Friday, April 16, 2010

The controversial elephant ride at Amer Fort, Jaipur

Every now and then, I keep hearing cries from activists to stop the elephant rides in Amer Fort.

These are ten minute rides, from the bottom of the hill to the fort, with a maximum of two riders to an elephant. The rides start around 8:00 a.m. and end by about 11:00 a.m.


Those who call for banning the rides say that it is cruel to the elephants, that they toil in the sun, and that the stone terrain is hard on their feet.

It is a complex issue, so to all those asking for the rides to be stopped, I say, please don't oversimplify it.

There are 4-5 traditional communities in India that work with animals - the madaris with their monkeys, the kalandars with bears, the elephant handlers, the saperas with their snakes, and there are also communities in Rajasthan who specialise in tiger hunting, and so on and so forth. Apart from these, there are many, many others in rural and small-town India who depend on animals for a living. When you advocate a course of action that impacts both people and animals, it is worthwhile to pause and think about not just the moral issues but also the practical ones.

For me, the first and larger dilemma comes when I ask myself - is domestication of animals ethically right? Do humans have the right to capture, tame and use wild animals? Do humans really have the right to tame and use other animals like camels, horses, donkeys, and bullocks? Do humans have the right to even confine dogs, whose natural habitat is the wild, and who would much prefer to run free in their own packs? Taking that a step further, is it correct to restrict the freedom of sheep, pigs, goats etc for slaughter? Is it correct to subject mice, monkeys and rabbits to pain in laboratories?

Bullock cart in Agra - are they toiling any less in the sun?

Overladen mule-cart in Old Delhi in peak April summer

There are many inspiring schools of Indian thought which say that cruelty to living creatures is not acceptable. We all learn even as schoolchildren about the Boddhisatva who takes monkey form, or elephant form, or bird and other forms, to teach humans compassion for all living creatures. Many religions forbid the killing of animals, and religions like Jainism forbid the use of animal products like leather.

My personal view is that the restriction of freedom of any animals by humans is an unfortunate historical necessity and an unavoidable fact, but is morally incorrect. That applies not just to elephants, but to all animals who are victims of what I call "human conquest". Taking the argument to its logical extension, to me the raising of sheep for slaughter is no different from the raising of elephants for commercial use. I do not like either of these.

However, the moral dimension of the issue is different from the practical dimension.

Practically speaking, the planet probably can't support all of us if no one ate meat. Practically speaking, the camel is the best and perhaps only affordable solution for humans in the desert areas of Rajasthan. Elephants were probably the most effective way to get timber from forests. Dogs were probably the most effective warning mechanism and hunting help for humans. And so on and so forth.

These practicalities change with time and technology. Therefore from a purely practical point of view, leaving the morals/ethics aside, the use of animals has to be constantly re-evaluated to see if it makes sense, and if it is unavoidable as a means to secure human welfare.

When you evaluate the situation in such terms, it becomes obvious that some uses of animals have now outlived their necessity and that it is time to stop it. Some other uses have still enormous practical value, and stopping it would lead to loss of human welfare (for example, oxen for ploughs, or camels for the desert, even with the advent of tractors and jeeps, there is really no cost-effective subsitute).
Tribal Rabari woman with her camels. These are their only wealth.

It is not always easy to make these decisions, and there are definitely shades of grey in these.

But it is quite clear to me that we have only two ways forward:

1. Where the use of animals is unavoidable, regulate and police actively to ensure minimum pain and maximum compassion

2. Where the use of animals is avoidable, phase out with a sensitive and practical understanding of the issues.

The elephants at Amer are merely joyrides, and nowhere in the unavoidable category. So it is quite clear to me that they must be stopped. However, I am not willing to see the elephants at Amber starve to death simply because there is no employment for them forcing their owners to abandon them.

The solution is obvious and two-pronged, but I will state it anyway. We need the following:
a) The creation of a government or private sponsored facility to "retire" the elephants and look after them until they die
b) A program to re-skill and provide gainful employment the mahouts so that their families don't starve

I have just visited the Bear Rescue Centre in Agra where over 275 'dancing bears' have been brought from various places in India. The Bear rescue centre is a permanent home for these bears because they cannot be released into the wild. The kalandar community from whom they have been purchased have been compensated for the bears (Rs 50,000 for a bear) and they have been taught other skills. Some of them work at the centre. Craft products and jewellery made by kalandar women is sold at the centre.

The Bear Rescue Centre at Agra provides a successful, practical model to follow

Simply saying "Stop the rides at Amber" is not the solution. Without the necessary support system in place to provide alternative rescue for the elephants, stopping the rides would mean taking away the elephants' only earning.

