Elephants and India go hand and hand, one seems synonymous with the other. While its national animal is the tiger to many the elephant is still the first animal that springs to mind when thinking about India. Same goes for me. I even named this blog after an Indian elephant on a poster I had up in my old flat in Cape Town.
So I was incredibly excited when I started my first trip to India with the Kerala Blog Express - was I about to see elephants and if yes under what conditions? While I was hoping that no tourism board would offer anything as controversial as elephant rides to a group of international bloggers (who should technically know better) I was dismayed to find a post from a blogger who participated two years ago, telling her readers how she was looking forward to riding an elephant. Apparently, not everyone had gotten the memo and did, in fact, know better.
Once in Kerala we had our official welcome and were shown a video of past trips and I became dismayed: there was a person sitting astride an elephant pretending to be king of the world. That didn't bode well.
I was happy to realize that I was not alone with my concerns when we were told we could sit on an elephant during a spice plantation visit. Nobody wanted to. I don't know if all did it out of love for elephants because they simply weren't interested or they didn't want to argue. Mind you, reasons didn't matter to me all that much.
Longer than I came remember did I know that elephant riding wasn't something I ever wanted to do. I remember seeing an episode of the Bachelor (don't judge!!) a few years ago when the happy couple rode off, engaged, into the sunset on an elephant in Thailand. Not only would I have refused to do so, I would have questioned my choice of fiance.
Elephant riding while often deeply rooted in culture and tradition is a horrid practice. Back in the day maharajas used elephants in India during war time after they were used for labor, however, never for entertainment. That, unfortunately, has changed because there is good money to be made with elephants. Tradition or commerce, the lines are fluid and breaking with tradition is never easy. Asking people to give up a lucrative business is almost impossible. Not only for great but often for very practical reasons - how are people going to make a living without any viable alternatives?
So while many countries try to abolish the private keeping of elephants and the use of elephants for tourist entertainment, issues remain. In Kerala, it is only private people who hold elephants captive and while the government is trying to interfere the lack of space and money is a problem.
Even when freed the question remains where these elephants can go if they cannot survive in the wild anymore? And how can someone earn enough money to keep an elephant without making it work for its keep in one way or another? An elephant eats for about 16 hours per day so you can imagine the amount of food it devours.
During our stay, we also got to visit the Perinya Tiger Reserve. It is one of 27 tiger reserves and also home to a large elephant population. The park is over 900km2 big and only a tiny portion can be visited. Elephants and other animals are free to roam and yes, you need a bit of luck spotting them. But the animals' welfare comes first here.
After a trip through the reserve (unfortunately without spotting any elephants), we even had the possibility to speak to Kishan Kumar the deputy director of Perinya. He answered our questions patiently and while he was adamant that using elephants for any kind of entertainment is outright wrong, he also explained a few points that make the whole issue even more complex than I previously thought.
What is the solution you may ask and what can each and every one of us do? To be quite honest, I don't know. I just know that after seeing these elephants in India, I am even more determined not to ride any or engage in other activities that are unnatural for them to perform. It also reminded me however that all of us especially coming from a very different background need to be mindful with our judgment, with our often 'holier than thou' attitude.
My friend Jackson who hung out with the mahout and his elephants summed it up nicely:
Don't ride them but don't be so quick to ridicule age-old practices being carried out by people in the third world trying to provide enough for their family. It will slowly phase out if we all stop riding elephants. But in the transitional process, families will struggle, and people will be left without a job looking for something else when all they've ever known is taken away. Final thoughts: Don't ride elephants or any animal that are mistreated. Understand majority of owners and trainers are not bad people. Also, remember all animals are equal not just exotic creatures.
Not a perfect solution but maybe a start.