Ask yourself the following question: What if you posted a photo of you and an elephant on Instagram, and someone pointed out to you that this place isn’t ethical. Would you delete the photo? Or would you act as if your nose is bleeding and put your own popularity above the life of an animal?
These days you can’t open Instagram or Facebook without being bombarded with so called “Influencers” and tourists posing with an elephant. They will hug their trunk to showcase “the magical connection” they have with this animal and of course quickly take a photo of this moment. Cause a photo of yourself and an elephant will definitely perform well on Social Media: #eyeroll.
Because of the rapid speed that these images are being shared the elephant tourism industry has sky rocketed over the past year. And for what? So people can help take care of these beautiful animals? No, all for the freaking sake of taking a selfie or scoring more likes on Social Media.
People are becoming more and more concerned with the fact that they want to get the perfect photo to share with their family and friends.
Because of this the actual well being of the elephant is pushed aside.
And I get it, the marketing of some of these elephant “sanctuaries” is so on point that you have no idea that what you’re contributing to is unethical. There was a time when I also didn’t realise the truth and it took me a while to really comprehend what was ethical and what wasn’t.
That’s why I want to point out the things you have to look out for when planning a trip to an elephant sanctuary.
How to Visit an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary
What should you pay attention to?
- The amount of daily tourists should be limited at an ethical sanctuary. In some places you can’t even just visit for a day. You will actually stay for a couple of days and contribute to the rehabilitation of the elephant.
- You won’t be able to go in close proximity to the elephant. An elephant sanctuary that actually tries to rehabilitate the elephants won’t allow direct contact without barriers. Why? You are there to see the elephants in their natural habitat. The elephants aren’t there for your entertainment! The only time when you can get a little closer is during ‘feeding time’.
- There will be no possibility to bathe with the elephants. Their individual mahout will shower them with water multiple times a day to keep their skin hydrated and clean.
- There will be no riding, no painting, no “breakfast with elephants”.
Imagine this – You’re taking a nice, relaxing bath, you have some scented candles around you and your favourite music is playing in the background. You feel happy and relaxed. Then all of a sudden, 20 people storm into your bathroom and one by one they climb into your tub and take photos with you. Not very relaxing is it?
And every human would absolutely protest against this! But not an elephant who has had it’s spirit broken. He will undergo it cause otherwise he/she knows they will get punished.
By now we all know that riding an elephant is a definite no-go and a lot of these so called “elephant sanctuaries” will play into that.
They will make you believe they are ethical, simply because they don’t offer rides.
But did you know that a lot of times the elephants that they use are shared? One place they represent as “ethical” and the other one is for the tourists that really don’t give a damn and still ride animals. So by contributing to one you’re also supporting the other one.
Once the tourists are gone the elephants are kept in captivity.
How do they break an elephant’s spirit?
It’s called ‘The Crush’, the actual breaking of the elephant’s spirit. What it actually means is ‘to divorce the baby elephant from it’s spirit’ or to ‘split the will’ of a baby elephant.
‘Crushing’, also known as Phajaan is a traditional Asian torture so that young elephants become submissive to humans.
What do they do exactly?
- The elephant is tortured until it is so full of fear of humans that it will do anything in it’s power to not be tortured again.
- It involves removing the calf from it’s mother at only 3 years old and a lot of times they aren’t reunited for over 15 years. Now you tell me you didn’t ugly cry when you saw Dumbo separated from it’s mother!
- These young calfs are often poached in the wild. So instead of spending their life in the jungle in freedom with their family, they are being captured so tourists can take a photo with them.
- To make it even worse: when a young elephant is poached their family is killed in front of the babies eyes. Leaving a trauma that lasts a lifetime.
- On average: 4 to 5 wild elephants are killed so one young elephant can be captured for tourism.
- Once the young elephant is captured it will be dragged to the campsite where then the ‘crushing’ takes place. These fragile elephants will be kept in small crates, their front and back legs bound with ropes in order for their limbs to be stretched.
- Repeatedly beaten with sharp metal and other tools, the helpless baby elephants will be constantly yelled and screamed at. They are stabbed, burned and beaten, as well as starved of food and deprived of water.
- Bull hooks (a tool used in most forms of elephant control) will be used to stab the animal’s head, slash the skin and tug the ears.
