Elephant interaction! When planning this trip to South Africa, riding an elephant was on my bucket list, I confess. However, as research went on, plans changed. Learning the level of cruelty these intelligent creatures endure every day brought me awareness of this atrocious reality. The idea of an encounter with these gentle giants was fascinating, but quite frightening at the same time. While tourism industry from Africa to Asia is filled with experiences that feed travelers’ dreams of riding these gentle giants, many of them ignore the physical nature of these animals.
So, why is an elephant ride so horrible?
Riding an elephant: a no no
Adult elephants are difficult to train for the tourist industry, so baby elephants are often stolen from their mothers and imprisoned in cramped places where they can barely move. During the brutal training, the babies are tied down and beaten until they are ready to obey their trainers and perform in front of tourists. Sadly, their mothers are often killed.
In captivity, the lack of exercise and long hours standing on hard surfaces cause major harm to their health. Additionally, not only are their spines not built to support the weight of a human, but the chair causes irritation against the skin which can lead to infection.
Elephants Whispers, an organization on the banks of the Sabie River in Hazyview, Mpumalanga, claims to support the conservation of the African elephants. The six elephants in the sanctuary, among them Tembo, a male elephant of astonishing size, had been saved from being slaughtered, and were instead put into a friendly and loving place.
Reporting their long-lasting, healthy commitment to rescue elephants, Elephant Whispers offers the public an opportunity to interact with these African mammals. Nevertheless, we were skeptical with their ethical philosophy since elephant rides were offered on the site. Inquiring about their principles, they claimed that no saddles were used on the animals, just a piece of fabric. Sadly, their website shows a different reality.
Our elephant interaction experience
The encounter was divided into two parts. For the first part, we were seated. With all six elephants standing in front of us, we listened while the host explained how they train, stimulate, and gain trust from these beautiful creatures. There was no pressure or force used for them to do anything. The keepers offered them nothing but treats and gentle pats.
For the second part, Tembo was our first model. After obeying a gentle voice command to lie down, he let us take turns touching his trunk, brushing his rough skin, and feeding him. At the same time, we learned both important and funny facts about their behavior and physiology. For example, even though they are not ruminant herbivores, elephants produce a lot of gas! They do not have sweat glands, so they frequently take mud baths or spray dust on their bodies to cool down and protect their skin against mosquito bites and sunburn. The African elephant’s ears are larger than the Asian elephant’s ears, but both species flap their ears to cool their body temperatures. Additionally, despite its rough appearance, their skin is delicate and not designed to carry any kind of saddle. And here’s a curious fact–the African elephant’s ears are shaped like a map of Africa!
In the middle of the presentation, Tembo wanted to get up. Nothing was done to stop him from doing so. He calmly walked back to where the other five animals were standing, and another elephant took his place. While we were closely watched by the employees to ensure our safety, we gave instructions to the elephant, and he beautifully followed our commands and was rewarded with a treat.
Although we were thrilled to have a chance to learn more about these gentle, beautiful, and smart animals, we wondered which techniques the trainers really use to get them to follow directions.
Where we stayed
Hippo Hollow is located alongside the Sabie River, on the outskirts of Hazyview. Perhaps best known for the wandering hippos on the lawn and in the river, the hotel sits in a tranquil area surrounded by trees, gardens, and green fields.
With the option to choose from rooms or chalets, our accommodation was a comfortable chalet overlooking the Sabie River, with the elephants from Elephants Whispers grazing in the distance.
We stayed at the Hippo Hollow for one night. Whether you experience it as a wake-up call or a goodbye in the early morning, the sound of a hippo just outside your chalet was an authentic way to say farewell to South Africa.