or punishment.
Taking it one step further, Save Elephant Foundation’s (SEF) Elephant Kingdom is paving the way for more of a safari experience, with a hands-off program, allowing visitors to fully experience elephants in the wild from a safe distance.
Throughout northern Thailand, elephant camps are transforming and it is down to locally-run organizations like SEF setting an example for their animals and people: there is a better way for the mahout and the elephant.
With more than 100 tour companies boycotting elephant rides, and campaigns by organizations such as World Animal Protection that expose the cruelty behind such animal attractions, the world is waking up to a better and more ethical way to experience the Asian elephant.
For a list of approved ethical elephant tourism locations, visit EarsAsia.org.