Riding atop a 4 tonne beast sounds like a great adventure, right? Not to mention a great photo opportunity! Well, here in Cambodia, “Elephant Tourism” is on the rise.
Knowing the kind of animal abuse that occurs in this part of the world, I find it hard to believe that these elephants are having fun. For a start, the ‘seats’ that are mounted on their backs rub into their skin and give them severe blistering, which many people say is painful to them – not to mention that elephant spines are very weak and cannot healthily carry human weight without causing long-term damage.
And that moves us on to another point: wild elephants do not allow people to ride on their backs. So how is it possible that you can do so to get that all elusive Facebook selfie? Well, the elephants are usually captured as babies, and then tortured to have the spirit knocked out of them (a process known as ‘Phajaan’) with clubs and spikes, and deprived of sleep and food for many days on end. This causes eventual submission, and thus the elephant will then do as it’s told as it grows up in captivity.
Brent Lewin’s award-winning photo of the ‘Phajaan’ process shows something that is extremely emotional, yet it might not be necessary for future elephants to suffer like this if only tourists were made aware of the shady malpractice involved.
While it is true that much of the abuse of elephants occurs in nearby Thailand or Myanmar, it remains a fact that many of these elephants end up in tourist spots like Siem Reap, and nowhere in my travels have I seen so many elephants lining up to give people a ride than at the temples of Angkor. Siem Reap in Cambodia has, of course, got a long history with elephants, dating all the way back to the construction of the Angkorian temples here, especially at Angkor Thom, where the famous Terrace of the Elephants continues to wow visitors even to this day. Check out my own personal experience at Angkor Thom!
I have taken a ride on a camel in Egypt, and I have tried (and failed) to ride a horse on more than a few occasions, but animals as intelligent and social as elephants really do not need to be used for circus acts, all for the benefit of a few lazy tourists. Most of these tourists are unknowingly participating in “Elephant Tourism”, and I wonder if they actually knew of the processes involved to tame one of these animals then they, like me, would just hire a bike.