Sunday, December 1, 2013

Millennium Elephant Sanctuary: Thoughts on Captive Elephants

The Millennium sanctuary
Elephants, elephants...I have never seen wild elephants (though B and I went looking for them in China), and while Sri Lanka is apparently a great place to see them, we couldn't do it on our trip, both because of time constraints and health concerns (the countryside in third world countries is much more disease-laden than cities, while medical care is much worse: I didn't feel entirely comfortable exposing R to this since she is still so small and vulnerable).

Sri Lanka also has a large number of captive elephants, which are much easier to see. I knew, however, that  most captive elephants are very badly treated, so I did not want to go to just any elephant tourist attraction. I rode elephants in Vietnam (before I knew about widespread abuse of elephants) and it was amazing, one of my life highlights at that time. But since then I've learned that howdahs (the chairs used for riding elephants) are very bad for elephant health and cause horrible wounds. How to repeat, without encouraging elephant torture?
B is bathing the elephant: they love the water!
I thought that Millennium Elephant Foundation offered a perfect compromise. They rent captive elephants from their owners and then keep them at their reserve where they can be offered regular medical care and be free from abuse and heavy manual labor. You can ride (bareback, as this is much better for the elephant), bathe and feed them (the costs from tourism help support the elephants). I could thus do the cool tourist elephant things without feeling guilty.
R was a little frightened of the elephant and wouldn't touch him
It was a great experience and we all loved it! It was really amazing to get so close to these magnificent creatures. And the elephants obviously had a much better life than most captive elephants I have seen in Sri Lanka or elsewhere (like Thailand).
Since our visit though, I have done more research about captive elephants (partly because I wanted to write this post) and now I am not sure that it was such a good idea. Basically all captive elephants have been kidnapped from their families in the wild (elephants breed very poorly in captivity), and to "tame" them is in most cases done by extreme abuse until their spirit is broken. So even though all this abuse already happened, I wonder if by patronizing captive elephant attractions (and thus indirectly creating a demand for them) I am thus encouraging such abuse?
You take a casual stroll through some rice paddies: we got an extra-long walk for free, because R is cute
Also, many mahouts (elephant trainers) truly love their elephants and treat them well. The ones at Millennium didn't seem mean. But like all mahouts they carry sharp pointed sticks to control the elephant (though it was not used at all while we were there). That's because there is no other way to realistically control such a huge creature you are in such close physical contact with, if you want it to actually obey you (as opposed to doing things it feels like doing anyway). To have a truly cruelty-free elephant interaction means you cannot get too close (more like observing elephants from a jeep, not bathing them).
Here you can see the mahout's pole better (the thing in his other hand is a piece of reed for snacking, not a weapon)
I have heard wonderful things about two elephant sanctuaries in northern Thailand (Boon Lott and Elephant Nature Park), so when we visit that area of the world I will try to visit one of them. Otherwise, perhaps I will have to give further tourist elephant adventures a miss, despite their obvious attractions.
Elephants aren't really that well suited for captivity in some ways: they prefer to spend up to 12 hours daily walking, prefer to live in groups of at least three, and male elephants go through a period called "musth" every year, when they become highly aggressive and temperamental. That is what is going on with this elephant (doesn't he look grumpy?) and why he was chained up: elephants are extremely dangerous at this time.

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