Being a primary school teacher, I’m constantly encouraging my class to celebrate their mistakes. Mistakes help us learn and grow our mind. When a child makes a mistake in Maths, for example, I sit with them and, together, we overcome the mistake. The child then applies this to the rest of their work and voila, they’re a lot more confident and happy. Unfortunately, not all mistakes are ones to be celebrated and I made my biggest travel mistake in Thailand seven years ago- I rode an elephant.
I was a bit apprehensive about writing this post as I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. Part of the reason I started blogging was to promote sustainable and ethical travel. Yet I’ve ridden an elephant. I go volunteering with wildlife once a year and I even volunteered with wild elephants in Sri Lanka last year. Yet I’ve ridden an elephant. It’s something that plays on my mind when I think about wildlife and it’s the biggest travel regret I have.
(All photos in this post are of wild elephants from where I volunteered in Sri Lanka)
When I was at university, I used the money I’d saved from my many jobs to go travelling with a friend. We went away for three months and spent one of these months in Thailand. Whilst there, we visited an elephant ‘sanctuary’. At the time I naively believed that the elephants were rescued and that by paying to ride them, we were supporting the efforts to save them. I thought I was riding one ethically. I was wrong. I was with a group of other backpackers and there was no mention of elephant riding being unethical. It seemed to be one of the ‘bucket list’ things to do in Thailand unfortunately and we were none the wiser. One thing I remember about the experience was that the mahaout (elephant trainer) would not touch the animals. He would use his voice to command them. It felt like they respected him.
If only I knew then what I know now.
A wild elephant would never let a human ride them so in order to allow tourists to do so, they go through something called ‘the crush’. Baby elephants are tortured to break their spirit. This involves ripping them away from their mothers and confining them to a tiny space where they can barely move. The baby elephants are then beaten, prodded with sharp objects, starved and deprived of sleep for days. You can see a haunting picture captured by Brent Lewin here. He wanted to document the horrors behind elephant riding. It’s horrible to see but it’s also important to be aware of the issue.
When I think back to all the happy, playful, wild, baby elephants in Sri Lanka, thinking about ‘the crush’ makes me feel sick.
Thankfully, there is much more awareness about elephant riding now, and I hope that others won’t make the same mistake that I did.
I know that I have contributed towards a cruel, unethical wildlife trade by riding an elephant and this breaks my heart. All I can do now is learn from the mistake, certainly not repeat it, and encourage others not to ride an elephant. I’m very cautious when looking into animal experiences, like my volunteering. Although I know of some places where you can have ethical encounters with animals, like Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, I usually try to find volunteer experiences where there is no contact with the animals at all. This is one of the things I loved about volunteering with wild elephants in Sri Lanka. We observed them from a distance in the wild with their families. It’s where they should be.
What’s your biggest travel regret?