It’s 2019. Let’s talk about Elephant Back Rides. Again.

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It is the year 1990.

The first commercial elephant back ride starts in Zimbabwe and spreads to South Africa. People say they want to ride elephants because they love the elephants.

It is the year 2000.

African Elephants in South Africa are listed on CITES Appendix II.

It is the year 2001.

Boswell circus elephant, Tandi kills her handler on film set, and is transferred to Pretoria Zoo.

It is the year 2007.

Government Notice R151 lists African Elephants (Loxodonta Africana) as a Protected Species, an indigenous species of high conservation value or national importance that require national protection.

It is the year 2014.

A handler was mauled and gored by an elephant bull (Moyo) at Adventures with Elephants in Bela Bela and is transferred to Garden Route Game Lodge.

It is the year 2015.

There are 126 captive/managed elephants in South Africa. Between 2001 and 2015 a total of 17 attacks took place by captive elephants on humans, 6 of those resulted in deaths.

It is the year 2016.

Five elephant riding facilities announce that they will stop offering rides.

It is the year 2019.

I find myself in conversation with someone justifying elephant back riding with “at least they don’t beat them like in India”.

It is still the year 2019.

People still say they want to ride elephants because they love the elephants.

It is not yet the year 2020.

But will we still engage in conversations like this next year?

One often engage in conversations with people that shock you into the realisation that not everyone is yet aware of the cruelty that goes on in the animal entertainment industry. You often find that your beliefs from 2010, is still someone’s opinion and an animal’s reality in 2019. You realise that talking about the impact of elephant back rides and interaction, talking about interacting with wild animals (cheetah petting, walking with lions etc.) is not a once-off conversation but rather a conversation that should continue and echo into forever.

We can never forget about the basics, because for someone else the penny of the basics has not dropped yet.

And for that reason, I don’t mind sounding like a broken record. I don’t mind voicing my opinion on unethical practices. I don’t mind saying things over and over again because what gives me hope is that when you talk to a thousand, 999 might not listen, but maybe one person will begin to see the bigger picture and that person will share the message.

It is the year 2019.

A few days ago I find myself in conversation with someone justifying elephant back riding with “at least they don’t beat them like in India”.

In a case of let’s agree to disagree I was sent an email trying to “educate” me on my views which were received as “unjustified”.

I’m not going to name and shame, the internet is filled with places still shamelessly advertising elephant back rides and selling it under the word ‘conservation’ or ‘sanctuary’. The research has been done countless of times; there are court cases, there are deaths, there are only facts and reality, and I’ll share a few (from my reply to the e-mail), crossing my fingers that one person’s mind shifts and carry the message forward.

Elephant back riding is unethical in terms of animal rights in tourism and regardless of whether an elephant (or any wild animal for that matter, horses included) is being beaten into submission, or deprived of some of its natural behaviours and surroundings, it all boils down to abuse in the end.

It is time we stop looking at videos of elephant abuse in Thailand and India and start pointing fingers in South Africa as well, physical animal abuse done intentionally does not only happen in Asia, it is going in South Africa as well; we all know about the case between the NSPCA and Knysna Elephant Park.

It is wonderful when elephants that have suffered from poaching can find a home again, they are the fortunate ones, but that does not give us humans the right to use them for our own entertainment. In nature, no specie (oxpeckers asides) rides an elephant, why do we as humans think it is okay to get an elephant tame, strap a saddle on its back and ride it? It is not natural.

Across Africa, young elephants can be sold for as much to $60,000. This is driven by the tourism industry’s growing demands and has led to poaching for the tourism industry and of breeding captive elephants for profit. Elephant calves are being stolen from their mothers and sold as orphans, this happens especially in Zimbabwe.

Elephants born in captivity are not like cheetahs born in captivity, elephants can actually be released successfully back into the wild. Did you know that two circus elephants were successfully released into Pilansberg in the 80s? In the wild African elephants’ home range can extend up to 11 000 square kilometres, a life in a 50 000 hectare reserve sounds much better than a circus enclosure, or a small reserve confining elephants to a small space, especially at night when they sleep in enclosures. Elephants are not human, they don’t need bedrooms.

It all begs the question, why not rescue, rehabilitate and release? And if the release is not possible, why still use them as entertainers?

Because it usually all revolves around money.

