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There seems to be an unsubstantiated belief that the training of the African elephant does not involve the same extremely cruel practices that are inflicted on its Asian cousin, so we asked Dr Louise De Waal to debunk the many myths of Elephant riding.


South Africa – Elephant riding and hands-on interactions are hugely popular all across the globe, and South Africa is no exception.

However, there is a dark side to these activities that travellers should be made aware of. In recent years, evidence of the cruel training practices used in Asia to ‘break’ an elephant’s spirit has been widely exposed, especially through social media. Many tour operators and travellers alike agree that these practices are unethical and are slowly moving away from participating in them.

Despite a growing international move towards more responsible captive animal activities, elephant riding is still widely available in South Africa, with about 15 facilities that offer riding. There seems to be an unsubstantiated belief that the training of the African elephant does not involve the same extremely cruel practices that are inflicted on its Asian cousin.

While many elephant-riding operations say that their animals are well treated, there is no quick, easy or humane way to train any elephant, Asian or African, purely for the pleasure of people to ride these highly intelligent and majestic creatures.

So after debunking some myths of lion cub petting, I will do the same for hands-on elephant interactions.

Elephant in Chains

Myth: The African elephant’s spirit does not need to be broken

False. According to World Animal Protection (WAP), elephant handlers in Southern Africa confirm that young elephants undergo a similar breaking process as practised in Asia. They are broken into submission, typically by restraining them with ropes or chains, so they can only move when instructed. Pain is often part of their ‘training’ through the use of bullhooks, wooden battens, and whips, as well as depriving the animals of water and food (WAP).

This training process is based on a system of dominance and can last for weeks until the animal eventually becomes submissive and compliant. Once the handler has established dominance, this situation needs to be maintained through a delicate balance of fear and reward (ABTA).

More than half of the elephant facilities in South Africa use a method called ‘free contact’, which includes the use of physical punishment with a bull-hook to train the elephants and sometimes even electric cattle prods (NSPCA).

In May 2014, the NSPCA laid a case of animal cruelty charges against Elephants of Eden involving the ‘training’ of several young elephants, a cruelty case which is still ongoing. In the meantime, the young elephants are luckily free-roaming at their ‘foster home’ on the Garden Route.

Myth: Elephants in hands-on facilities are rescued and/or orphaned individuals

False. Young elephants are often taken away from their mothers and siblings and more often than not captured from the wild. In the wild, elephants live in complex, multi-layered, matriarchal groups comprising family units of related females and their offspring. In these captive facilities, they are forced to live in more or less solitary conditions away from their highly social family groups (NSPCA).

Myth: Elephants are strong animals and can easily carry people on their backs

False. Once fully trained, elephants used for riding will need to carry at least one person on its back, either on a blanket or saddle, but often with no padding at all. Although elephants are large and strong, they are not built to carry weight on their backs. Carol Buckley, president of Elephant Aid International, explains that “instead of smooth, round spinal disks, elephants have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine. These bony protrusions and the tissue protecting them are vulnerable to weight and pressure coming from above.”

Many riding facilities force elephants to carry their carer plus one or sometimes even two visitors. Carrying just one adult on its back can cause the elephant pain and over time, potentially even spinal injury.

Myth: Non-riding interaction with elephants is acceptable

False. Under natural conditions, elephants spend up to 16 hours per day foraging for food and eat a wide range of different plant material and fruit. Captive elephants in South Africa are generally allowed to forage under supervision for some time of the day, but the space available for foraging is insufficient (WAP). The forage time is also heavily restricted and constantly interrupted by the entertainment programme, and their diet generally consists of the bare basics, lacking the variety that makes supplements, especially Vitamin E, essential (NSPCA & ABTA).

The riding tends to happen at any time of the day, even during the heat of the day with no shade for the animals. During the day, the elephants also lack places to hide from the public. The nights are spent in confined camps, and in many cases, the elephants are chained. They often stand on concrete floors that can cause foot problems (NSPCA).

Myth: Elephants in captivity are domesticated.

False. The fact that elephants are habituated to humans does not mean they are even semi-domesticated. Like with big cats and other wildlife, the process of domestication involves the selection of specific characteristics in an animal and breeding with those individuals that display those characteristics. This may take many generations and even involves genetic changes over time.

This is why captive elephants need to go through this cruel and painful process of breaking their will to accept human control, and this is why they often develop behavioural problems. They are WILDLIFE – NOT ENTERTAINERS.

Myth: Elephant interactions are safe to both handlers and visitors.

False. Between 2001-2015 in South Africa alone, 17 attacks by captive/managed elephants were reported, resulting in six deaths and 11 injuries (NSPCA).

So, whether elephants in captivity are used for riding or to walk with while holding their trunk, they ALWAYS have endured a period of training, i.e. breaking their spirit, which often happens in a dedicated elephant training facility. This alone should be enough reason to say NO to any hands-on elephant interactions.

If you want to have a responsible and more natural elephant experience, then please visit one of the many private game reserves or national parks, like Addo Elephant Park, where you can have close-up, but hands-off encounters. Most private game reserves and national parks in South Africa offer game drives, and some even walk to day visitors. On the Garden Route, you can even enjoy elephant viewing on horseback. Support #HandsOffOurWildlife encounters!

elephants ivory trade

Sources: NSPCA | World Animal Protection | ABTA
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Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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