My Heartbreaking Experience at an Elephant Sanctuary

My heart started pumping, the closer we got the more I started to question what I was about to do.

One part of me told me that this is completely wrong but the other part of me just wanted the truth. I had to keep telling myself that if I don’t do this, how will I ever know what really goes on?

Before we get there...

A short time back my boyfriend and I made a stop at Addo National Park in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. We went to visit one of the underground hides in hope that we would be lucky enough to find some elephants there. We were very lucky indeed and were able to spend about an hour at the hide, admiring these beautiful creatures from a close distance while they had a good cool-down from the heat of the day at the watering hole.

Me enjoying the view of the elephants from a hide in Addo National Park [picture caption]

Picture of elephants at Addo National Park [picture caption]

However, this blog post is not about these fortunate elephants at Addo. This post is about the many other elephants suffering from the tourism industry.

I stayed in the car for a while, just looking at the entrance of the place I was about to enter as I readied my camera for the photographs you will see in this blog post. My stomach was twisting and my head was spinning. I didn’t really know what to expect, at first I was prepared to see elephants getting hit and abused by bullhooks if they wouldn’t obey their handlers command.

A bullhook is one of the tools used to physically harm elephants in order to train them. When the elephants are young they get taken away from their mother and then the process is starting to break the elephant into submission. This can be done by using ropes or chains so they would only be able to move when instructed. Tools like the bullhook, wooden battens, whips and electric prods are also being used in order to inflict pain. Elephants might seem like big and strong animals with a thick skin but their skin is really sensitive and can even feel the touch of something as small as a mosquito... You can only imagine the pain these tools can make when they are used on the elephants most sensitive spots.

One of the handlers I captured carrying a bullhook [picture caption]

When entering this place that was supposed to be a sanctuary for rescued elephants, we got offered some tea or coffee and could sit down by one of the tables outside while waiting for the guide to come fetch us. After a few minutes, a man approached us and greeted with a big and warm smile, shortly thereafter he took us to meet the elephants. The elephants were grassing on a wide open field with nice green grass a couple of hundred meters away. As a first impression it doesn’t sound so bad, right?

While the handlers was calling the elephants our guide were giving a brief summary of the elephants background. According to the guide, two of the elephants were orphans from poaching incidents and the other three were taken from Kruger National Park because there were "too many of them there." It didn’t seem to be their plan to release any of the elephants back to the wild one day, he explained that the risks of them getting poached would be too big so they would be safer at the sanctuary. With his words; “We don’t want our elephants to get harmed therefore they are staying here where they are safe and where poachers won’t get to them since we are here 24/7”. I found this very ironic but you will soon understand why.

The guide was smiling, laughing and made jokes to make us feel comfortable enough to approach these big and majestic animals. We spent about an hour at this place. During this hour we came to realize more and more of what an act it was. It was a circus, nothing else.

After the elephants had been called, they waited for their handlers command to line up in a row and wait for us tourists to approach them one by one. As I watched on, with their trunks in the hands of the tourists the elephants were walked to a spot I’ve chosen to call the Selfie spot or the Main Act of this circus show.

Once again the elephants lined up and we could approach them one group of people at a time to smile in front of the camera for some “once in a lifetime” photos. They made the elephants lift their legs, flap their ears and open their mouth so we could get good pictures. However, they did not want to admit that this was the reason for these tricks.This was simply just an everyday health check according to them.

We were told that these elephants were brought to the sanctuary as young calves. They said that these elephants had forgotten everything about their natural behaviours so these natural behaviours needed to be taught to them again by their handler. In other words, the supposed sanctuary wanted their elephants to stay as wild as possible but while still be able to interact with them and ride them.

You might now ask how that would be possible. The answer to that question is simply, it is not possible.

In order for us tourists to get this close and personal with elephants their handlers must first break down the elephant from young to establish dominance. Young calves get taken away from their mothers to enter a life as a tourist attraction, bearing in mind that elephants are incredibly smart creatures with the same kind of bond to their family as we humans have to our family. This training process can last for weeks until the elephant has become submissive and compliant, after that the dominance will be maintained by a fine balance of fear and reward.

