The blessing and curse of Sustainable Travel is that it is a constantly evolving thing. The more we study nature, the deeper our understanding of how it works grows. Experiences that were once considered a must-do for wildlife lovers– from swimming with Dolphins to walking with Lions– are now known to be detrimental to the animals’ well-being.
A similar shift in consciousness is happening now, as more and more travelers shun the use of Elephants for entertainment. Humans have been riding Elephants for eons. They’ve been used as working animals (primarily for transport and logging) in Asia since the Bronze Age. They were also used as an instrument of war as early as 1000 BC, making legends of leaders like Alexander the Great and Hannibal.
Over the past half-century, Elephants have been increasingly employed in the tourism trade. Riding Elephants became big business in Thailand, Vietnam, and other parts of Southeast Asia, and you could also find them being used to perform tricks and paint pictures for tourists.
For decades riding Elephants was on every animal lover’s bucket list. But few people knew about the ugly truth behind this “once-in-a-lifetime” tourist activity…
The Phajaan: Breaking An Elephant’s Spirit
Elephants are not born performing tricks of balance, painting pictures, or hoisting humans up for a piggyback ride. Before being sold to mahouts in the tourism industry, young Elephants are usually captured in the wild, shot full of sedatives, and then subjected to a cruel training regimen called the phajaan.
The process– which involves tying them up for days, brutally beating them into submission, and leaving them to starve– is strategically designed to crush the animal’s spirit. Photojournalist Brent Lewin offered a gripping first-hand account of witnessing phajaan training in Myanmar in an interview with the NBC News Photoblog:
“The young elephant’s mother was tied up near the training device and became really uncomfortable when she saw what was about to happen. I’ve never heard an elephant scream like that before: It felt like the ground shook, and she actually broke off her chain and charged at mahouts and myself. The mahouts eventually scared the mother into submission and tied her up again, and then started training her baby. The baby elephant was terrified and started crying. The biggest difficulty I experienced was not being able to put a stop to it. There was a point when the elephant just resigned to what was happening and stood still, and the life in her eyes disappeared.”
It seems like an absurdly high price for Elephants to pay for tourists to get a selfie sitting astride one of the most majestic animals on the planet, doesn’t it?
The Turning Tide Against Riding Elephants
The phajaan is just one of several reasons why London-based NGO World Animal Protection ranked riding Elephants as the world’s #1 cruelest tourist activity. Mahouts also control the animals with metal bull hooks, and riding Elephants causes lasting damage to their legs and spines.
Fortunately, 2016 saw a huge tidal surge against riding Elephants and using them for other forms of entertainment. After years of protests from progressive NGOs like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and Change.org, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus finally retired its last working elephants last spring.
Discover Corps founder Andrew Motiwalla stopped working with a sanctuary in Thailand after learning about the lasting issues riding Elephants can cause for the animals. Then, in October, TripAdvisor announced that they would no longer offer the option for travelers to book tickets to attractions with captive animals, including elephant rides. It was a stunning sign that the “do no harm” ethos of responsible travel is gradually entering the mainstream.
Why We’re Working With The Elephant Retirement Park
The Elephant Retirement Park located in Phuket is the brainchild of Mr. Adulwit Khamya, a wonderful and caring gentlemen better known as Khun Noi, who is immensely concerned with the protection and welfare of elephants within the Phuket region. The Elephant Retirement Park Phuket is the sister park of the Elephant Retirement Park Chiang Mai, also founded by Noi in 2014, and a very popular attraction and successful model in elephant welfare.
It is Noi’s dream to create a number of Elephant Retirement Parks across Thailand all dedicated to helping protect and look after retired and rescued elephants. After speaking with the organization and seeing firsthand the living conditions of the elephants as well as their treatment, it is evident that Noi’s passion for ethical treatment of all animals is something he wants travelers to experience, making it the perfect fit for Discover Corps.
Travelers on Discover Corps’ new Elephants & Islands Expedition have an opportunity to visit The Elephant Retirement Park and volunteer with these gentle giants. Instead of riding Elephants, they get a chance to bathe the animals, feed them, and learn more about the importance of conserving Asian Elephants while there’s still time.
In the end, the truth is that you don’t need to go riding Elephants in order to get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you’ll be talking about for decades. By working to protect these proud pachyderms, washing and feeding them and interacting on their level, you establish a much deeper bond. And when we service others instead of merely checking off an item on our bucket list, we ultimately come away feeling better about traveling responsibly. It’s a win-win! –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.