Sadly, it used to be a common site throughout Cambodia and the rest of Asia to see the magnificent elephant in chains rather than their natural habitats.
Unfortunately, the tourism industry was the main cause of this as visitors flocked to ride an elephant on their exotic holiday abroad. Thankfully attitudes in recent times have changed virtually globally towards this type of tourism and now very few tour companies offer elephant rides or other related attractions and activities.
The Crushing Truth
Humans tend to love elephants, probably because we can see similar traits in them such as intelligence, empathic and emotional. This can be seen in the way elephants herds protect their young and mourn their dead.
Ironically, it is this affection and understanding that leads tourists to want to ride and do other elephant-related attractions on their holidays. To some, the idea of a domesticated elephant working happily with their human handlers or mahouts may sound idyllic, however, the truth is very different.
Elephants, whether born wild or in captivity, have to be made capable for human interaction through a process sometimes described as “crushing”, involving the breaking of the elephant’s mind, body and spirit.
Often baby elephants are taken from their mothers through a tragic and painful process for mother and calf. They are then forced to undertake a training schedule which includes being imprisoned in tiny pens and being regularly beaten with hooks and sticks. Once the elephant has reached its huge fully grown size it will be so scared of its owner that it is considered safe to interact with tourists.
Taking Elephants for a Ride
The only way to travel on the back of an elephant without hurting it is to ride it bareback by sitting on its neck. This is the way Asian mahouts traditionally ride their animals but it is the heavy and unwieldy elephant seat that sits on the elephant’s back that is uncomfortable even before you’ve loaded it up with tourists.
The seats also need to be secured using ropes around the elephant’s stomach and tail which often cause sores, cuts and other lasting physical damage including spinal injuries and permanent disfiguration.
An adult elephant can carry around 150kg for a limited period, although many elephants carry far heavier loads including mahout, seat and as many as four adults for rides lasting well over an hour.
Long treks in the Cambodian heat can also lead to dehydration and exhaustion in addition to the fact that many elephants also wear chains around their feet, which adds more discomfort to the agony they are already in.
The physical and emotional stress is horrific for an adult elephant but in some cases, elephants as young as 4 years old have been seen carrying tourists.
Tricks of the Trade
Being one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, elephants can be taught a huge variety of things including play football, stand on their back legs and heads and even paint pictures.
This is not an example of their inquisitive and creative nature but the result of what happens if you regularly threaten an elephant with a painful bullhook if they are not obedient. In fact, anything that you wouldn’t see an elephant do in the wild can be considered a result of abusive and cruel training.
Baby elephants used to be used all too often as begging props in touristy towns and on beaches. This artificial existence being fed pieces of sugarcane and pineapple by foreign visitors certainly doesn’t replace a natural diet of grass and leaves.
Human and Economic Realities
Unfortunately, it is idealistic to think that every elephant currently working could be released back into the wild and no one would ever ride an elephant ever again. This can sadly never happen due to the fact that many areas have nowhere for them to be returned back to and captive elephants would not be equipped to survive in the wild after years of abuse.
Sadly, some of the alternatives to elephant tourism are often worse than the cure. Elephants not used in tourism might end up being used for illegal logging which would be a far worse fate for the elephant where they would have no veterinary care and are kept away from the public eye.
Does Ethical Elephant Tourism Exist?
The fact is that using elephants for tourism is actually the best option available to help the elephants and the local community.
In more recent years, Cambodia has seen an emergence of a new type of elephant tourism called “walking with elephants”. This involves seeing elephants in their natural habitat at a respectable distance and following them as they go about the forest feeding and bathing.
Some projects also offer the chance to feed and wash the elephants in their natural habitat and a chance to ride the elephant short distances in the traditional mahout style sat on the elephant’s neck.
Please refer to the websites of Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation (EARS) and Save Elephant Foundation where you can find lists of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.
Where Can I See Elephants Responsibly in Cambodia?
The best places currently to see elephants in an environment that is guaranteed to be ethical are the Mondulkiri Project and Elephant Valley, also in Mondulkiri.
Elephant Valley is based in Cambodia’s beautiful and lesser known North Eastern province of Mondulkiri. The project encourages mahouts to bring their elephants which are often injured and overworked to their protected piece of 1600 hectare forest.
Often the elephants that make it to the sanctuary have been overworked from pulling the illegally cut logs in the area. Despite many local tour companies offering similar, ethical tourist experiences, unfortunately, many are only interested in tourist dollar rather than the elephant’s habitat and welfare.
The project has worked because he pays the mahout’s money to retire their elephants permanently to the project. The mahouts continue to care for their former work engines by feeding them and protecting them from other loggers who may want to poach the elephants for work.
There is strictly no elephant rides for tourists here. The tourist instead experiences elephants acting naturally in the natural habitat.
Because of this, it is the perfect opportunity to observe genuine elephant behaviour and local culture and ecology. The project also promotes forest protection for wild elephants in addition to education and healthcare projects for the local Bunong people.
The Mondulkiri Project
The Mondulkiri Project was set up 2013 based on an agreement with the local Bunong elders from Putang and Orang villages. The agreement was highly significant as it stopped logging in a large area of threatened forest near the provincial capital Sen Monorom.
The area is home to many types of wild animals, including elephants in addition to some incredible waterfalls and valleys.
The Mondulkiri Project is managed by the Cambodia Elephant Rescue Organization, a registered Cambodian Non-Government Organisation (NGO).
How do I know if what I’m seeing really is ethical?
Elephants need stimulation and social interaction with other elephants and time to themselves to behave naturally.
Check for signs of cruelty: Bullhooks are used to guide and control elephants and excessive use of bullhooks (or other implements) by mahouts is widespread, resulting in wounds to head and flesh.
Are they being fed? Elephants in the wild forage for food for up to twenty hours a day so there should be plenty of food and water.
Are they being shaded and kept clean? Elephants suffer in the heat and dislike standing in their own faeces. Food should be kept off the floor, so it doesn’t get mixed up with dirt and urine.
Are they healthy? Healthy elephants flap their ears and swish their tail almost constantly. A slow moving elephant is most likely a sick elephant. Equally, swaying constantly from side to side and swinging legs indicates that an elephant is stressed and/or bored from having been chained up too long.