By Edwin Kis'sanya
In 2005, travel writer Jayne Rose Gacheri joined a group of 20 journalists from across Africa for an experience of a lifetime to the Wild Horizons Wildlife Sanctuary in Zimbabwe to ride an elephant.
“This was one adventure I did not want to miss, even though it was scary at first, I got to relax when I learned that the elephants were tamed,” recollects Gacheri.
Elephant rides or elephant-back safaris involve saddling elephants. A comfortable saddle, on which riders sit, is attached to the animal’s back. A ring to hold the riders’ feet is also attached to the saddle by a strap. Ramps are often provided to riders to make it easier for them to mount and dismount the elephant’s back.
Visitors can ride the elephants through the bush to view game and also get to touch, feed or walk with the animals.
“The elephants seemed quite comfortable as we rode on their backs and they even let us play with their trunks,” says Gacheri.
There are no commercial venues in Kenya that offer tourists a chance to ride on the backs of elephants given that African elephants are generally aggressive. But the practice has long existed in other parts of the world, particularly in Southern Africa and Asia where the animals are tamed and trained to interact with humans.
However, elephant rides are fast losing their appeal, such that the Wild Horizons Wildlife Sanctuary stopped offering elephant back safaris in 2018 and opted for “an elephant conservation experience," instead.
So why the decline?
The ChangChill transition
Until 2017, ChangChill, an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand was hailed as the Happy Valley Elephant sanctuary where tourists would ride, bathe and feed elephants.
But the sanctuary has since bowed to pressure from animal rights groups and put a stop to elephant rides. The animals now roam freely in the sanctuary's natural habitat, where visitors can only view them from an observation deck.
The death of Sambo
Elephant rides were highly popular in Cambodia until the death in April 2016, of Sambo, an elderly female elephant at the Angkor archaeological park.
Sambo died while ferrying tourists to the Angkor Wat temple complex in the region during a 40 degrees heatwave. Her death prompted thousands of people to sign a petition calling for an outright ban of these rides.
And the petition paid off. The park’s management announced in June 2019 that it would abandon elephant rides in early 2020.
Actor Martin Clunes was the celebrity patron of the animal charity Born Free until May 2019. The Doc Martin star found himself on the receiving end of fierce online criticism after footage was broadcast of him riding an elephant in Nepal.
Following the broadcast, the welfare charity cut ties with the actor regretting that his actions reinforced the exploitation of captive wild animals for entertainment and human interactions, a practice the charity was resolutely against.
Cruel holiday activity?
In a 2014 report titled: The show can’t go on; Ending wild animal abuse for entertainment – the animal rights charity – World Animal Protection named elephant rides as the top-most cruel holiday activity.
The charity called for an end to elephant rides noting that the animals involved were enduring traumatic conditions just to make oblivious tourists happy.
“When the rides are over the elephants are often restrained by chains, kept in bright sunlight and high temperatures and on concrete that hurts their feet.” the charity noted in the report.
Back in 2005 however, it never occurred to Gacheri that elephant rides were cruel or exploitative to the wild animals.
“I never looked at it that way because in my mind, the elephants were tamed and seemed to enjoy their interactions with human beings. They lived with human beings just like the Asian ones,” says Gacheri.
Even then, animal activist groups are succeeding in getting elephant-back safaris from tourists’ bucket lists. The adventure that was once popular around the world is now frowned upon. With time, it will become only a thing of the past.