You don’t know how huge an African elephant is until you stand between its front legs. But should you be standing there in the first place?
Generally, I am cautious and sceptical of places that offer animal interactions. I believe that wild animals are best viewed in their natural state, roaming free in the bush. I will not pet lion cubs or support projects with questionable ethics. Given the opportunity to visit a facility that offers elephant interactions as part of an organised itinerary, I went with an open mind.
These are my thoughts and impressions. They are based on my single experience, not on exhaustive research or interviews.
Home to half a dozen magnificent African elephants, the team at this facility explained that the elephants in their care were orphaned or rescued animals, not captive bred elephants or animals deliberately taken from the wild to cater for the whims of tourists. Once raised in captivity, the elephants could not be successfully rehabilitated into the wild and instead have become ‘ambassador’ animals, interacting with humans and demonstrating their intelligent, sociable and compassionate natures. From time to time, new elephants join this herd.
They explained that training is conducted ethically, using a system of rewards and that handlers are specially trained under a programme developed by Elephants For Africa Forever (EFAF) to ensure that the elephants and the people who care for them work in harmony together.
As we approached the 6 elephants, each one with a handler on its back, they seemed relaxed and almost indifferent to our presence as they munched on bhana grass and ate cubes. But I’m used to wild elephants and it was strange for me to see.
Guests were briefed about the rules and each elephant was called forward to demonstrate a skill it’s learnt, responding to the commands with practiced calm. A 15 year bull elephant came forward. According to his handler, he is a very intelligent elephant who had already learnt five verbal instructions just a week after he was rescued from a culling operation.
His job was to lie down and relax as visitors got to learn about an elephant’s physiology; examining everything from the soles of his feet to feeling the softness of the skin behind his ears, where the large veins that help cool his body are as thick as a human finger. It was clear he knew the drill. He seemed content to let people ooh and aah over him so long as he had his supply of cubes and grass.
And it really is something to get so close to an adult elephant and see how dexterous and sensitive his trunk is, how long his eye lashes are, and to hear all the soft and subtle sounds he makes to communicate with his handler and the other elephants nearby. Then it was another bull’s turn. He is a 29 year old elephant who weighs 6 tons. Apparently he was orphaned at two years old when his herd was culled. When he was 18, the authorities (which ones I am not sure) decided that this elephant, who was hand-raised on a farm, would have to be destroyed because of the damage he was causing to neighbours’ crops. He was rescued by EFAF.
His grace was palpable as he stood placidly while one by one, we stood between his legs and gazed up at him. Occasionally his trunk came whooshing down – but it’s not at all frightening – he’s easy to trust, despite his bulk.And that’s the problem with these interactions. They are awesome. But for me, they’re also terribly sad.
I can categorically say I saw no visible signs of coercion. I have seen stressed and angry African elephants and these ones weren’t. The animals seem relaxed and in synch with their handlers. I understood that many of them would have been destroyed if they hadn’t found a home with people who appear to love them, feed them, groom them and play with them.
I cannot make a call on the research EFAF carries out, or on the elephant rides they offer or on their training methods, because I don’t know enough about them. I can’t say if the elephants are happy or sad. They swim in the dam on the property and appear genuinely fond of the human members of their ‘herd’. I won’t forget the gentle way that they took the cubes from my hands, or how they seemed to know just how to put the more nervous guests at ease. I was just a few weeks pregnant at the time and when one of the bulls brushed his trunk against my belly, it felt like a blessing.
But I hated that these animals had to perform for us.
Knowing that these elephants go through the same routine for different groups of visitors each and every day while large sums of money change hands sits uncomfortably with me. The commercial transaction, the bussing of people in and out, the slickness of the operation… and the implications of this for other elephants, other operations, ot
her kinds of interactions….
I don’t know what the alternatives were for these particular elephants. It is irresponsible to generalise. I understand that someone has to pay for their feed. I even get that these elephants are quite possibly content and at home in their makeshift herd. I can even conceive that there may be some characters in the herd that like the attention, the stimulation and even to perform.
These interactions normalise something though, that in my opinion, shouldn’t be normal. Yes, it’s an awesome privilege to be in the presence of greatness and I am humbled by that. But I prefer being in the presence of wild elephants in wild places.
We should be interacting with elephants on their terms, not ours.