I rode an elephant at the Elephant Safari Park and Lodge in Bali. How I feel about the experience has been both positive and negative. At the time and will always remember it. After getting vicious comments on social media after posts at Elephant Safari Park and Lodge. I researched some more and was disgusted with myself. Having now let it sit for a few weeks, the roller-coaster of emotions continues. Whilst remembering pleasure there is guilt that I have strong concerns of being irresponsible.
Yes I rode and elephant and I am okay with it. The elephants at this park have been rescued. The money the tourists bring to the park pay for their upkeep and their many needs. I was told the animals like the contact and carrying humans is the equivalent of us carrying a handbag. I am less happy with the tricks but I will note that they were not made to do them, there was one elephant who didn’t feel like it at our performance so they just brought out another one. The marmot told me they like the stimulation.
Our elephant has been with her marmot for 18 years and he is with her 6 days a week. The alternative for these animals is not a very happy existence creating more palm oil plantations. So, I am okay with them being at the park. The animals do need to be chained but it is against the law to have an elephant in Bali without chains. We need to protest to the Indonesian Government to see these changes. Yes the owner of the park is a very wealthy man but the park is not his only business interest. Perhaps if he turned the park into a not-for-profit we would be happier with its existence.
I like to think I am well educated and that I try to be a responsible tourist. With every trip I try to be conscious of what the local community is getting from my dollar. How is my money enhancing the local community and minimising negative impact socially, economically and to the environment?
Asia is on Australia’s doorstep and it just happened to be the most densely populated continent on the planet. It is beautiful and it is ugly all at the same time. Consumerism is at its best in Asia. Shopping is a national sport and an outing to a shopping centre is not only a welcomed relief from the heat and rain but a preference for many to that of sport and other activities. When the humidity hits 80%+ I get why.
When you go to Bali and see amazingly beautiful rice paddy fields and raw sewerage running alongside your foot as you take your photos, you get a feel for all is not what it seems. Being wealthy here is not something we understand in a western country. We moan about not meeting the mortgage on our house with a pool and a double lock up garage. In this part of Asia they judge wealth by being able to feed the family for months.
Tourism raises the question of how it can be managed to ensure the social, economic and environmental impacts are tightly controlled and for forces of good and not evil. Do Asian governments even have the capability to implement necessary controls?
Bali for example is dependent upon tourism for their economic existence. 80% of the economic wealth is driven from tourism. They can’t live without it. It is therefore vital to ensure that tourism developments, programs and organisations are sustainable and thoughtful to the local area. It is therefore understandable why they allow something to be built that may not be in the best interest of the natural environment.
Elephant Safari Park and Lodge would seem like an irresponsible tourism place. The elephants paint and play football. They walk on a log and sit on the log with instruction. They put a basketball through a hoop and they carry you through the jungle on a walk. All things that all of the ‘against-elephant-tourism’ state not to do or support.
At the time I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. Our elephant and her mahout had been together for 18 years. The mahout moved with the elephant from Sumatra to the Safari Park.
BAWA – Balinese Animal Welfare Association
A quote from the Balinese Animal Welfare Association states “Elephant tourist parks, camps and shows exist in many parts of Asia including Bali. Tourist demand to get close to these iconic animals is fuelling the cruel and abusive treatment of elephants. It is often claimed that tourist elephants are “rescued” or being kept for conservation. The reality is that encouraging human-elephant interactions is contrary to conservation and rehabilitation efforts. Training and housing elephants in captivity results in immense suffering and encourages the illegal trade in elephants.”
Whilst I agree, I also disagree. Or perhaps I have been sufficiently blinded by the information given to me.
An Explanation of the Elephant Safari Parks Principles
This extract was sent to me in email from the Elephant Safari Park.
‘The elephants at Taro were originally captured by the Indonesian Government Forestry Department to save them from irate villagers or land developers who had come to see them as pests after the elephants rainforest home was destroyed by the ever expanding greed of people. In Sumatra only a fraction of their original jungle still remains, as more plantations are grown on former jungle areas. Elephants are often trapped, poisoned or shot by developers to remove the problem. The ‘lucky’ elephants are caught and put into government camps, where they live out a short and boring life chained up (tethered) for most of each day. Life expectancy in these camps is minimal due to the unsatisfactory conditions. Our elephants were ‘rescued’ from these Sumatran camps.
