It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. In 2015, the team at Rickshaw reached a huge milestone in animal welfare. Why? After signing World Animal Protection’s elephant-friendly pledge, we removed elephant riding from our trips for good, in exchange for more ethical elephant experiences. You see, we’re a passionate bunch who care deeply about our planet, our destinations and the people and animals that belong to them- to us, that’s what meaningful travel is all about! We knew it was about time we made a change and here’s why…
For the love of Nelly!
For some, elephant riding is a bit of a grey area (um, literally). Getting close to these majestic giants is- for many- a bucket-list experience; something they’ve dreamed of doing since they first saw Mowgli or Indiana plodding along on the big screen. Because they care only about exploiting elephants? Surely not! Because they couldn’t give a fig about their welfare and happiness? Heavens, no!
Truthfully? The majority of those who want to ride an elephant, do it for the sheer joy of getting close to an elephant. After all, that’s why I did it, all those years ago.
The elephant in the room
What do you imagine when you think about riding an elephant? Being ‘at one’ with nature? The freedom of riding bare-back atop your new best friend? Vast grassy plains and wild jungle canopies? Sounds magical, right? What you probably don’t imagine is sweltering heat and very little shade, jangling chains and scratchy harnesses. Yep, the reality of elephant riding is a little less dreamy.
You see, the harsh treatment that captive elephants often endure is usually swept right under the carpet; hidden away from public sight, or is simply overlooked by the tourist throngs that come and go, day in and day out to fulfil those bucket list dreams. Yet the lives of the elephants remain the same.
And though some elephant camps make claims of their ‘ethical’ treatment of elephants, the reality is that elephants used in tourism come from a long line of animals who have either been poached from the wild (an increasingly common practice in Asia) or have been bred in captivity, under the poorest of conditions.
Have we forgotten that elephants are wild animals? The truth is they haven’t been domesticated like dogs, cats, or horses, so to prepare them for a life working in the tourism industry, they must first be conditioned to accept human command from a young age. And it doesn’t make for happy reading.
6 facts about captive elephants
Did you know:
- Riding an elephant is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Asia
- In Thailand alone, 75% of captive elephants used for tourism have been poached from the wild
- The average lifespan of an Asian elephant in the wild is 42 years, but in captivity its only 19 years
- Elephants often endure harsh training at a young age to “break their spirit,” making them submissive enough to give rides and perform for tourists
- Bull hooks (pointy and sharp metal hooks on long sticks) are used by the trainers (mahouts) during rides with tourists to maintain control of the elephants
- Captive elephants are usually kept in poor conditions, restrained by chains, fed a poor diet and denied free social interaction with others of their kind
(For more facts, visit World Animal Protection)
Now, we’re a committed bunch here at Rickshaw, and we passionately believe in finding Meaning in everything we do. That includes our Meaningful trips, which strive to offer experiences where everybody benefits- and yes, that includes our friends with trunks (er, not the swimwear kind).
We used to offer elephant riding, but we don’t anymore. We hold our hands up to this, and we welcome others to join us on our journey. Since moving away from elephant riding, we now work more closely than ever with projects, communities, and our local partners on the ground to find experiences that provide meaningful enrichment for travellers, locals & elephants alike.
Have a peep below at some of our top meaningful elephant experiences:
5 meaningful ways to see elephants in Asia, with Rickshaw:
1. Visit the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand
If Thailand is on the cards and you don’t mind taking a jaunt up North, then a visit to the Elephant Nature Park is a must. Located outside Chiang Mai, the park is a rescue and rehabilitation centre, dedicated to caring for elephants who have been mistreated in camps and circuses. Home to more than 35 elephants, the park provides a natural environment for elephants to live as a herd and offers the chance for travellers to watch them interact and even rustle them up some lunch. Though the park still offers the opportunity to bathe elephants, the Rickshaw team are committed to supporting the sanctuary, and are working closely with the organisers to move towards a zero-interaction policy.
2. Take a trip to the Elephant Herds of Pranburi, Thailand
If you’re heading to Thailand but don’t fancy visiting Chiang Mai for your fix of elephant magic, the Wildlife Friends Foundation is perfect, and just 3 hours from Bangkok. The Foundation focuses on rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing sick and injured animals, and providing long-term care for those unable to return to the wild. On a guided tour, you’ll learn about their work, while you prepare food for the many furry residents. You’ll even spend the evening in a bungalow next to the elephants large, chain-free enclosure… elephant-tastic!
3. Spot nellies on a journey through India’s tropical backwaters
The Indian Elephant is one of three subspecies of the Asian elephant, and is native to mainland Asia. In India, elephants can often be spotted in temples, on streets and religious ceremonies. But sadly, these elephants have usually suffered the same treatment as those held captive in riding camps. A more rewarding- and less intrusive- way to spot them is on a walking safari in Periyar National Park. Afterwards, you can even spend the night in a traditional Keralan houseboat. Bliss.
4. Discover Yala & the Elephant Transit Home in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is an elephant haven. But with so many places to choose from, it can often be tricky to know which experiences are the most Meaningful.
Yala National Park is a popular destination among tourists, and it’s hardly surprising with such an array of elephant and birdlife to spy through your binoculars. As part of our Yala trip, you can even make a stop at the Elephant Transit Home; a rehabilitation centre for orphaned and injured ellies- we believe this to be an ethical alternative to the famous Pinnawala Reserve. Time to pack your trunk!
5. Go off-road on an alternative jeep safari in Sri Lanka
Yep, we told you Sri Lanka is a mothership for nellies! If you’re seeking an alternative safari option to popular Yala, then head to Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park instead on our Elephants in Buddha’s Garden trip and you’ll be treated to glorious sights of majestic elephants, with fewer crowds. See… more elephants than you can shake a trunk at!
6 nifty tips on how to be an elephant-friendly traveller
- Don’t get taken for a ride. Sadly, because all captive elephants must undergo cruel training and spirit-breaking, there’s no such thing as a responsible elephant ride.
- Try to avoid other forms of elephant entertainment activities too, such as circuses and elephant painting.
- See nellies in the wild! No form of direct contact with captive elephants compares to the joy of spotting them happy & free in the wild.
- Visit a genuine sanctuary. True elephant-friendly sanctuaries should be focused on rescuing elephants from captivity and educating the public on their conservation, rather than breeding them.
- Speak up! If you visit a sanctuary or venue where you fear elephants are being mistreated, be sure to contact a local animal welfare organisation. Alternatively, if you’re on a Rickshaw trip & spot something that doesn’t feel right, let us know and we’ll investigate it.
- Tell your mates. The more travellers that know about the truth behind elephant entertainment, the less demand there will be.
To read more facts about the truth behind elephant riding, visit World Animal Protection. And for tips on how you can make more ethical choices on your travels, check out Ecophiles’ Top 6 Ways to Hang Out with Elephants Without Hurting Them.