Elephant riding was one of the main aspects that decided South East Asia as my holiday destination last summer. If I was to return with any souvenir, it was going to be a photo of me on the back of an elephant. As part of a tour, I naturally went with a company whose office we were lead to by our tour guide. Thirty-something US Dollars was far and above anything I’d purchased so far, but I was too eager to question it.

The next morning we found ourselves clambering from a platform onto a wooden bench strapped to the back of an elephant, before setting off up deep mud tracks and through the trees on our very own elephant, while our ‘driver’ egged it on. It wasn’t until the driver started nudging the elephant to keep him on the right track that I started to feel bad. It kept stopping to eat or wandering off in a direction of its own choosing; all it wanted to do was its own thing and yet it was being forced to take me for a walk. Is it really fair for animals like these to be forced to satisfy the wants of tourists?

I got my answer when we sat down to lunch and I realised it was actually, in a way, completely fair. The company that we used was a rescue centre for elephants, and whilst we were munching away we were provided with a brochure detailing the lives of the elephants before they came to the centre. Unsurprisingly, elephants are expensive pets and they need to earn their keep in order for them to be looked after. The ones at the centre all seemed to have been put to work previously in the logging industry. Many were at least partially blind, from where they had been injured whilst working. Our elephant’s profile told us that she’s been stabbed and drugged in order to make her work longer and harder. Suddenly, taking a stroll with a relatively lightweight human on their backs didn’t sound so bad. In comparison, it was a much better way to earn a living than the painful alternative of logging.

Sadly, not every company offering the same activity seem to have been set up for the same reason, not every place treats the elephants well and in some cases they are mistreated for the sake of gratifying tourists. These places may be cheaper than what we paid but it was hardly a high price to pay for a once in a lifetime activity and it certainly came less guilt-ridden.

My trip to stroke tigers raised similar questions. For a small price we were granted entry to a tiger park where we were able to get up close to have photos taken with the animals. We’d heard much about tigers being drugged at such places, but I was unable to tell if this was the case for me. It definitely seemed unlikely that tourists would be so keen on an activity if there was a high risk of a mauling! Certainly they were all chained down: one was too rowdy for the staff to allow visitors near; two cubs were playful; a few were asleep; and some were awake but they just seemed to pay no attention to the people milling around, even the ones touching them. When near the tigers, we weren’t allowed to be without a member of staff and had to sign a disclaimer before entering the park. There was also a designated tiger “playtime” which you could pay extra to view close up (from the safety of a cage); we found ourselves being shouted at by a frantic guy who was clearing an area while one of the tigers was being taken for a walk, before being fed and posing for more photos.

The point I’m trying to make is this: do your research. There are places that treat the animals properly, they may charge you more but these are the places that deserve your money.

Ellis Schindler

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