Northern Thailand is awash with posters of elephants and happy smiling tourists sitting on top. Some ride bare back covered in mud, others are perched on comfy seats with umbrellas to shade them from the sun’s rays. Some of the cities have small or young elephants wandering the streets with their owner or handler (mahout), for a small fee you can feed the elephant and take a great picture for the photo album.
Recently in Thailand however, there has been quite a lot of media attention given to elephants, especially those that are worked in the cities. It is now illegal to bring an elephant into Bangkok, and in the smaller cities the practices is strongly discouraged or also outlawed.
The elephant sanctuary near Chiang Mai, elephant nature park, takes or buys old or unwanted elephants so they can rehabilitate them. They believe that most of the uses of elephants are either unnatural or cruel.
Whilst I agree that animals should be treated well and have good living conditions I was intrigued by some of their ideas. Not using elephants for logging or trekking? We ride horses and have used animals for centuries to aid humans in all manner of activities from transport and heavy lifting to communication.
My feelings were if the elephant was being treated well and had good living conditions it was not so bad. But how do you know if they are being treated well and who decides what is right and wrong? We all have our own ideas of what is good or bad, depending on our own feelings, most of which has been derived from our experiences of life, our culture and religion. Some of us eat pork/beef, some of us don’t, some of us eat meat and some don’t. Other believe animals testing is wrong others disagree. Are the needs of humans, whether it be medical, sustenance or pleasure higher than that of animals and if so do all animals count? This is not a black and white situation, remember depending on who you speak to and where they are in the world, you will get different answers.
The opportunity arose for me to go on an elephant ride. As we approached, two giant, foreboding yet majestic elephants towered above me. I longed to be able to experience something new and exciting. I asked some questions about the elephants welfare and got some answers, but really due to the language barrier I was still not sure or convinced this was a good idea for me or the elephant.
I decided to ponder my quandary over some noodle soup. I was of the opinion that elephant riding was OK so long as the elephants lives were OK. Not being on speaking terms with the elephants I was really never going to be sure, but I decided I would go for it. At least I could then comment from experience.
We returned back to the elephants, despite having made up my mind I had yet to convince myself completely. So I observed for a little longer while my brain was working over time trying to process all the spiralling thoughts . As I did this I observed one of the mahouts practising his Bruce Lee kung fu kicks to the elephant’s penis, while the other guy was hitting the elephant in the head with a hammer, which drew blood, in order to get it to do what he wanted. This was too much for me We use crops on horses and this apparently does not hurt too much, but the claw end of a hammer and blood?
My thoughts were running in spirals again. If it took this much to control an elephant, maybe it is not meant to be. An elephant could kill a human, as a human could kill an ant. Surely if it takes this much, it is not worth it, elephants are just too big to control in a ‘humane’ way. So we should let them be. Stick to horses, I am comfortable with that.
Since this experience I have been looking more closely at the elephant posters. Some claiming their elephants have a good life, they only work four hours a day. Others have pictures of people sitting bare back on the shoulders of the elephant, hammers in hand.
Now I don’t claim to be an expert on elephants and what is right and wrong. Maybe they have limited feeling in the head, but until I know more and perhaps have the time and money to see living conditions in more detail I am leaving the elephants for now. I am still intrigued but I don’t want my curiosity to be at the detriment of another animal.
Have you ridden an elephant if so where, how was it. Do you train, work or have experience working with elephants? What are your thoughts?