The only reason why elephant back riding still takes place to this day is because of money and greed; there is a massive disconnect between nature and the humans’ desire to be in control of something bigger and more intimidating than them, hence climbing atop an elephant, hence petting a cheetah, hence walking with lions, hence taking photos with sedated tigers.

Unfortunately society has put a price on animals, their worth and how we can use that in favour of our desires; if you pay R150 you can see an elephant in the wild, if you pay R250 you can pet the elephant but bonus, if you pay R400 you can ride it. Why do we have this sick god-like complex to be in control?

Establishments offering elephant rides and interaction say that “experiences are highly recommended to anyone who would like to experience a close and personal encounter”; is observing an elephant in the wild in its natural habitat not enough, why are we feeding this need to interact with animals we won’t interact with when found in their natural environment?

Doesn’t that seem so far removed from what is natural?

The conversation usually continues, it promises to be educational, it always talk about gentle giants, about how intelligent elephants are.

Yes, they are extremely intelligent but is it not condescending and disrespectful to train elephants so that they can behave in certain ways just for the sake of entertainment?

There is always someone painting a pretty picture about how elephants are not abused, how they don’t use sticks, whips and chains but elephants are not domesticated (domestication is a breeding process that takes place over many generations), and if it is not domesticated how else do you keep them in line?
Behind every pretty picture of no sticks, whips and chains there is always the mighty bull hook.

Abuse does not always have to be physical, you don’t always need to see blood. Elephants have develop a fear of the bull hook from the first jab, a “small” jab that might seem like nothing to the tourist but is deeply painful for elephants; their skin is deceptive, it might look tough but if they can feel the pain of an insect bite, they can most certainly feel a small jab. The soft tissue behind ears (or inside), in and around anus, under chin and around feet are usually handlers “secret spots” to keep an elephant in place. Elephants develop a fear of the bull hook from the first jab.

Then there are also some other concerns, or rather things to consider:

For an elephant to be in a healthy physical and mental state it needs freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from fear and distress. Again, there is no need for blood or physical marks for an elephant to experience abuse. Think about our own freedom as humans and then consider the following factors that can be seen as animal abuse:

-Smaller areas and interaction means that the elephants don’t get to forage, or foraging is interrupted because it has to be on duty for interaction.

-They live in unnatural holdings, concrete bomas can cause foot problems and there is no choice and free movement at night.

-There is a failure to meet species requirements – social requirements, lack of herd structure, separation of herd members. Small herds mean lack of social structure. Have you ever seen a herd of elephants in a place like Kruger or Addo Elephant National Park? They are social animals.

-The anatomy of an elephant is not made to carry weight on its back (let alone 3 people), it causes pain and spinal injury due to sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine.

The world is starting to wake up, not only to the cruel practices of elephant back riding, but the world is also starting to realise that we are custodians of our environment and we need to treat said environment and all its inhabitants with respect. Humans are constantly trying to play god, is it not time to lay down our hands and keep it off our wildlife, is it not time to lay down our sense of entitlement?
If South African Tourism doesn’t support cheetah and lion cub petting, walking with lions and elephant back safaris, doesn’t that say something?

If you are still on the fence when it comes to elephant back riding maybe the research mentioned below will make you think about things differently, maybe not. I can only hope that in a year or two or three from now more of us will talk the same talk, because seriously, the animals deserve better.

And if you still think riding is bad but interaction is okay, all I want to know is why?
Why do you need to touch an elephant? Why?

Come on people, it is the year 2019. We can do better.

If establishments don’t want to stop elephant rides it is time for tourists to stand up and say no more. It is time for tourists to say I will pay X amount to see an elephant and that amount does not entitle me or give me the right to interfere with an elephant’s environment and behaviour.

It is 2019.

People still say they want to ride elephants because they love the elephants.

That’s not love.

Follow these links done by researchers:

The elephant in the room by Dr Louise de Waal 
If you still don’t believe that lion cub petting leads to canned lion hunting, I highly recommend you read more of Dr Louise De Waal’s work on her website.

The welfare status of elephants in captivity in South Africa, research done by NSPCA (here you can see how many deaths/injuries etc. occured).

Breaking Africa’s elephants by World Animal Protection 

Open letter to by elephant specialist (touching on possibility of releasing captive elephants back into the wild) 

Fair Game? Improving the well-being of South African wildlife.

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