I recently visited Chitwan National Park in Nepal and I absolutely loved seeing animals in the wild. One horned rhinos, deers, monkeys, crocodiles, they all came out to play and some I could even see from my hotel room! However, there was an element to Chitwan that I hated and that was the exploitation of the elephants.
These beautiful creatures seemed to just be used for profit. They were chained up, rode by four people at a time, three times in a day, tamed with bull hooks and generally looked distressed.
I didn’t see one wild elephant in Chitwan. All were ‘domesticated’. That’s not to say there aren’t any but the only one I saw roaming without an owner was a retired government elephant who was free to do as she chose.
Here are the reasons why you should never do an elephant safari in Chitwan National Park.
1. From a baby, their spirit is taken to be trained to work with people
It’s no secret that elephants aren’t born to work with humans. The babies are taken from their mothers and ‘domesticated’. The ‘crush’ or ‘break’ process involves keeping them in a hold, tied with ropes and even starved and beaten to submit to the owners.
This part is important to the owners to ensure that tourists don’t get harmed and that they behave. It’s quite cruel to think that an animal is raised knowing nothing else than a bull hook and being ridden for money.
When I was observing the elephant bathing and the safaris, all the owners had bull hooks. I didn’t personally see them used, but I’m sure they are and wasn’t sure it was necessary.
I had also read reviews from one traveller where the elephant was being hooked and the owner dropped the hook on the floor. The elephant picked it up with its trunk and passed it back. That’s utterly heartbreaking.
2. They’re chained away from their families
Elephants are social creatures and the family ties, especially between a mother and her baby, is tight knit.
When I was walking around the elephant breeding centre I squealed as I loved seeing the beautiful elephant babies. But, once I saw they were chained and couldn’t reach their mothers too well, I felt really sad.
The breeding centre assured me that it’s to stop them running away and limit the risk of being poached, but, it’s still disturbing to see them this way.
The government is aware that chains are not the best solution and some places are trialling electric fences. But male elephants looking to mate enter the pen and so the females flee and it causes more harm.
It’s a double edged sword, but still tough to watch.
Mothers and babies can reach each other from afar, but are chained apart 🙁
3. They work long hours and carry a heavy weight with four people at a time
The elephants are made to carry four people at a time, for two hours, with a carriage on their backs, 3 times a day. Every day. That’s tough work even for an elephant which looks strong on the surface. It’s all about getting in as many tourists as possible to maximise profit.
An article by Responsible Travel raises a good point in the fact that elephants are used to patrol the park and directly contribute to helping stop poachers who are killing other wild animals.
They have recognised it as a positive use of elephant riding by the guards for conservation. Because of these elephant patrols, it had a direct effect on lessening the amount of animals poached. From 2004-2011, National Geographic reported that not a single animal was poached in Chitwan National Park.
But, these elephant safaris are put on for tourists (not patrols) and the owners are failing to meet minimum standards. These standards include limiting rides to two hours per day and reducing the amount of weight loaded on their backs.
4. They’re not fed well by the (private) owners
When I was talking to my guide at United Jungle Guide Service, I recalled the fact that in India I fed a little ellie some sugar cane as it’s their favourite!
But, my guide told me that only government elephants get fed the nice treats in Sauraha. The private ones don’t get fed as well as it’s all about saving money.
When I used to walk home to my hotel in the evenings, I used to see Chumpa and Laxmi who were elephants that went to work in the safaris each day. They were chained up and given hay and a roof over their head. But, there wasn’t much food in sight.
When I went over to say hi, she’d put her trunk out. She was obviously hungry! So, I decided to go to the village and fed her some bananas! I asked my guide if it was okay to do this and he said ‘yeah, the owners will appreciate it as it saves them having to’.
Now, I don’t have any solid facts here but what I heard and saw disturbed me.
5. Select tour guides and agencies in Chitwan have stopped offering elephant safaris due to the bad treatment even though they could make money
When I was asking around about tours on offer, United Jungle Guide Service was the only tour booking office in the town that had crossed out ‘elephant safari’ from their sign. When I asked why, they said they don’t like the way the animals are treated. Now, that seriously hit me and was the turning point for me.
They could make a serious profit but choose not to as the treatment of elephants is bad. Incredible. I instantly booked up my tours as I was impressed.
Apparently a lot of tour agencies don’t like the treatment and get it’s not good for the elephants, but cannot afford to stop offering the tours as they will lose money.
But, there are many alternative activities which will allow you to see the wildlife without contributing to the abuse. Walking safaris, jeep safaris and boat rides are all great options and you will still get the same experience.
6. It’s not responsible tourism
When we travel, it’s always a good practice to ensure we’re being responsible. Dressing correctly in temples or for certain cultures, leaving only footprints and, lastly but most importantly, not supporting organisations which are not ethical.
By paying money for an elephant safari tour, you’re supporting the process. Of course, it’s completely your choice but it is good to keep it in mind and think beyond a few holiday snaps.
So, what’s my alternative?
As mentioned before you can go on a hair raising trek or ‘walking safari’ in Chitwan
National Park. This, in my opinion is the best way to experience wildlife here and causes the least distress to the animals.
If you want to find out more see ‘what to expect on a walking safari in Chitwan National Park’.
A jeep safari is also a great and safer option which means you cover more ground in the park. But, the noise and no limits on the amount of jeeps allowed in means they may not come near you!
Nepal Elephant Walk in Sauraha is a start up that is trying to turn tourists away from riding the elephants and provide a tour where you can walk alongside them.
This option still gives you the chance to meet a beautiful Asian elephant but give the Ellie a well needed break. The prices are reasonable at 2000 NPR ($20) and you can book in Accoustica bar in the Sauraha town.
I’m not sponsored by them and I didn’t go on the tour myself. This post also isn’t a clickbait about setting up a sale for the company. But, I just saw the flyer, read the information and spoke to some of the guys advertising it and thought it was a great idea.
This way, it will naturally bring tourists away from riding, gives the elephants a rest and provides profit for the owners. They all win. Check out their site for bookings here.
The walking safari was the highlight of my Chitwan National Park visit
I’m not usually someone who speaks out about animal rights, (even though I should) but what I witnessed in Chitwan National Park really moved and upset me.
These beautiful creatures should be allowed to roam free in the park and not domesticated for safaris.
I understand poaching keeps them in danger and chains ‘help’ with this. But, surely more should be done. Even limiting the amount of rides per day or how long they are ridden for would be a big step.
If the government and Sauraha tourism aren’t willing to give it up, I would urge you not to support it when visiting.
And sure, you could say who am I to speak about such things and tell you what to do? Surely, I’m not educated enough on the issue to speak out. But, the more that do, the more may be done.
Even though you’re only one person and one ticket in amongst hundreds of tourists that visit each day, if everyone takes a stand, it may change these majestic elephants lives for the better.
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