Stay off Elephants’ Backs to Stop Killing Them

Conservationists call for an end to elephant rides for tourists, a practice that’s working the animals to death.

(Photo: Reuters)

Mar 13, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

For the second time already this year, an elephant in Vietnam has died after a full day of carrying tourists on its back.

The 40-year-old male elephant collapsed and died of exhaustion, according to government agencies. It had been “serving” tourists in the forests near Ban Don, a village in Vietnam’s central highlands.

Decades ago elephants were an important part of Vietnamese culture. About 2,000 elephants lived in the country’s jungles in 1975. Today, 70 or fewer wild elephants survive in Vietnam.

Its domesticated elephants aren’t doing much better. Only about 50 tourism elephants remain in that part of Vietnam. According to Tuoi Tre News, they are not breeding because they are so heavily overworked.

Tourists who encounter these elephants in Vietnam, Thailand, and other countries may not realize how sick and abused they really are.

“Elephants may not show overt signs of distress and may look like they are just obediently plodding along,” said Kati Loeffler, veterinary advisor for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

She said chronic stress in elephants produces a wide range of health problems, including high levels of cortisol, a suppressed immune system, heart and kidney disease, and endocrine disturbances.

That the Vietnamese elephants are not breeding is a further indication of poor health. “The flatlining of reproductive hormones and failure to reproduce is a common feature of captive elephants, particularly among those who live and work under highly stressful conditions,” Loeffler said.

Carol Buckley, founder of Elephant Aid International, said tourism elephants also commonly suffer from external injuries that tourists can’t see.

“The elephants develop serious infected wounds on their back from the ill-fitting saddle called a howdah,” she said. “The wounds are hidden by the riding pad, which would appear to protect the elephant’s protruding backbone. In actuality, the pad simply hides the hideous wounds from the paying public.”

Other wounds commonly appear on the bottoms of the feet, which are prone to disease and infection.

Buckley has spent the past five years working to improve the conditions of captive elephants in Nepal. She says as many as a third of the elephants there are infected with tuberculosis, which they contract from humans and then pass to one another.

“Many are under treatment for the disease, receiving heavy-duty drugs while still working in the direct sun for the entire day, seven days a week,” Buckley said. “Many simply fall dead while working.”

She reported that two elephants died last month in Nepal after long days of labor.

While tourism elephants may appear calm and relaxed around people, Buckley and Loeffler said many grew up in terrible, abusive conditions and are chained up every night.

“Elephant training methods and the methods used to keep the animals in constant compliance are based entirely on fear and pain,” Loeffler said. “Calves are ‘broken’ by estrangement from their mothers, physical restraint with ropes and hooks to impress submission and fear, and isolation. Adults continue to be managed with the infamous bull hook and psychological and physical violence.”

Buckley did not blame the trainers (mahouts), calling both them and the elephants slaves to the tourism industry.

But she said that change is possible.

“The tourists are the key,” she said. “As long as tourists will pay money to ride elephants, savvy businessmen will exploit elephants for the fortune to be made.”