I am guilty. And I was ignorant. I didn’t know.
I went to India four times before I saw my first real live elephant. At about 2 o’clock in the morning, in Pahar Ganj, a place bustling with people and traffic and street dogs and rubbish. I was so thrilled to finally see one that I didn’t stop to think that the poor thing was probably stressed out by the noise and traffic, and also probably just hanging out to get off the hard tarmac and go to bed.
The next year I went to Chiang Mai, North Thailand for a month’s holiday and I lined up with the rest of them to book a tour that included a visit to an elephant camp. I clapped when the elephants played football and I gasped with amazement with the rest of the crowd when we watched one paint a picture. Then I happily climbed aboard a howdah (the seats used to give tourists elephant rides) and rode a well-worn circuit alongside many other tourists, delighted at finally being on top of an elephant.
I never did see a street begging elephant in Thailand, but if I did I’m sure I would have rushed to pay out some baht (Thai money) for the privilege of buying bananas and feeding one and being able to touch it – especially a cute little baby one.
I didn’t know, you see. These are the things I didn’t know –
- I didn’t know the body language of an elephant and what one looks like when it’s unhappy.
- I didn’t know the what the scars look like on one that has been beaten with a large metal hook.
- I didn’t know that their feet get sore and damaged from being on tarmac all the time instead of soft, grassy earth.
- I didn’t know that elephants are touch-hungry and need to ongoingly communicate with each other physically.
- I didn’t know that those camp elephants are chained up separately at the end of the day – often on concrete – and are unable to smooch and cuddle with each other like they need to. This leaves them in stress and often causes psychological damage for life.
- I didn’t know that sometimes there’s a mahout with a nail hidden in his hand prompting that elephant to paint a picture like the one I gasped at.
- I didn’t know that elephants need to stay with their mothers and suckle for several years.
- I didn’t know that a baby elephant will have several Aunties when living naturally in the wild, and in the capturing of a baby elephant, several adult elephants will often die trying to protect it.
- I didn’t know that domestic elephants are put through a torture process when young to make them subservient to little, tiny man.
- There is so much more that I didn’t know and am still finding out.
I have a picture of myself, taken by one of the tour guides, sitting on that howdah, proudly beaming at the camera. I keep it displayed at home to remind myself of my own past ignorance and the ignorance of thousands of other tourists.
Acting on a passing comment from my daughter, I signed up to spend a week of my 2012 Thai holiday at an elephant sanctuary – Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. I would be able to spend seven whole days mingling with elephants. Unchained elephants, elephants roaming happily in the fields. It doesn’t get better than that, right? And that’s where I learned of the extent of my ignorance. That’s where I learned the above facts and many, many more.
I was horrified! I was one of the ignorant tourists that has perpetuated the horror that elephants live through, the industry that survives on torturing these magnificent beasts and exploiting their existence for financial gain.
I am returning to this sanctuary in September this year to volunteer again. And I will probably do it again and again although I know it will never make up for my part in this horrible situation. That and raving on here, on Facebook, in public, to my friends and family and anyone else that will listen are the least I can do to help elephants instead of bolstering the industry that keeps them living in a man-made hell.
I couldn’t in good conscience go past the picture and story below without doing my best to pass it around. It was posted by Lek Chailert, founder of Elephant Nature Park. Please help by reading it and passing it on to all that you know. Especially to those that you know are going on holiday to Asia. We can’t save the world alone, but we can do our own little bit from our own little corners of the world.
Have you ridden an elephant or gone to an elephant show on your travels? What are your thoughts on this post?