File photo: Elephants in Amber Fort Jaipur.

(Bhagirath Basnet/TOI, BCCL)

For Indians, it is pretty common to see elephants adorned with colourful paints and garlands or posing friendly gestures for visitors, either near religious places, tourist attractions or roaming the streets. But this show of celebration is precisely that—a show for us and our children, most of whom absolutely adore these gentle giants. The reality behind this show is quite contrasting to the seemingly friendly picture it portrays, as these elephants are often used as mere tools to increase tourism.

Elephant tourism continued to be quite popular in India and other South Asian countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka. According to estimates, in India alone, 3,000-4,000 captive elephants—more than 10% of the elephant population in the country—continue to suffer to date. And if you think this is an archaic practice that is on the wane, think again! Thailand, which hosts almost more captive elephants than the wild ones, has witnessed a 50% increase in the number of captive elephants within the last 25 years.

South Asia is said to be the birthplace of the practice of elephant taming for human use. Undoubtedly, this practice in tourism generates substantial income for the local population and the state economy. But, one must ask—at what cost?

How are elephants exploited for tourism?

Elephants are so deeply entrenched in the Indian culture that even western tourists often perceive these majestic mammals as a major attraction in India. Riding elephants allows many tourists to live out their fantasies of ancient grandeur and boosts tourism in a given region. It seems like a win-win, doesn’t it?

But it is far from a win for the elephants, at the expense of whom this trade is flourishing. While riding an elephant itself is not the problem, holding thousands of elephants in captivity, trapping them in dank and small shelters with almost no interaction with other elephants, and inflicting unbearable pain while training them, most definitely is.

How does this practice come in conflict with animal welfare?

All we see in the foreground is a docile and obedient animal—happy to take us on a joyride. The background is a lot grimmer. Elephants, usually captured as babies, are beaten and subjected to harsh conditions in the name of taming.

Walking on hard surfaces like concrete causes debilitating conditions like osteoarthritis and cracked feet in elephants. Apart from experiencing acute physical discomfort, they also fall prey to psychological trauma. This is why we sometimes see these gentle giants act out in uncharacteristic displays of aggression.

This practice is also creating a negative impact on the Asian elephant population which was already declining. In Thailand, for example, the wild elephant population has fallen from 50,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to around 3,000 today. After all, for every elephant in captivity, there is one less elephant in the wild, where it could have had a family of its own.

Representational image (Jipson Sikhera/TOI, BCCL, Cochin)

Representational image

(Jipson Sikhera/TOI, BCCL, Cochin)

What can we do to help them?

The best approach would be to stop letting this market grow any further!

Each day a tourist understands the plight of trained elephants is a step in the right direction. We can begin by not visiting places where such unethical and inhumane trades are practised. Like the wildlife-friendly travellers, we can instead favour areas where elephants are rescued and treated well!

Remember, you don’t have to stop seeing these beautiful creatures altogether! Wildlife sanctuaries aside, organisations such as Wildlife SOS (Mathura) and Elephantastic (Jaipur) are examples of how the tourism industry can still benefit from elephants without any harm coming to them. A sustainable wildlife safari can also simultaneously quench our thirst to relate with the wild while generating funds for conservation.

We still have a long way to go. Strengthening laws for animal protection and undertaking efforts for conservation will help. Meanwhile, on this World Elephant Day, let’s pledge not to encourage this cruel practice and contribute to wildlife conservation in every form possible.

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