As with many animals, Elephants are currently facing the biggest threat to their existence ever and unless something is done very soon, these majestic, intelligent and gentle creatures will go extinct. The threats facing Elephants come in many forms. From deforestation, logging and big game hunting to ivory hunting, circuses and tourism, humanity is putting tremendous stress on these great creatures and making it almost impossible for them to survive.
One of the many forms their exploitation takes, that we often witness first hand, is that of elephant riding. This barbaric and cruel practice of hoisting tourists on the backs of Elephants so they can get a “fun” ride around the jungle (and a cool instagram worthy pic of course) contributes significantly to the torture, exploitation and mistreatment these creatures suffer.
An Elephant is a wild animal. It’s not domesticated. This means that its species hasn’t been bred over many thousands of years to interact in a trusting and peaceful manner with humans, like dogs have. They don't have that natural desire to trust people and be around us and depend on us. In fact the opposite is true. Their natural instinct is one of extreme mistrust because most of the interactions their species have had with humans, have been violent and deadly. They are WILD animals, plain and simple.
Because of this fact, an elephant has to endure a brutal process called “breaking”. This involves using fear, pain and torture to make the animal obedient and subservient to its “masters” and be able to be around humans without acting out from fear or pain. This is how they’re also forced to endure life as a logging elephant or a temple elephant or a tourist attraction. ANY wild animal that is able to be around people has either been captured from the wild and broken (or drugged) or born into captivity (to a mother who was probably captured and broken herself). There is no way around this, so no matter what the sanctuary or riding facility may tell you, a tremendous amount of pain and suffering has been endured to give you the opportunity to ride on that Elephant and get your little Instagram picture. There is no way you can justify that.
The exploitation of animals, as with all forms of exploitation, is based in economics. Somewhere, someone makes cruelty to animals profitable and therefore desirable to a significant part of the population. Whether it takes the form of smuggling body parts for medicines or smuggling body parts for trophies it all exists because there is a financial incentive to participate. The same is true for the problems facing Elephants.
In many of the villages or jungles where Elephant riding is big business, it’s a major employer and source of income for the people of that area. Almost all of these people have very limited resources or other opportunities for employment. In addition, they tend to make more money from working in the riding industry, because its tourism based, than they would working in the fields or at the local market. So it’s not just an issue of passing a law to ban the practice. You also need to provide the local people other means of employment that provides a comparable income. This will take time. You need to first identify what the other opportunities are and then develop a plan to train people in the new skill and set up an infrastructure to implement the new system and help manage it until its self sustaining. You’re talking years of work and follow up, with support needed from locals, businesses, the tourism industry and the government. All these entities would need to come together to work on a long term plan with long term gains. Otherwise the problem won't go away and risks being driven underground which would make it even worse for the elephants. Also, people will become desperate for income and could be driven to participate in other forms of exploitation involving other animals or even people. That’s why the initial step is to raise awareness among tourists and teach them this isn’t the way to spend your tourism dollars because it contributes to horrible exploitation. In time, this will lessen the demand for elephant riding and force the local people to look for other ways to earn money. That's when NGO’s, the government and others can come in and take over care of the elephants and allow them to live out the rest of their lives in as peaceful and natural way as possible. Other NGO’s and government organizations can step in to assist the locals with other job and/or training opportunities.
In many of the countries where elephant riding is practiced it’s a part of the culture and we as westerners need to recognize that. It’s easy for us to say, “This must stop immediately” and even easier for us to judge the people involved in the industry. Not all of them are bad people who lack compassion and empathy. Many are just taking an opportunity that was offered to them, to help them support themselves and provide for their families. This is something I think most of us would do if we were in the same desperate situation. This doesn’t excuse or justify what is happening but helps us to understand the reasons why the problem exists in the first place. Once you have that understanding you can then address the issue in the most effective way possible.