World Elephant Day Confession: Here’s Why I Regret Riding Elephants in India

Happy World Elephant Day! Below, I share some thoughts with you regarding the recent elephant ride I took with my parents in Jaipur, India.

One of the best things about travelling is the new experiences you get to have. If you’ve read my daily blog posts from our trip to India and Dubai, you’ll know that my parents and I had many new and exciting experiences during our two weeks abroad. We tried new foods, met some of the locals and thoroughly enjoyed exploring India. But there was one thing we did that left me questioning its ethics, and that was the elephant ride. We didn’t have much of a choice because going on elephant back was the simplest way to get up a mountain that led to Amber Fort, a sprawling palace and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Rajasthani city of Jaipur. It’s the main tourist attraction in Jaipur and one of the most well-known forts in India (you can read about our experience here.) 

I really hope the elephants were treated well…

I remember being mesmerized by elephants we saw during our trip to Africa back in 2001. I had seen them at the zoo before, but there was something so special about spotting them in their natural habitat. They slowly roamed around, going about their day, free to go wherever they pleased. Elephants were (and still are) slightly terrifying to me, given their enormous size, but they’re awe-inspiring nonetheless. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re the largest animals I’ve seen up close, or maybe it’s hard to believe that I’m staring at (or riding!) the animals I loved watching in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Either way, there’s no denying that elephants are majestic creatures. 

So, back to Jaipur. As we climbed aboard the elephants (which were all female) and slowly made our way up the mountain, it dawned on me that these gentle creatures were probably suffering. They seemed to be huffing and puffing as they climbed up the winding path, carrying 300-400 pounds on their backs (each elephant carried two passengers plus the driver). Several times, we came to a halt because there was an elephant traffic jam (yes, I made that up), so our driver would tap the elephant with a small stick in order to get her to trot past the six or seven other elephants that were ahead of us. I didn’t notice any of the drivers actually hitting the elephants, and we were told that the rides up to Amber Fort were only available for two or three hours per day so that the animals could get enough rest, but something still didn’t sit right with me. 

While I believed that the animals at Amber Fort were treated fairly, I had to wonder if riding them meant we were promoting the global mistreatment of elephants. It’s widely known that elephants are killed or maimed for their ivory tusks, the trading and selling of which is a booming (and very illegal) business in Africa and Asia. It’s also known that the treatment of elephants at zoos and theme parks is likely subpar at best; unsurprisingly, they’re often unable to thrive in those manufactured and restrictive environments. I understand that zoos and animal theme parks can generate jobs and money, but it’s sad to see elephants (and dolphins, penguins, orcas, etc) forced to perform tricks for an audience. Animals are not our entertainment, which is why I had to wonder if we were helping to exploit them by riding on the elephants’ backs. 

Should we have boycotted the rides and simply walked up the mountain? Should we have inquired about the treatment of Rajasthani elephants? Maybe, but I’m not sure what good it would have done. Perhaps it would be more prudent to educate myself about the global treatment of elephants, to sign petitions that endeavour to protect their homes and species, and to vow never to ride one again. I would be much happier watching them happily roam free. 

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