I Rode an Elephant in India, Here’s Why You Shouldn’t

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I’m expecting some backlash on this one, but first of all please read this post before you go crazy at me for riding an elephant. Then you have my permission.

“You’re meant to be a responsible traveller!” – I know.

“You know why you should never ride Elephants!” – I do.

“What the hell are you playing at?!”- Well… I can kind of explain if you’ll let me. 

This post is my explanation. If it helps, I regret it. Its taken me a while to come to terms with it enough to write this post. This post is not to justify my riding an elephant at all. Instead I want to inform you about the difference of tourism based elephant rides and the elephants that we rode belonging to the forest department. I’m not going to hide the uncomfortable bits because I don’t want you to be okay with me riding an elephant. I’m not okay with it, that is why I’m writing this.

So why did you ride an elephant if you’re so against it?

I’d like to make clear that I really didn’t want to ride the elephant. I’ve read so many articles condemning the practice and I wholeheartedly agree that tourists should inform themselves and make sure not to contribute to the industry. We were visiting West Bengal with Indian friends. They booked the ride for us in a National Park without us being aware. According to them it was the only way to go deeper in the forest as Jeeps can’t get that far. I spoke to Ben as we both had reservations about it but ultimately we decided we had to suck it up.

The thing that you have to remember is the different attitude towards animals according to different cultures. People in poorer countries have had to rely on animals and still do to this day. Farmers rely on cows for milk and bulls to pull carts. Desert people rely on camels to be able to get across the sand dunes. Villagers in remote settlements rely on goats and chickens to feed their families and to make money. The relationship between man and animal is very different to the Western world. In the West we are concerned with the moral implications of using animals, particularly wild animals, in ways that aren’t natural for them.

Where I rode the elephant

First of all, I am not going to tell you exactly where I rode the elephant, but it was in a legitimate National Park in West Bengal. The elephants are owned by the Forest Department and are used in the National Park which protects many vulnerable animals including the one-horned rhinos. Rangers use the elephants to protect the one horned rhinos in the park that are endangered and at high risk from poaching due to the demand for their horns. The reason the rangers they use elephants is because they simply cannot get close enough to the rhinos in jeeps. The first evening we went to the national park we went out in a jeep and a rhino nearly charged the jeep. We would not have made it out of that one alive.

Problem Elephants

We were told that the forest department only use ‘problem elephants’ for working at the park. Problem elephants are the elephants that leave the forest and go into villages. Some people don’t realise how dangerous wild elephants are, especially when they see videos of people petting and riding them, can be but they can and will kill people if they get in their way. This means there’s an inevitable conflict between villagers and farmers and wild elephants that wander out of the national parks.

The rangers told us a story about elephants that broke into a school to steal the food for a meal scheme that encourages poorer kids to attend school. People in these villages don’t have much and if elephants are stealing what they do have they’re not going to like it. This means elephants would be killed by people. So the Forest department steps in and takes the elephant, trains them and they become an employee of the park. If that didn’t happen the elephant would be dead.

The Forest Department also rescue elephants from the tourist trade. When we visited we saw two elephants that had just been rescued from the circus. Once they have been trained Elephants can’t be released into the wild. Instead the Forest Department will take them and train them.

elephant

A rescued circus elephant

Treatment of Elephants

How they are trained is of course a bit more brutal. They do isolate them and they do restrain them. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. The elephant has its own Mahout who trains it and stays with it throughout its life. The Mahout has to show the elephant who’s in charge. We were told that the week before we visited and elephant had actually killed its mahout because it had seen a male elephant and wanted to breed. It threw the mahout of its back and he was killed instantly. The elephant was punished and put in isolation to show it that humans are in charge. I don’t agree with this. But in the interest of full disclosure, that happens.

The elephants have a daily routine. Every morning they go for a bath in a lake and have their breakfast. After that they either go with their mahout to check the rhinos or if they are doing rides they come to do that. The elephants will only do a maximum of 3 rides a day up until about 10am. After that they have their lunch and then they are free to wander the park as they wish and are allowed to socialise with the wild elephants in the park. The elephants will then come back of their own accord for their evening meal.

An elephant with his Mahout, returning from a days work

Employees of the Forest Department

The elephants get a ‘salary’ and once they reach a certain age (I believe it’s 60 years old) they are allowed to retire and they no longer have to work because they are classed as employees of the forest department. The rides help pay this salary and help the forest department protect the one horned rhinos.

When the elephants are in breeding season they are also allowed to go and breed with the wild elephants. If a female is ‘in heat’ the mahouts will let her go off into the jungle and breed. She then comes back of her own accord and is allowed to raise her baby herself. The babies are allowed to follow their mothers into the jungle even when they are doing rides.

Difference with Tourist companies

As I said I don’t want to justify the practice. I’m still not comfortable with elephant rides in any form but I do believe that the reason the forest department does them is a little way justified.

I don’t believe there is any reason to ride elephants owned by tourist companies. Often they are wild caught and tortured in much less restrained ways than the Forest Department uses. They are separated and chained and forced to work until they drop to make money for greedy business owners. A lot of companies will ‘guarantee’ that the elephants are treated well but you have to ask yourself: If an animal that would kill me in the wild is subservient and lets people ride it, what has been done to that elephant?

I highly recommend you read the Dodo’s article on why not to ride elephants so you can inform yourself of the harm the tourist industry does to these amazing animals.

At the moment the park we stayed next to was fairly untouched by overseas tourism. We were the only Westerners there at the time, the only other people there were Indian. I don’t want to give the exact location out because the more popular the area gets the more likely that tourism companies will set up and offer elephant rides at a cheaper price. Inevitably their practices will not be as regulated and the elephants will not be looked after nearly as well as they are in the forest department.

So how do I feel about it now?

Ultimately, I’m still not comfortable with whole concept of elephant rides. It just doesn’t feel right to me and throughout the ride I was really conscious of it. These are wild animals, it makes me uneasy that they’re so controllable by the mahouts.  But the issue is that without the rides and the Forest Department elephants would be killed. Those problem elephants that go into villages are an issue. At the moment this is the only solution to save them. Releasing them into the park wouldn’t work because they would go back and other elephants can be very territorial.

As well as that it’s vital that the park rangers are able to monitor the rhinos. The conservation efforts are working. From 2011 to 2013 the Rhino population in that national park increased 25%.You can read more about the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 project that aims to attain a wild population of at least 3,000 greater one-horned rhinos spread over seven protected areas in the Indian state of Assam by the year 2020.

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2 Comments

  1. April 30, 2017 / 10:53 am

    I really like your honest account. I can’t agree or support animal abuse, but on the other hand, it’s important to understand that like you said, people still rely on animals sometimes, and maybe judging other cultures is not the best way to save animals (as there is a lot of animal abuse everywhere, e.g. the animal-derived food industry).

    • Sarah
      May 1, 2017 / 8:36 am

      Yeah it can become very condescending to force western values on people from developing countries. We don’t have to rely on animals in the same way. Encouraging good treatment is important and I think the more important issue. Completely condemning it would do more harm than good

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