December 5, 2010
My experience at the Elephant Village of Jaipur can be described in one word: disaster. From the moment I saw the mahouts (the elephant caretakers) using ankusas (better known as bull hooks) I knew I was not in for the experience I had been expecting. Elephant tourism is notoriously inhumane to the animals. For hundreds of years the elephants have been beaten, poked and prodded, and made to walk very long distances with too much weight on their backs. However, tourists love elephants and using them for transportation or simply just tourist rides is a long-standing tradition that will not be likely to die out very soon. Going into the project I was under the impression that Jaipur had just implemented a new Elephant Village where the elephants could live a better life in houses attached to those of the mahouts and they would be treated very humanely. However the elephants are still chained and bound when they sleep and you can see the visible chaffing marks on their legs and belly from the chains and harness they wear for the tourists to sit on. It is true that the mahouts care for the elephants because they are their livelihood, but they still use the very sharp bull hooks, which they press into their very sensitive skin by their ears to inflict pain to make them do what they ask. I saw first hand at the Elephant Sanctuary at Plettenberg Bay in South Africa that elephants can be trained without using these barbaric and torturous techniques. The elephants I witnessed in South Africa had been taught multiple commands and to be ridden using only positive reinforcement and African elephants are notoriously harder to train than Asian elephants. Our job was to clean up the elephant’s enclosure removing elephant poop and old grass (getting very dirty in the process) and then hosing down the elephant for her bath and placing the saddle on her back for the tourists. They only use female elephants at the Amber Fort because the males are more temperamental and years ago when they used males one in musk tried to mount a female elephant with tourists on her back and the tourist got injured. Female Asian elephants don’t have full grown tusks like their male counterparts, they only have small stumps, just one of the ways in which they defer from African elephants.
The entire volunteering experience was pretty horrible. The hours were very early- we had to be up at 3:30am- and the living accommodations were downright disgusting with a non-flushing toilet that smelled horrifically pungent and mosquitoes and cockroaches in the night double the size of any I’ve ever seen in New York. The living conditions was a homestay and I got very ill from eating the woman’s food and trust me you do not want to be ill with that toilet and cockroaches climbing over you in the night. I was also disappointed because I had hoped to have some interesting cultural exchange with the homestay family talking about life in America and in India, but instead at meal times they zoned out to Indian soap operas in Hindi that I could not understand. If I felt I was doing important work there I may have been able to toughen it out, but considering the fact that I felt like I was part of the problem instead of the solution by volunteering my time for an irresponsible system of tourism I decided to leave on my third day.
The one wonderful part of the elephant sanctuary was getting to know the children of the mahouts and I regret I didn’t get to spend more time with them. The mahouts are very poor and they live in one-bedroom cement houses next to their elephants. Even though school is free many of the kids (for reasons I couldn’t get an answer for) do not attend school. In between working with the different elephants I had a chance to play with the kids who were very kind, adorable and sweet. They loved having their picture taken and then looking at it and even though they spoke no English and I speak no Hindi we communicated well enough and had a great time.
It is hard to say what the solution should be for the very complicated problem of elephant tourism. If the elephants are banned the mahout’s lose their jobs and these already very poor children become completely homeless- there are a lot of livelihoods depending on the tourism dollars from the animals. I also believe that there will always be a demand for the elephants and if it is outlawed criminals may start offering rides and without any regulations they may treat the elephants even worse than they are treated now (like in many elephant tourism areas in Thailand). I think we as tourists must express our ideas to larger animal rights foundations like World Wildlife Fund and then they have the ability to help foster a better environment for the elephants like at the Elephant Sanctuary in South Africa. If a better system is supported by tourists it will prove profitable and will spread across India and hopefully to other Eastern-Asian countries where elephants are severely mistreated for the pleasure of tourists.