Why I Regret Riding an Elephant
Featured destinations: Zimbabwe, Thailand, Northern Thailand & Bangkok
Published 28 February 2017
Riding an elephant features on many a bucket list. Travellers, their eyes filled with wonder, dream of sitting on the back of these majestic beasts, perhaps while on safari in Africa or India, or on a trek through the Thai jungles. What could be better than riding the largest living land mammal in the world?
A lot actually.
African elephant in Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park, South Africa
Elephants and me
When I was 22, straight out of university, I packed my backpack and went off to explore the world. During that time I had many amazing experiences. I microlighted over Victoria Falls, I climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge and I bungee jumped into a Queensland lake. I also rode an elephant. Twice. Once was on safari in Zimbabwe, where the sensible creature clearly took a dislike to me and flung me off into a pile of elephant dung. The other time was in Thailand, when the elephant was far more interested in eating an entire banana tree in one bite than taking me for a walk, forcing me to cling on to his ears to stay on as he thrashed and pulled at the bark. But despite the setbacks, I enjoyed both rides, and returned to England feeling enriched by my elephant riding experiences. Asian elephants in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Asian elephants in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
Spotting wild elephants
Fast forward a few years to when I was working in sales for a particularly ethical safari company, with an emphasis on responsible travel. To keep my safari knowledge up to date, I visited Africa twice a year. On one stay in Ruaha National Park in Tanzania I spent many hours watching a herd of wild elephants frolicking in a dry riverbed, digging for water. The calves played happily, chasing each other about, trunks held aloft, while the adults dusted themselves with sand. It was a mesmerising sight and I was entranced. A few months later while in Serengeti National Park, a mother elephant put her trunk through the window of our safari vehicle and sniffed my face. Her trunk was less than a centimetre from my nose and I could feel her warm breath. My heart was in my mouth. But she was just curious, and soon moved on.
Elephant baby grabs his mum's tail
But I was hooked. Elephants were now officially my favourite safari animal. Far more exciting than those lazy lions.
Back in London, I chatted to my colleagues about my new-found love for elephants. One told me tales of Baines’ Camp in Botswana, where it was possible to walk with the three resident elephants Jabu, Thembe and Marula, and interact with them in their natural environment. There’s nothing contrived about this experience. The elephants’ surrogate human parents Doug and Sandi clearly care about them deeply, and the elephants return their affections. There’s not an elephant ride in sight. When I questioned why, the answer horrified me.
African elephants at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro
An elephant never forgets
In order to be ridden, an elephant needs to be broken in. This is a distressing process, known in Asia as phajaan, which means crushing. Beginning at birth, the elephant is torn from his mother (much to her distress – elephants form tight family bonds) and then tied up in a far-too-small enclosure, starved and beaten repeatedly. Chained up and subjected to the same cruel torture day in day out, the elephant’s spirit is broken. Even once the ordeal is over, many continue to be kept in inadequate conditions, and are beaten daily with bull-hooks when they disobey orders. And remember, an elephant never forgets.
Here in the Round the World Experts office, elephants are a favourite topic of conversation. Articles about visits to the lovely Elephant Hills and Elephant Nature Park in Thailand feature frequently on our Facebook and Twitter pages and in our blogs and, each time we publish one, talk inevitably turns to the ethics of elephant rides.
Herd of African elephants
The turn of opinion
These days, based on the comments we receive online and the opinions of fellow travel industry workers, more and more holidaymakers don’t want to ride an elephant at all. Increasingly aware of the turmoil that these creatures go through and the horrors of breaking them in, travellers prefer to encounter elephants in a more sensitive way, either at a sanctuary or, better yet, in the wild. One of our Experts here, Tess, recently went to Elephant Hills, where elephant rides are not offered, and so I asked her if she felt she missed out by not riding an elephant there. She said “Oh no, I had no desire to ride them at all. I was happy as the elephants seemed so happy.”
Listening to the turn of public opinion, as well as their own responsibilities, many travel companies such as Intrepid Travel and Exodus no longer offer elephant rides on their Asia and Africa programmes, a move which has had overwhelming support from their customers. Here at Round the World Experts, we don’t support or offer elephant riding either.
Elephants around a waterhole in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Instead, our Journeys include visits to ethically sound rescue centres such as the aforementioned Elephant Hills or the award-winning Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, run by Lek Chailert since 1995. Starting with just four rescued elephants, Lek now looks after 69 individuals. For an even more authentic experience you can look for wild elephants in Periyar National Park in India, Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka, Khao Yai National Park in Thailand and numerous safari parks in southern and eastern Africa. What better way to spend your holidays than watching these wonderful animals interact in their natural habitat, far away from any fences or forced behaviour?
Elephants drink from a waterhole in Botswana
Learning from my mistakes
As you might have guessed I now regret the elephant riding experiences of my youth. It’s not much of an excuse but, back then, I knew nothing of these terrible ‘breaking in’ practices. I saw riding only as a fun activity, a way to get up close to an elephant. I even did my research, seeking out the most ethical elephant riding company I could, but it wasn’t enough. We’ve all done things we regret. The important thing is to learn from our mistakes. Now I know more I can safely say I will never ride an elephant again.Close-up of elephant mother and baby
And it's not just elephants....
Of course this new-found conscious of mine doesn’t just apply to elephants. I’ve been to a dolphinarium. I’ve been to zoos, all of which now firmly sit in the ‘regrets’ pile. Nothing beats seeing animals in the wild: watching dolphins frolic in the surf, seeing an orca swimming happily by, dorsal fin protruding proudly above the waves, watching wild lions chase a zebra, with no human interference, all totally natural. Just as it should be.
Elephant mother and baby
Visit Elephant Hills with Round the World Experts' Bangkok, Beach & Elephants holiday.