All over Asia, 3,000 elephants live in captivity. For the amusement of tourists, must perform confusing and sometimes painful tricks such as balancing on narrow ropes, standing on a small drum on their hind legs, painting pictures, and of course being ridden.
In a survey on why travelers wanted to participate in the riding of elephants, the majority of the 13,000 respondents cited the main reason was due to their love for animals. But if tourists knew what the elephants had to endure, they would tear their holiday photos apart in an instant.
Typically elephant mothers are very protective and elephant calves often stay with their families for years. However for the purpose of tourism, baby elephants are forced to separate from their families in order to mentally damage them and and make them more docile. Because of their high sales value, not only are the calves illegally caught in the wild but also their mothers often end up being killed as well while they try to protect their young.
Elephant training begins while they are still young. As soon as the elephant calves arrive, they are caged, tied up and tortured using ox hooks and other instruments. To train these elephants, more often than not the method of negative reinforcement is used. As soon as the unpleasant stimulus is removed, the elephant does what is required of it. These young elephants become obedient out of fear, and many that are exposed to these methods of training often suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.
An unnatural life
In the wild, elephants move in matriarchal herds. Together, they hike for several miles a day in search of fresh vegetation, play and swim in rivers. In captivity, however, elephants are robbed of this way of life. Because they spend most of their time chained up, they cannot meet other elephants or move freely. In small arenas or on narrow trails they walk up and down with tourists on their backs and perform painful tricks to amuse spectators.
The animals usually spend their free time chained in small sheds or huts with concrete floors, which damage their joints. The chains are often placed so tightly around the legs of the elephant that they can hardly move, which often leads to injuries.
Deprived of the right care
Captive elephants usually eat low-nutrient food and don't drink enough water. In addition, although they are in captivity, the elephants are frequently deprived of the veterinary care that some so desperately need especially for their feet.
The lack of exercise and the hard concrete floor leads to severe foot problems, arthritis and back injuries in captive elephants. Therefore, it is not surprising that most elephants who grow up in captivity end up dying decades earlier than their free-living counterparts. For instance, in 2016 an elephant collapsed under extreme exhaustion when it was forced to carry two tourists in 40 degree heat, and ended up dying from a heart attack. The animal was estimated to have been around 40 to 45 around the time of its death, whilst typically elephants live to be about 60. Since this incident, World Animal Protection has listed elephant rides as the cruelest holiday activity.
Elephants can strike back
The only way to get an elephant to paint pictures, let tourists ride, or perform other demeaning tricks is through violence and intimidation. Therefore, it is only a matter of time until the elephant reaches its limit. This was the case with Mbanje, a riding elephant who crushed its trainer in a fit of rage after he forced the animal to carry tourists on its back. According to animal welfare organization World Animal Protection, in Thailand alone, a total of 17 deaths and 21 severe injuries were inflicted by imprisoned elephants between 2010 and 2016.
Lying to the public
Many elephant camps in Thailand, Cambodia and other parts of Asia are trying to fool the public by claiming that the elephants are being rescued and the activities are benefiting the animals. In truth, however, the abusive training methods are being downplayed. Anyone who concerned with the dwindling elephant population or the abuse of trapped elephants is better off helping to end these tourist attractions rather than funding them.