Elephants in the Street and How I Suck as a Westerner and a Tourist

I am guilty. And I was ignorant. I didn’t know.

This baby is so hungry she tried to latch onto a passing elephant she didn't know to suckle. Photo by Lek Chailert

This baby is so hungry she tried to latch onto a passing elephant she didn’t know to suckle.
Photo by Lek Chailert

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 theΒ  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.

Thank you.

Street Begging Elephant – by Lek Chailert

This little one is starving without its mother's milk.

This little one is starving without its mother’s milk.

Have you ridden an elephant or gone to an elephant show on your travels? What are your thoughts on this post?

35 thoughts on “Elephants in the Street and How I Suck as a Westerner and a Tourist

  1. Hi Raveburbleblog, I loved this post and the raw truth. My son visited ENP 6 yrs ago while travelling in Thailand and I went in 2011 for a volunteer week. We both were initially shocked at our ignorance. I have become a friend of ellies, and regularly tell the ENP story to educate others and increase awareness of caged animals in zoos, circuses etc. as well. I wish all tourists going to East Asia were required to read your blog. Keep on smiling, Joan McBride, Canada


    • Hi Joan. Thanks for reading this post. Good on you and your son for going to ENP. And for passing your awareness on. I normally write lightheartedly, but this subject is a deep one, and as you say, shocking, and now and again I feel compelled to pass on, as best I can, the seriousness of it all. Bless you for continuing to inform others. On behalf of the eles, many thanks.


  2. Haven’t been on an elephant’s back but a camel’ s round the pyramid being an ignorant tourist. Used to take small daughter to London Zoo all the time but the last few years hate the thought of animals caged on display for our amusement. The justificiation for protecting them from extinction isn’t altogether convincing. Safaris parks do offer more space and try hard to imitate natural surroundings but however big or pretty the cage, the reality is they are still in captivity. Recently there was controversy over a seal’s unusual behaviour in HK’s Ocean Park; some claim this signalled unhappiness while the minder argued it was part of the performance and very normal.
    Mmmm. I do feel for donkeys in the heat on beaches made to go back and forth ad nauseum giving noisy unruly kids rides. Must be mind numbingly boring and soul destroying.

    Well done you for spreading the message. My daughter would like to go volunteer in a tiger sanctuary.


      • She told me but I forgot, somewhere in S. America?? I’ll ask and get back to you. BTW it’ Cho, Chow sounds too much like Chow Mein. She loves elephants so do I, my favourite animal, they are so gentle and elegant. Daughter is collecting clothes with prints of elephants; I myself am proud owner of Thai elephant print trousers.


      • Okay Cho, I’ll remember that. πŸ™‚

        They’re awesome animals alright. I think most of us have a fascination with them to some degree. They’re so big and so clever.

        Big cats are also fascinating. Although I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of one. I’ve lived with many a housecat and they’re a force to be reckoned with themselves if they take umbrage with you over something. One of mine used to stalk me while I was in the shower – lurk behind the curtain then take a swipe at my poor, naked skin and race off into the wild blue yonder while all I could do was leap into the air and bleed.


      • but cool mother huh? Also a cat lover. My problem is they love me too much; every day is Mother’s Day, with gifts of dead birds with feathers everywhere and once even half a squirrel, the rear end. Have trained daughter before she could talk to go get dustpan and brush, deposit the victim where Mummy can’t freak out again. Give me spiders any day.


      • Moi aussi. Used to read it to my baby. Played her tapes of nursery rhymes, fairy tales on her colourful fisher price player while she dozed off and cultivated a love of books now. Must be in the genes. I hid in the loo as a child to read not to be disturbed and they knew where to find me for dinner.


  3. ps did you hear about the baby elephant in India that got injured by a train passing in India? Not sure when. The next day Mummy Elephant went back to tracks at the same time and knocked over the culprit.


  4. I hope you don’t mind but I just posted this list (slightly shortened) to my status, with a link to your blog. Let me know if you want me to delete it. But I put it up because I think it is a wonderful way of teaching people about the reality of life for elephants who are used in tourism – it lets people know what is going on without being judgmental or know-it-all-y. Plus, of course, it’s true! I lived in Thailand for 4 years before I visited the ENP for the first time and I participated in all these touristy things without thinking too much about it. I initially spent four weeks at the park, and I have been back several times. Once I learned more about how elephants think and feel, about how important their friendships and family bonds are, and about their consciousness of the world, it is obvious how degrading these experiences are – not to mention physically and psychologically damaging. The good news is that more and more people seem to be aware of the issues – not just western tourists but Thai people as well.


  5. No blog, just an ordinary person I’m afraid! I just put it in my status update on fb with a link to your blog. And it got lots of likes, I’m happy to say. I think lots of people can relate.


    • Thank you very much. Every person that reads what I’m trying to put across is another person not as ignorant as I, and thus less harmful than I was in my uninformed, and, in all honesty, unresearched actions. You are helping me to prevent further ignorance and helping the elephants by giving more people informed choices. I deeply appreciate that. Namaste.


  6. This post is so informative and thought-provoking! I am so glad to have read about this before I arrive in Thailand next month. I will be writing a blog post soon about why I will not be riding an elephant in Thailand, and will be linking your post for further reading. πŸ™‚


  7. Pingback: Why We Won’t Ride an Elephant in Thailand | The Art of Being Lost

  8. Pingback: In love with elephants! | liverighttravelfar

  9. Pingback: Elephant Shows: Entertainment or Abuse? | Words of a Wanderer

    • Hi Michael. Sorry about that – and funnily enough, the very same thing just happened to me with somebody else’s blog. I believe you have to do it at your end. Probably if you scroll right to the bottom of the notification page, you’ll see an ‘unsubscribe’ option there. Let me know if it doesn’t work and I’ll investigate further. Cheers, Rave.


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