Looking at these two pictures, is this something you would like to support?

The above two pictures were taken at another elephant "sanctuary" in the Eastern Cape of South Africa from the NSPCA website. [picture caption]

During our visit we mainly got to see the rewarding part, meaning when the elephants were compliant they got a treat. The bullhooks were hidden behind the handler's backs until they were really needed, but they weren’t needed very often since the elephants had learned their verbal commands through fear and knew that if they do not obey the command of the handler they will get punished.

As I mentioned earlier, I was prepared to see the handlers using the bullhook on the elephants violently, but they didn’t. Why? Because they didn’t have to. These were not young elephants anymore, they already knew exactly what to do because they have been doing it for every single day from 08:00 in the morning until 17.00 in the afternoon, no break on weekends or holidays or in the middle of the day. For every hour between 8-17, they have to do the same thing over and over, like robots they were going through each and every day. The most difficult part of this day was to fake a smile and pretend like I didn’t know anything about what was going on. I almost burst into tears when I looked into the eyes of the elephants and saw nothing else but defeat.

Very suspicious wound filled with maggots. Something that was not mentioned during the "health check" either.

[picture caption]

I’m thinking back to a day in 2014 when I sat face to face with a wild elephant. He had been sleeping and the sound of our vehicle going past gave him a startling wake-up. We then stopped the car and he slowly approached us, standing next to the car watching us for a few minutes before deciding to walk away into the bush again. The look he gave us was totally different from the look I got from the elephants at this so-called sanctuary, these elephants had given up. That was the look I got. I didn’t want to seem too suspicions about my real purpose there so when they pulled me forward to meet the elephant I went forward with guilt and sadness but I had to share the truth. The handler basically pulled me in different directions so I could touch the elephant on all different places and the handler could proudly show off how obedient the elephant was. He probably realized I didn't look very excited about it. When approaching the elephant’s face so I could have a look in its mouth the handler then asked me to put my hat in the mouth… Remember what I said earlier about the health check and that the handlers wanted to make the experience as natural as possible for the sake of the animals? I can’t remember one single time where I’ve been asked by my doctor to put his or her hat in my mouth to determine if I’m healthy or not. Can you? This was the part where I decided that this almost forced interaction was over.

This is not Wild and Free [picture caption]

Something I really wanted to know about this whole experience was how they been able to train these elephants. The answer I got was that since the elephants are incredibly clever they are also easily taught, the methods they use is only their voices and treats and it is possible to train any elephant of any age. If this were true anyone could approach an elephant in the wild and offer it a treat for doing a trick. I just want to make it really clear that it is not possible to train an elephant without inflicting pain. When I asked about the bullhooks the handlers were carrying I got pulled to the side and whispered to, that, they were carrying it as a "policy". Also, according to the guide "you can go anywhere else in the wild. You must have that."

I spent a few months as an anti-poaching ranger at a big 5 game reserve in South Africa in 2016 and also volunteered in different game reserves and never seen this practice before.

Elephants trained to hold each others tails as a finale of this disguised circus act [picture caption]

There seems to be a belief that training African elephants does not involve the same kind of cruel practices as those inflicted on the elephants in Asia. Although the cruelty may not be on the same level it does not mean it is good. In my experience, Africa are doing a better job of hiding the abuse that is really happening when we don’t watch. They will try to make us believe that elephants have a great life at these sanctuaries. But in fact, they don’t.

On your next vacation just think twice if this is something you really want to be a part of.

Elephant in the wild showing a natural behavior (Above)

Captive elephants, forced to put on a show for tourists (Above 2 pictures) [picture caption]

I can promise that you will be able to get a better experience at a real game reserve where you can watch elephants in the wild where you can also get close to these magnificent creatures without touching, riding and without contributing to pain, misery and abuse. In the wild it will be on the animal's conditions not the other way around.

Let 2019 be a year of change. Even if you have participated in any elephant activity that involves any kind of physical interaction in the past at any elephant sanctuary or park, let it be in the past and instead encourage your family and friends to avoid these activities and instead go watch these animals in the wild. Let this be your New Year 2019 resolution.

Wild and Free

Mother and her calf in the wild [picture caption]


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