Elephants are captured and brutalized for tourism in Asia and Africa. However, Asia is well ahead of Africa in the number of captive elephants and the ways in which they are exploited for tradition and profit. On both continents, wherever there is captivity, there is suffering.
Elephants are wild animals. Even in captivity, they do not become domesticated, as animal companions do. To get them to comply with the demands of captivity; giving rides, marching in parades, or doing tricks for pay, elephants are ripped from their mothers at young ages and beaten with bullhooks and whips over a period of weeks, until they obey on command. After they are broken in mind and body, they are ready for the grueling training to begin. The trauma of these beatings stays with the elephants for life, giving them a lifelong case of PTSD.
How Captive Elephants Suffer in Asia
Throughout Asia, from Cambodia to Thailand, one-third of all elephants live in captivity, adding up to around 16,000 captive elephants. India has 60% of Asia's population of elephants, 3,500 of whom live in captivity and are used for tourism including riding and trekking. There are some differences in the ways elephants are exploited in each country, but all of them are taken from their mothers and broken to obey. The most tragic part of this breaking process is how it destroys their spirits; they are broken in body and soul.
Baby Elephants Are Brutalized for Tourism
Mahouts, or elephant handlers, come from generations of elephant-keeping experience, with a mahout retaining “his” elephant throughout the elephant’s working life or service years. Mahouts and tourists often ride on a howdah placed on the back of the elephant. These howdahs are wooden seats that are heavy and cumbersome, The 1,650-pound howdahs used in the Jamboo Savari elephant procession on the Vijayadashami day, has two wide seats in rows that are bigger than the interiors of a family car. Mahouts use bullhooks and whips and other tools of the trade to control the elephants.
Some Mahouts care for their elephants humanely, but others rely on brutal treatment to control the elephants they exploit for commercial gain. Several nonprofits and elephant experts are working in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other elephant nations to help traditional mahouts transition to non-violent means of elephant management. However, the tradition of harsh training, especially the practice of breaking elephants, known as Phajaan or “the crush,” which is designed to break the spirit of baby elephants, continues. Many young elephants die in the process.
Elephants Are Exploited for Grueling Lives of Logging
Myanmar is an example of a country that has logged extensively for teak, using elephants to do the heavy lifting. Due to advanced deforestation, in 2016 the government banned logging, though some illegal logging continues. The problem now for the "out-of-work" elephants is how to care for and feed them. The Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) "owns" more than 2,900 captive elephants, and those elephants continue to receive food and veterinary care. But thousands more are privately “owned”, and the “owners “do not have the means to provide for the elephants and end up selling them or killing them for body parts. Over in Vietnam, despite a 1992 ban on logging, illegal logging threatens the wild habitat of the elephants.
In India, where logging was banned in 1989, elephants were left “jobless” and ended up being captured for the tourist industry. Although countries like India, Vietnam, and Myanmar have completely banned the capture of wild elephants and elephant calves for any purpose, illegal poaching and logging still take place in those and other nations where Indian elephants live. Additionally, India has recently amended the Wildlife Protection Act, stripping elephants of this vital safety net. The young suffer the most fatalities. When they begin their arduous training at age 4, half of them die.
The Cruel Truth About Elephant Rides
Asia is replete with riding camps and facilities that offer elephant rides. Despite some travel agencies refusing to book tours to these notorious camps, riding is still a popular tourist activity in Asia. Elephants are uniquely unfit for riding. Their spines curve upward, so riders sit atop their fragile spines and cause deformities and suffering to the elephants. Over time, their bodies break down, and when they are no longer able to provide rides, a lucky few are rescued to sanctuaries, but many others are sold to circuses or temples.
Tourism Drives Cruel Circus Acts
Besides riding elephants, some tourist facilities train elephants to perform circus-like tricks, sitting on their hind legs, or even more dangerous to the elephant, doing handstands. Elephants are jabbed with bullhooks to make them paint, dance, twirl hula hoops, play games, and pose for selfies with tourists. These tricks are touted as ways the elephants “show off their skills,” but all of these “skills” are a result of years of torturous training.
