Last updated: 06:00 PM ET, Fri February 05 2016

Riding Elephants in Burma: An Ethical Dilemma

Features & Advice | John Roberts | February 05, 2016

Riding Elephants in Burma: An Ethical Dilemma

Photo by John Roberts

I rode an elephant in Burma.

Before I decided to climb atop the giant but gentle gray Asian elephant, I had my doubts about whether doing so was right. Elephant tourism is a controversial subject. Indeed, many operators don’t treat these majestic creatures properly. 

So, I asked questions about the elephant camp and nursery we visited in Katha during an Irrawaddy River cruise with Avalon Waterways. I wanted to know how the elephants were treated, whether this was an ethically run operation and whether it was right to be endorsing such a facility.

The elephant camp in Katha is set in a teak forest, home to elephant-assisted logging operations. The creatures we interacted with are older and “retired” males or babies and their mothers who need nursery care.

VIDEO: Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp

These are large and beautiful animals that lived a life as beasts of burden. The reality is that when they become too old to work, their caretakers must rely on tourist dollars to help feed and care for them or they will be euthanized. Burma has slashed its logging quotas in recent years, and this reduction has placed elephants that are no longer needed for work at risk.

Most are owned by the government and logging companies. The government has set up camps for the retired animals, but financial resources are needed for food and medications.  

That creates the dilemma for visitors to any country that offers such attractions.

Alternatives are grim: elephants no longer in Burma's logging camps are destroyed or released into the wild, where there is insufficient habitat because of deforestation. They also risk poaching for their hides and ivory. Or they could be smuggled into Thailand to be used in that country's elephant tourism industry, which has a brutal record of abuse (though not all elephant camps in the country can be condemned). 

I felt good about my choice to interact with the elephants and their handlers (oosis), in Burma because of what I learned ahead of my visit and because of what I saw when I arrived. The camp has a veterinarian who directs the care and treatment of the animals. The oosis have built a bond over many years with the same elephant and use a gentle approach not based on domination.

Our up-close interaction delivered the full impact of the awesome size and power elephants possess. Yet, you can look right into their eyes and see a gentleness, too.

They loved the bananas and sugar cane that we offered by the bushel, and after a short ride atop the elephants through an undulating stretch on a well-worn forest path, we helped give some of them a bath in a nearby pond. 

READ MORE: Wonders on the Irrawaddy: A River Cruise Through the Heart of Burma

I still wondered whether it is right to ride an elephant. Is it right to ride a horse?

I know that it probably isn’t the easiest working life for an elephant in a logging camp. I am sure they are not always treated humanely. But when an elephant is retired to a life of tourism, is it not better to help them live in comfort and help contribute to their well-being? I say it’s better to ride an elephant and enjoy your chance to relate to their life in the forest than to have them killed or neglected until they die.

What do you think? Join the conversation in the comments below. 

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