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One of the best-known elephant-friendly tourist attractions in Asia is Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. It is a sanctuary with several dozens of rescued elephants.
Howdahs and other types of seats are the most common way to carry tourists. Many tourists and elephant owners are unaware that some common saddle types exert unhealthy pressure on the backbone. This can lead to chronic back pain.
Abrasion of foot pads is common in elephants that are made to walk on hard surfaces such as roads. It reduces cushioning for the bones inside the foot, and elephants with severely worn soles feel pain while walking. This is one of the reasons why some tourist-carrying elephants walk in a way that looks stiff.
Some facilities allow elephant calves to interact with tourists, and some well-meaning tourists give treats to calves or play wrestling games with them. Calves then learn to grab bags and to push people around for fun, which has led to cases of injury to tourists. Tourists usually do not realize that the behaviours they are encouraging in the calf may result in the calf getting punished by the staff once the tourists have left.
An elephant bathing show for tourists in Dubare, India. In some countries, mahouts are taught that elephants have to be thoroughly scrubbed with a hard brush every day, and elephants are punished if they move during it. However, as the elephant skin is sensitive to pain, the process easily becomes painful, in addition to not being necessary.
The most common way to keep elephants while they are not carrying tourists is to restrict their movements by chains. In this case, by chaining the front feet to each other and to the concrete pole on the left. This practice causes health risks to the joints.
There are two types of tourist destinations with captive elephants. In sanctuaries, tourists watch rescued elephants living a semi-natural life. In activities such as riding or painting, elephants are made to work. The latter group, unfortuntely, often includes practices that cause health problems and pain to the elephants.
How to find elephant-friendly places?
The quality of elephant sanctuaries varies widely. Some are rather good, whereas others differ little from riding-based tourism.
Another option for elephant-friendly tourism is contributing to and interacting with conservation projects for wild elephants. A high-quality organizer of such trips is Hidden Places.
For further information on elephants in tourism, see the website of Responsible Travel.
What to do if you see mistreatment?
On elephant rides, tourists sometimes are surprised to see a mahout beating an elephant. When giving feedback to the mahout, owner or manager, it is important to remain calm and constructive. Even though emotions may be intense after having just seen a screaming or bleeding elephant, a hostile approach would only deepen the divide between the parties involved.
The reason for handling elephants by pain is because it is the only system most mahouts know. If a mahout is simply told not to hit the elephant, he will not know how else to control it. Elephant-friendly training, such as positive reinforcement, is a different set of skills. In order to be able to use it, a mahout will need sufficient opportunity to learn it from someone who already is skilled in it.
When a tourist is unhappy about the way an elephant is handled or kept, one option is to constructively discuss the existence of other handling and keeping systems with the owner or manager, mentioning they might like to contact one of the organizations such as ours that can provide further information.
In some tourist attractions offering elephant rides, the rides take place on asphalt roads or other hard surfaces, which is damaging to the elephant's feet. In some locations, the workdays of elephants can be rather long. There are some sites where elephants carry tourists for eight hours per day or more, some of it under the hot midday sun, which is physically exhausting for an elephant and not something it would voluntarily do. Recently there have been some advances, such as in the Chitwan area of Nepal, where elephant rides are now only restricted to speficic hours of the day.
The skeleton of an elephant is not very suited to carrying anything more than the elephant's own weight. If it is necessary to ride an elephant, from a health perspective it is better to sit on the back of the neck, rather than on the back. The arching shape of an Asian elephant's back means the weight of an ordinary howdah or seat is concentrated on the middle of the spine (backbone). Some tourist-carrying elephants have symptoms of nerve damage and chronic inflammation in that part of the spine. Some designs of saddles or seats are less risky than others. There are types, both traditional and modern, that leave an empty space along the spine, which reduces the risk of back pain. The long-term health risks also depend on the number of people the elephant is carrying at the same time, and the duration of working hours.
Another vulnerable body part in the elephant is the feet, because they have to support the massive body. Elephants can safely walk on rather soft ground, such as natural terrain with vegetation. Their feet are not suited for walking on hard surfaces such as paved roads, because this results in abrasion of the protective soft pad on the foot soles. If the soles get severely worn, the bones inside the feet end up with too little cushioning against the ground, which makes walking painful.
While not at work, most elephants are kept chained. From a health perspective, the riskiest chaining practices are those in which the elephant has to stand in an unnatural position (such as with the back legs pulled backwards instead of directly under the body) because the abnormal weight distribution can harm the joints.
Some people believe elephants do not feel pain when hit by their mahouts, because the elephants do not react visibly. The reason is that elephants will usually be punished harder if they do scream or otherwise react. Elephant skin is very sensitive to touch and pain. The surface is rich with nerve endings, as elephants use a lot of skin-to-skin touching in their social communication. An elephant will react if tickled with a feather, if it has not been trained to suppress visible expressions of what it feels.
Almost all elephants that are used in tourist rides have been through the process of "breaking of the will". It is called by different names in different languages, for example pajan in Thai. After initial training, the usual handling system also relies on pain as the controlling mechanism, although many tourist operations today have instructed their mahouts to only punish elephants when tourists are out of sight.
The pain-based method is a source of unease to many mahouts and owners themselves. It is contradictory to the values many of them actually hold, such as compassion for other beings. This is one of the reasons they often find it difficult to discuss it with public, tourists and media.
Some tourist attractions include elephant baths. These come in many forms. The elephant-friendly way is to allow the elephants move freely while in water.
However, there are many bathing shows in which the mahouts command the elephants to lay still in the water, often for long times. At some sites, elephants also are scrubbed intensively with a hard brush. The mahouts and tourists are usually unaware that laying on one side for a long time is physically very uncomfortable for an elephant, because its large body size puts pressure on the internal organs, especially the lung on the side it lies on.
The discomfort is further increased if the elephant is scrubbed with a hard brush. Contrary to popuar belief, the surface of elephant skin is very sensitive to touch, which is why gentle touches have such a prominent role in the natural social behaviour of elephants.
In some locations, especially in Thailand, elephants can be seen painting flowers or other pictures on a canvas. The secret of the trick is in the hand of the mahout, who stands beside the elephant. The usual way is to keep some small sharp object behind the elephant's ear, where the audience cannot see. The elephant has been trained to know that a prick upwards means moving the brush up, prick on the left means moving the brush to the left, and so on. The training process before the shows is usually carried out with more intensive pain than the actual shows.
The original idea of painting elephants was different. Often called "abstract painting", it was conceived by Richard Lair, who has been involved for a long time in the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang. In this version, there is no pain involved, and elephants are free to do what they want. Once elephants have realized the idea, they usually do use the brush to paint various strokes on the canvas. It is not known whether elephants are more interested in the resulting shapes, or the rhythm of the movement (some observations suggest the latter), but in any case, this kind of abstract painting is an activity they do voluntarily.
What do these signs mean?
Tourists sometimes wonder why elephants have various marks. The below are explanations for some of the most common sights.
Irregular rims of ears, such as in the photo on the above left, are a result of having been torn in punishment by an ankus, on the above right.
Above left: An abscess that has been opened and drained of pus. Elbows are typical locations for abscesses in captive elephants, because lying down on hard surfaces wears the skin and provides a route for an infection. Above right: Foot rot is a bacterial infection. The most common cause is making the elephant stand on hard surfaces or in its own urine.
Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere