WARNING: Some images may be disturbing.
By: Christine Hogg
An Asian elephant named Sambo ferried her way through Cambodia on April 26 to the famous Angkor Wat temple in a 40° Celsius heatwave. Carrying tourists on her back who were too busy taking in the sights around them on their smartphones to notice the utter insanity of her working conditions, the elderly female elephant collapsed of a heart attack on the roadside just outside of her final destination in Siem Reap province. According to Oan Kiri, a manager at Angkor Elephant Company, the female elephant crumpled to the ground after working for 45 minutes and walking 2.1 kilometres without making any stops for water or rest. "Veterinarians concluded that the elephant's death was caused by the hot temperatures which caused stress, shock, high blood pressure and a heart attack," Kiri said. The elephant was estimated to be between 40-45 years of age and is yet another reason for the spread of public outrage and a call to end the already controversial elephant ride industry.
The death of this beautiful giant is not a random incident. Elephant rides are an ancient practice that still frequent today's zoos and tourist attractions as an allure to be up close and personal with the animal. But what many fail to realize is the falsity of this practice. Elephants in the wild never come in contact with humans. They were not meant to carry anything on their backs, let alone their young. So why is it that we feel a sense of entitlement towards strapping heavy loads onto these animals backs and forcing them to walk in senseless circles for the joy of onlookers? Elephants who are subject to such practices are often overworked and brutally broken in during training; beaten into submission with whips, subject to verbal abuse which in turn causes anxiety and fear and shackled to riding equipment, which can cause cuts, bruising and swelling on the animal's skin. As children, we don't see the harm in playing with these animals, and when our parents ask us if we'd like to go for a ride, it seems harmless. But as we grow older, it is important to recognize the devastating effect that participating in these attractions can leave on an animal's spirit and body forever. Cruelty is often hidden from the public eye but the secrets it carries promote a lifetime of misery and unnecessary injustice and suffering for as long as the practice of elephant rides continues.
There is no such thing as a cruelty-free elephant ride. From the moment the animal is riddled with equipment to the time it is forced to perform for our enjoyment, the act is met with resistance. In certain cases, elephants have lashed out at their trainers, seriously injuring or killing them. And in turn, the elephants pay the price for this behaviour, though it is a natural fear-based reaction to the trauma they bear witness to. Animal rights groups have long complained of cruel training practices used on captive elephants. According to the BBC, the charity World Animal Protection named elephant rides as the top most cruel holiday activity in a list it created for campaign purposes. Only about 70 Asian elephants exist in Cambodia and they are classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Of those 70, 13 Asian elephants work at the very same tour company where the elephant collapsed. And yet after seeing the cruelty first-hand, rather than stop the rides completely, the manager, Kiri, opted to issue a promise stating that the working hours for the remaining 13 elephants would be reduced until the heatwave has subsided.
Local tour guides and elephant handlers stick to their beliefs that elephant rides provide a stable income for residents seeking to earn an "honest" living, and argue that if these elephants were not domesticated, they would face the threats of the wild including illegal poaching. However, according to Jack Highwood, a spokesperson from a Cambodian eco-tourism group called the Elephant Valley Project, the number of elephants, wild or domesticated, is so small that there should be no issue in regulating their activities for the sake of their health and welfare.
On Sunday, the iconic circus acts of synchronized dancing and tricks came to an end as the Ringling Bros. gave its final elephant performance in Providence, Rhode Island, sparking an early retirement for the pachyderms who were set to retire in 2018. For years, the elephants had been a signature act for the Ringling Bros. and with their demise came outcry from the public who wept for the memories and cheers from the animal rights activists who have waited for this day to come. Forty-two Asian elephants will call the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation home, which 200 acres of land in rural Florida, halfway between Orlando and Sarasota. With a legendary brand known as the 'Greatest Show on Earth', by stopping the elephant act, the Ringling Bros. is bringing attention to a greater cause towards protecting the health of one of the world's most beloved wild animals. They say that elephants never forget their owners, whether they are gentle and kind or abusive and demanding. The next time you see the option for an elephant ride, stop and think about the bigger picture and consider a friendlier alternative.
To sign the petition against elephant rides in Cambodia, please click here.