I remember a few years ago, a friend told me about how she rode an elephant in Thailand. Until she said it, it hadn’t really occurred to me that riding an elephant was something anyone would want to do, let alone a popular activity. I asked her whether that was humane, and she said she didn’t know, but that it was a once in a lifetime experience, so she had to do it.
It’s not an experience that I ever wanted to have, even before I heard the horrific stories about the suffering of domesticated elephants. However, I had always wanted to see an elephant, even if it was just from a distance. Until last year, I’d not had the opportunity. I don’t like to visit zoos and I’d never been travelling in a country inhabited by elephants. Vietnam changed that.
When we were in Vietnam, Luke and I took a bus inland, off of the backpacking loop, to Buon Ma Thuot. From there, we took another bus to Ban Don, a small village near to Yok Don National Park, where we planned to go trekking. I knew there were elephants in the area, but I hadn’t thought that I would actually see them. Luke, on the other hand, was a little wiser from his previous travels in Thailand and Laos.
When we got off the bus to find the stilt house we were staying in, I couldn’t believe it: there was a huge elephant right there. It was standing right next to the dirt track road and the row of stilt houses. I immediately walked around the corner and realised there were actually four elephants standing there.
I was in awe, they were so magnificent. But then, I started to see other things… I realised their feet were chained to trees, they couldn’t move in the tiny, dusty circle they shared and they had metal chairs strapped to their backs. They were prisoners.
I saw tourists clambering into the metal chairs on their backs, and couldn’t understand why they wanted to. I’d read beforehand, in a guidebook, that chairs should be made from bamboo, and that the metal is totally unacceptable. In actual fact, any chair is unacceptable: the weight of people on an elephant’s back can cause permanent damage to their spines. The chairs can also rub, causing blisters and infections. Riding an elephant in this context further means that you are supporting and encouraging the abuse of elephants for tourism.
A park ranger we spoke to at Yok Don National Park told us that elephants should never be made to work or walk for more than 6 hours per day. These ones were working way over 8 hours. When we woke up at 8am, they were already standing in their circle, and they only left the pit when we went to eat dinner at around 6pm. The ranger also said that an average elephant should be eating around 200kg of vegetation per day, which means they are nearly always eating. I hardly ever saw those four at Ban Don elephants eating.
At the time, I thought it sounded silly, but when I was there, I’m sure I saw one of the elephants cry. He was carrying three people on his back, plus his owner, who was beating his head with a wooden stick. Later, I watched this video of elephants mourning (with a strange voiceover) on National Geographic and realised that it wasn’t so silly. Elephants are mammals, so they can cry. They usually do so to clear dirt and dust from their eyes. Elephants are also social creatures and they can feel pain and sadness. I’ve since read on PETA and other websites, that some scientists believe that crying and emotions are connected for elephants.
I was heartbroken. I always thought that when I ‘met’ an elephant, they would be roaming free, even if that was limited to the confines of a national park or a nature reserve. I never even considered they would be chained up, or that they might have a chair strapped to their back.
There are only an estimated 70 wild elephants left in Vietnam. Unfortunately, due to little education on the subject, there are very few systems in place to support the protection and ethical treatment of elephants in the country. The remaining elephant population in Vietnam is now considered to be endangered. National Geographic has called the situation “a silent crisis,” because of the lack of media attention.
If you are travelling to Vietnam, don’t involve yourself in elephant tourism outside of the national park. At Yok Don, the elephants are left to roam free during the evening and through the night. In the morning, their assigned park ranger (they keep the same one for life) will spend hours tracking their elephant, then feed and bathe them. You can join a park ranger any morning for around £16, which goes toward the maintenance of the park and care for the elephants. There’s not much informaton about the national park online, but if you turn up, the rangers will be more than glad to talk and organize a trek with you.
My encounter with the poor treatment of elephants can be considered somewhat mild compared with other travellers. If you’re interested in reading further, then WorldNomad has a very informative post, as does Mindful Wanderlust (though this one is graphic). If you can’t bear it and need to read something lovely, Angloitalian saw a baby elephant being born.