By Kayla Robbins
Elephant rides are a profitable tourist attraction everywhere from tropical resorts to circuses to Renaissance Fairs, for some reason. Many people dream of riding high on the back of the majestic animals at some point during their lives. However, if you really love elephants, it may be time to cross that item off your bucket list. Unfortunately, the process of turning a wild animal that’s naturally wary of humans into a docile creature that lets itself be ridden around on all day is not always a humane one. Recognizing this fact, more and more travel companies are starting to remove or ban elephant rides and other forms of elephant-based entertainment from their itineraries.
The sad truth about elephant “training”
As you might imagine, it takes a lot of work to make an elephant willing to perform for human entertainment day in and day out. What you may not have realized is that it is almost never accomplished through simple positive reinforcement and a ton of elephant treats. In reality, the process, appropriately called “the crush” goes something a little more like this:
● A baby elephant is captured from the wild or bred in captivity and separated from its mother.
● The young animal is then forced into a cage barely large enough for its body.
● Whenever the elephant struggles against the ropes, it is beaten with sharpened sticks and bullhooks.
● This process will continue, without stopping for food, water, or sleep, for days until the elephant finally stops putting up a fight, its spirit crushed.
This is what it takes to make wild elephants submissive to human command, and this is only what the animals endure during the first few days of their captivity. Their treatment rarely improves from this point.
The greenwashing of the elephant tourism industry
In response to the sharp drop-off in interest from tourists, many elephant tourism destinations have begun to change their image. In brochures, they make sure to say the right things, like emphasizing their prioritization of the animals’ wellbeing or outlining their non-controversial training techniques based on positive reinforcement. They may even claim that all of their animals were orphans rescued from the wild as part of a conservation effort. For some tourists, this is enough to put their minds at ease. But it’s difficult if not impossible to know what really goes on behind the scenes at these places when all you do is show up and hop on an elephant’s back.
But all hope is not lost
Luckily, this doesn’t mean that you need to give up entirely on your dream of coming into close contact with the world’s largest land animal. While you shouldn’t necessarily take everything you’re told about elephants’ treatment at face value, there are many elephant sanctuaries and hospitals across the world that treat their animals humanely. These places will use your tourism money to provide a safe and happy home for elephants that would otherwise have been left to die in the wild, but it takes a bit of digging to find them and confirm they are what they say they are. Look for places with plenty of land that allow the animals to move around and socialize however they like for the majority of the day. The animals should also receive proper nutrition and access to adequate veterinary care. A responsible elephant sanctuary will have a focus on educating visitors and generally will not breed their elephants or encourage them to perform tricks for the entertainment of visiting tourists.