Animal Rights

How Tourism in India Is Supporting Cruelty to Elephants (Video)

Tourists and tour operators have the power to demand an end to the captivity and abuse of elephants in India and Thailand.

Hordes of foreign tourists flock to different venues in India to ride on elephants, among them the Amer Fort in Jaipur. For these tourists, riding an elephant is a dream come true, the high point of a fantasy that reinforces India’s stereotype of being a country of kings and mendicants, snake charmers, tigers and elephants.

Yet riding on captive elephants causes immense trauma and pain to these sentient and social creatures. Most people who ride on elephants do not realize that captive elephants are brutally exploited to provide humans with a few minutes worth of fun.

Rani is a 27-year-old female Asian elephant. She lives in a concrete stable at the Elephant Village (Hathi Gaon) outside of Jaipur. Rani has been working at Amer Fort for at least nine years, but she has likely been doing the same work her entire life, taking tourists up the steep slope to Amer Fort. She works 365 days a year. Like most elephants here, Rani was probably taken from the forests of Assam when she was very young. (image: World Animal Protection)

India has around 20,000 wild elephants and about 3,000 captive elephants. Many of these animals are used for joyrides in Amer Fort in Rajasthan and displays in Kerala. Elephants are also used in national parks and forests where tourists ride them to see wildlife. They are used as attractions to lure foreign tourists seeking to have the quintessential Indian experience.

Tourists, especially those from abroad, spend exorbitant amounts of money to ride these majestic animals. The persistent tourist demand for elephant rides fuels the capture of these animals from the wild and perpetuates a cruel form of entertainment in which the animals are brutally tortured and abused to cater to human whims and fancies.

Elephants in India who are used for carrying tourists are kept in barren conditions. Elephants in Jaipur kept at Haathi Gaon (Elephant Village) have their soles damaged by walking on hard concrete surfaces. Specialist veterinary care can remedy these injuries. (image: World Animal Protection)

Elephants live gregariously in the wild. Baby elephants live with their mothers and relatives in large herds. In order to serve human needs, wild elephant families are disrupted and destroyed. Elephant calves are captured from the wild, whereby many of their parents and family members are killed in the process. Once caught, they are starved and repeatedly beaten while confined a small cage in a process called the "crush.'

Many calves die during this mindless treatment and those who survive are often permanently traumatized. The individuals who survive are torn from their families and sent to zoos, circuses and to the elephant tourism industry that caters to tourists from all over the world, including the United States.

India is host to one of Asia’s largest animal fairs, Sonepur in Bihar, where live elephants are allegedly sold illegally. Elephants are protected in the Indian Wildlife Protection Act under Schedule I that offers them the highest level of protection, the same level of protection accorded to India’s national animal, the tiger. The Asian elephant is also listed under Appendix I of CITES, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species.

Unfortunately, the Indian wildlife protection law has an exemption under Section 40 for transactions in live elephants and it is alleged that traders regularly take advantage of it to illicitly deal in live elephants. Captive elephants in Sonepur are highly in demand in the private elephant circle in India, including in Amer Fort, Kerala and until recently, circuses.

An elephant chained at Haathi Gaon in Jaipur. (image: World Animal Protection)

Elephants have been revered in Indian history and culture for centuries. One of the most powerful images of India is that of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. The elephant features in epics, poems and novels as a symbol of gigantic size, nobility and greatness. Ironically, this same culture has seen the capture and taming of these gentle and noble creatures for millennia.

Several studies show the extent and scale of this suffering of captive elephants in varying situations in India. There are 116 elephants at Amer Fort in Jaipur in Rajasthan who suffer chronic stress, heat and physical abuse. Abuse is rife among the elephants in Jaipur, who endure repeated beatings, inadequate diet and long hours of work. 

The elephants have to walk down the hard surface of a road, for which their feet are not suited. Rajasthan is not a natural elephant range state. Regular research, including recent studies conducted by a variety of wildlife protection and animal welfare organizations show that the current status of captive elephants at Jaipur is untenable. Elephants continue to arrive there to keep the stock going, with illegal transfers from Bihar to Rajasthan done with forged certificates.

A recent film has outlined the extensive pain elephants undergo in Jaipur. Similar conditions prevail for elephants in Kerala, Goa, Karnataka, Assam and other states. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India in 2014 to prohibit the riding and subsequent abuse of elephants in captivity.  While we await the final verdict of the Supreme Court, several interim directives have paved the way for curbing elephant abuse in India.

Tourists have the power to reduce the demand for elephant rides in India and Thailand. Several studies, including the latest report "Taken For a Ride," published by World Animal Protection, highlight the problems with perpetuating this self-serving industry.

An elephant show at a venue in Thailand, Bangkok. (image: World Animal Protection)

Many tourists who ride elephants are well meaning, but are unaware of the cruelties involved in this business. Many travel and tour operators who promote elephant rides and other wildlife attractions may also not be conscious of the real nature of the activities they are promoting. World Animal Protection has a guide on animal friendly tourism that helps tourists and tour operators make the right choices to ensure wild animals remain in the wild.

Big firms like Thomas Cook and Trip Adviser have indicated they are willing to reconsider their position on promoting abusive animal facilities. All tourists and tour operators can help stop wild animal suffering in captivity and ensure wild animals remain where they belong, in the wild.

To learn more, read the World Animal Protection report, "Taken for a Ride: The Conditions for Elephants Used in Tourism in Asia."

Sign the pledge to let travel companies and tourist attractions know that you demand an end to the captivity and abuse of elephants.

Watch a video about elephants used as entertainment for tourists in Asia:

Shubhobroto Ghosh is the wildlife projects manager at World Animal Protection in India. His work has been published in the Statesman, the New York Times, the Hindu and other publications. He is the author of the book Dreaming In Calcutta and Channel Islands and has contributed to several books including The Jane Effect, a biographical tribute to Jane Goodall by Marc Bekoff and Dale Peterson.
 
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