After bringing the rescued elephants to Bali, our company had to develop ways to make a new home for them to keep them healthy, happy and mentally stimulated. This required some ‘compromises’ that were needed to protect both the elephants and the people working with them and also guests visiting the park. This is not total perfection, however it is the best possible, as the alternative is misery and ultimately death if they remained in Sumatra. The rescue of these large animals however and their upkeep is extremely expensive, so a financial plan also had to be considered, as we receive no financial support from either government, business or private sources. Hence the Elephant Safari Park has to be completely self-supporting financially.’
The emotional turmoil of one fact base telling you one thing and the other telling you something else. I have been to Thailand and I didn’t enjoy the Elephant Park we visited. The animals did not seem content or happy. The elephants roaming the streets of Bangkok and charging to feed the baby elelphant did not feel right. The elephants in Bali did not seem at all like this.
Elephant Safari Park and Lodge experience
The Elephant Safari Park and Lodge was a memorable and loving experience. I get that elephants are often made to perform these tricks elsewhere under horrible conditions so it is easy to jump to the conclusion that all elephants in a park are treated poorly. I do think that keeping them in this park without the ability to roam freely at any stage has a degree of cruelty.
Considering ‘Under Balinese Government rules elephants are not allowed to roam free when unattended on this island. So at night and at certain times during the day elephants are restrained with a leg tether when unattended. This does not cause them any discomfort and elephants quickly learn to accept it and to associate it with feeding times.’
That answers my emotional response to wanting to see them touch each other and ‘play’. There is a large pool at the park and the elephants are often found in here having a play and a dip together without riders or a mahout on their back.
Now that we can put aside the political, social and conservation discussion relating to these beautiful animals, let me describe my time at the park.
We arrived and ate lunch. We had been driving for a long time so a meal and a glass of water was greatly appreciated. If you have been to Bali and experienced Balinese roads then you would know how long one can be travelling for. It was a buffet meal and had a lovely selection of fresh fruit and local dishes. After several days in our resort with strong western influences on the menu selection this was a huge success.
The elephants were then to start the talent show. Not all elephants do all tricks and not all elephants have the interest or the skills to do them all. The mahouts soon work out what their elephants likes doing and this talent show is a display of what they can do. They are not made to do this, certainly many of the elephants do not participate at all. Of course an elephant can sit on a log and stand on its hind legs. Seeing an elephant walk along a trunk is something you would imagine they would do to get from ‘a’ to ‘b’ should the need arise.
Watching an elephant slam dunk a basketball or kick a soccer ball was fun. My kids loved it. The display highlights their intelligence and their strength. At the same time as their strength is on display, you wonder at their gentleness and their grace. How can a majestic animal of this size be all of those things? They are breathtaking.
We then went for a ride on the back of an elephant through the jungle. This is the part I loved. Sitting on top of these graceful and cautious animals while you wonder through the nearby rainforest was thoroughly enjoyable and a real delight. My eldest son joined me on our elephant and when we first got on he was petrified. As this glorious beast started to stroll and he relaxed into the rhythm of their stride, he relaxed as his trust built.
By the time we got to the water/ pool at the end of the ride he was loving asking the mahout all sorts of questions and information about these animals. He rubbed her back and felt the hair. We analysed the poo and discussed what they did with so much of eat. We talked about how they were fed and what relationships each elephant had within the park.
It was one of those moments when your child finds something they love, your heart is warmed completely. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Rewarding your elephant
Once the ride is complete you have the option to buy some treats and give them to your elephant. Don’t worry the amount is so small in comparison o their daily intake it is merely a small snack for them. Being able to hold a piece of fruit while they extend their gentle trunk to grab it is an unforgettable moment on a family holiday. Placing the fruit on their tongue certainly informed you what their mouths look like.
The key to all of this is the mahout. Our mahout had been with our elephant for 18 years. He is the second mahout that she has had and she was 32 years old. She will die in the park after living a full and completely contented life. He was so fond of her and had so many stories about her personality that it was most endearing. He was educated and full of information about elephant welfare. This is not a place where the elephants are treated badly. Our mahout has a comfortable living for all of his family.
Would I go again? Absolutely. Next time I will rise at 5.00am to be at the park early enough for breakfast and a bath with these glorious creatures. That experience is now on my bucket list.