- This torture will last for weeks and most young elephants go through this when they are only 3 to 6 years old, sometimes even younger. They have no rest from physical torture and mental domination. Gradually, their spirits are broken, as their handlers achieve control.
- In the final stage of the Phajaan, the elephant’s mahout will bring the animal its first meal with water, and will be the one to ”release” the elephant and lead it away from the crate.
- After weeks of torture, mental and emotional abuse, loneliness, confusion and separation, the elephant sees this human figure as its saviour. This is just another stage of mental and emotional manipulation, of course, but it is how a particular mahout gains such immense control over its animal.
Beatings can continue regularly throughout the elephants’ life to remind them of their place. Some of these abused animals eventually snap from the strain of relentless torture, with 5% of captive elephants killing people!
It has been scientifically proven that an elephant will never forget this torment.
An easy list of things not to do
- Don’t ride an elephant
- Don’t bathe with an elephant – for an elephant to stay still in the water and not roll over as it would naturally do, what do you think they have to do? The answer is: Break it’s spirit!
- Don’t visit places were they offer photoshoots with elephants – An ethical place will focus on the rehabilitation of the elephant and will keep tourists at at least 100 meters distance!
- Don’t do a jungle walk with an elephant
- Don’t visit places that offer “Breakfast with elephants”.
Are there ethical elephant sanctuaries?
I live by the standard that no place where an animal is kept in captivity is ethical. However there are sanctuaries that are working towards the rehabilitation of the elephant.
What is rehabilitation?
During the process of rehabilitation they will try to release the elephant from it’s captive state of mind. The end goal is to introduce the elephant to a natural environment. One where there is no focus on contact with humans but rather with other elephants. This process requires a lot of time and a tremendous amount of money.
If you want a full list of more ethical sanctuaries where the life of the elephant is put first check this list.
My own experience
On my trip through Asia I had the pleasure of visiting Elephant Valley Thailand in Chiang Rai.
Elephant Valley Thailand is based on the wildly successful project Elephant Valley Cambodia. You can choose to visit for either half a day, stay for a few days or become a short-term volunteer.
The elephants are watched and monitored closely by their former mahouts but are able to roam the grounds free. As a visitor you are allowed to enter within their grounds but only joined by one of the well trained guides and at a safe distance (approximately 100 meters minimum).
During the night the elephants are chained simply because they otherwise would get lost. That’s how badly their mind gets affected by the breaking of their spirit. However, they can still roam and they are places together so no elephant spends the night alone.
Elephant Valley Thailand has a 3 phase plan to rehabilitate the elephants so that after being rescued and going through the process they will be able to live free in the wild.
What can you do during your visit?
You will be the lucky one to watch an elephant roam free in it’s natural habitat. You’ll see them walk together, play together and if you’re really lucky you’ll see them take a bath together. But no human interaction is involved.
The elephants can feed themselves throughout the entire day and twice a day a feeding moment occurs at the exact same spot. You can hand out bananas etc and will have a close encounter with the elephants.
Before entering the elephants area you will have to wash the soles of your shoes as to not drag in bacteria. (You see the big difference with “sanctuaries” where people bathe in the same water as an elephant and climb on top of it’s back?)
Also, before feeding the elephants you have to wash and disinfect your hands!
The elephants get the opportunity to bathe in their own private pool but they also get rinsed off and splashed with water by their own mahouts twice a day. As a visitor you will be able to see this process and you can’t imagine the happy noises that come from these elephants. It’s truly magical to watch.
What to take from this?
I hope this post convinces you to spread this message and gives you the courage to stand up to people that are not using their influence correctly.
It’s a tricky world out there, everyone’s afraid to step on each others toes.
But truly ask yourself: Is an elephants well being not way more important than if your post got to the explorer page?
If you’ve photoshopped yourself in an image with an elephant, at least put a full disclaimer in the beginning of your caption. Not somewhere hidden in the back where none of your followers will read it.
If you’ve posted a photo like this before: own up to it! No one is gonna look down on you for owning up to your mistakes and pointing them out. Delete the photo and educate your followers.
If you want to be an influencer: influence the right way! Don’t just make your followers eager to visit the same unethical place and copy your photo.