Asian Elephants in Culture and Religion
Festivals, parades, and religious ceremonies take place throughout Asia and elephants are often a big part of these age-old traditions despite having no interest in them. Elephants are subjected to merciless beatings to make them stand in lines, donned in heavy head and body paraphernalia. and parade among feverish and noisy crowds. They endure long hours of marching on blistering hot streets, bombarded with firecrackers, and jostling from the crowds, with their mahouts ready to poke them with a bullhook to make them obey. It is only the elephants' stoic nature that prevents them from rampaging into the crowds, though that occasionally happens.
In Thailand, the Surin Elephant Roundup is a festival where elephants re-enact logging feats and other historical activities, paint pictures, play football, and throw darts at balloons, among other tricks.
In the Laos Elephant Festival, elephants participate in processions and take part in activities like elephant painting, elephant rides, and when visitors get a chance to feed them.
In India, the Thrissur Pooram or Elephant Festival is the most famous festival in India. It takes place in Thrissur, the capital city of the state of Kerala, outside Vadakkunnathan temple. It attracts thousands from around the world and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. In addition to being the most popular, this festival is the most notorious for its cruelty to elephants. Unfortunately, the Indian Parliament stripped the Wildlife Protection Act of safeguards for India's elephants, so elephants can continue to be captured and brutalized for these festivals.
Male Elephants Endure The Worst Punishment
All Kerala temple elephants are mercilessly whipped, beaten, and shackled with chains that cut deep into their flesh to make them comply with the mahout's commands. But the worst torture is doled out to males. Bull elephants undergo musth, a reproductive season where their testosterone levels and energy surge. Mahouts, many of whom abuse alcohol, superstitiously believe the elephants will no longer obey once they come out of musth. So they beat them day and night for days or weeks during the musth period. Since temples prefer elephants with tusks, most temple elephants are male. 70% are over 50, so they have been subjected to this horrific abuse for years. Their minds and bodies break, and many die from neglect and abuse.
Creating a Humane Future for Asian Elephants
Elephant experts in Africa and Asia recommend not participating in exploitative activities such as elephant riding. World Elephant Protection is an organization that is fighting to stop the spread of these elephant torture facilities throughout the rest of the two continents. This nonprofit targets tourism agencies with a pledge they can sign to not offer these cruel attractions to their customers. A number of travel firms have signed on to this pledge.
However, some experts in Asia suggest going to the riding camps but paying the business owners to walk alongside the elephants or simply observe them in their natural habitat. That way, these business owners receive the necessary funds to feed their elephants, but without incurring any unnecessary burden on the elephants.
Nonprofits and individual elephant consultants are working with mahouts in Thailand, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, among other countries, to provide alternative, more humane care methods for their elephants. Part of this new regimen means the elephants can be taken off chains and are able to spend time in the nearby forests to forage and have social time with other elephants.
Rescues and sanctuaries provide a retirement home with vast acres for captive elephants to roam and finally enjoy their lives in peace.
Elephant Sanctuaries in Cambodia:
Elephant Sanctuaries in Sri Lanka:
How Captive Elephants Suffer in Africa
There are 39 tourist facilities in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa that offer elephant rides. South Africa has 28 camps, more than any other country. At present, 215 elephants are confined in these tourist camps. The elephants are deprived of the ability to express natural behaviors, including forming social groups and roaming freely in their native land, and their small confinement areas create emotional and physical distress and illness. They are not even given proper veterinary care, so minor injuries and infections can become huge problems, resulting in long-term suffering.
These camps also force elephants to do tricks and pose for selfies with tourists. The owners of these camps claim the elephants are trained using a reward-based system. However, that is not the case; elephants are beaten into submission as in every other captive elephant facility.
In addition to poaching and trophy hunting, selling elephants to tourist venues is highly profitable. Young elephants can be sold for as much as $60,000. This is driven by the tourism industry’s growing demands for captive elephants. These facilities also breed elephants to be indentured for life.