So if you're visiting Jaipur, and wondering whether to do the ride, I say, until there is a viable alternative for the elephants, do it. If you see mistreatment, report it (there is an Elephant Welfare Office at the fort). If you want to contribute towards their welfare, then donate to wild life rescue organisations who are working in the field. I would recommend these guys: Wildlife SOS (the same guys running the Bear Rescue Centre in Agra). I visited them and was very impressed not just by their understanding of the issues involved, but their very practical approach, collaborating with difficult government departments etc. They have a captive Elephant Welfare Project and are trying to start a sanctuary in Haryana for elephants similar to their Bear facility in Agra. I wish them luck.

- Deepa

21 comments:

Super Babe said...

When we were there I only remember seeing the elephants being bathed at the little pond, but we didn't see any rides... and we just walked up to the fort (the view was amazing anyway!)...

NatInTO said...

I think this also brings up an important issue... there is an entire layer of the economy based on the use of animals (including for "tourist" purposes, we could say). What would happen to those people's ability to make a living? Many of them do that because that's what their families have done for generations. While I agree with programs that improve the quality of life for animals, I think they should come with alternatives (subsidies, training, employment opportunities) for those whose ability to make a living depends on using animals. Another point would be that those programs come at a high cost sometimes... In countries with areas struck by poverty, should governments put their money towards the welfare of animals instead of the welfare of the less fortunate populations?

Soumya said...

I also see this in a different way. How do you assume this is bad for the elephant? The Elephant's natural tendency is to uproot trees, stomp on them and carry them from place to place. A camel's natural life is best suited in a desert.Its an animal that likes to walk, pace and enjoys the sands. Load carrying is not an issue for this animal. As long as the structure we are applying is not cruel to these animals, what is wrong in caring and employing the animal so we can all live cohesively and productively. Whipping a bullock/ elephant to carry unimaginable loads is cruelty. Tying a camel in knots and making it walk endless hrs without rest is cruelty. Caring for them with love and affection and training them to help man is living cohesively. no?

iamyuva said...

I agree...its better to take ride then buying ivory products.. non-cruel usage & domesticating animals is ok. althou its not first preference but its one of the better alternatives.

disclaimer: iam not qualified to answer, because I eat animals...

BM said...

I love animals...they are very tastey.

rony said...

Elephant riding is dangerous if not taken carefully, rider should be skillful , this experience can give you real enjoyment
Book your tickets to india and take a elephant ride.

Anonymous said...

Hi there

Definitely gonna recommend this post to a few friends

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the work you have put into this article, this helps clear up a few questions I had.

Anonymous said...

I was there yesterday. We saw many drivers hitting the elephants repeatedly on the head. Very disturbing. I won't ride them again - it seemed very cruel and sad. We hope the paint used to decorate the elephants is non-toxic as well, but I imagine it is not.

then the driver had the nerve to ask me for a tip, and then told us it wasn't enough. I wanted to punch him in the head with the hook and see how he liked it.

phi said...

Dear Deepa

That's a very concise "seing-the-subject -from-multiple-sides"
An I am referring to your blog in my travel book (out in a couple of months) about Rajasthan. I am referring to it in the sense of enlightment (thank you for mine) on the issue.

Best regards
Patrick Hickey

Anonymous said...

I am visiting Jaipur in early 2013, and was looking forward to the elephant ride, I do after all ride horses. I will indeed report any mistreatment of these majestic animals. I do wonder if there would be a way of not stopping the rides but teaching humane methods allowing both the elephant and mahouts survival.

GaGa said...

I just returned back to New Delhi from Jaipur for color festival. We did ride the elephants at the Amber Fort. I was so excited till I got on and saw how badly they struggled to walk up that steep hill. They would hit them in the heads with there fists or there sticks. It was even more heart breaking when we learned they had to walk 30 minutes or a bit more to even get to Amber Fort then they had to walk 2 people plus the trainer up a very steep hill. About half way you could see they were struggling from exhaustion and being over heated. Elephants temperature runs 107 add heat carrying 3 people up hill for 3 hours! !! They will throw spit out their trunks on their bodies to cool themselves down. Its very sad to see these poor sweet animals struggle and be hit in the head because they are hot and tired! ! Hundreds and hundreds of people ride everyday if not a thousand! Some elephant owners dont retire their elephants when the time closes for rides at 11:00am, you will see them still giving rides after 5:00pm. That is 9 hours of non-stop in the heat with no water no way to cool their bodies. You see the struggle in every slow step they take. Constantly flapping their ears faster trying to cool themselves! !! Something that started as fun made me sadden beyond words! !!! We went to a wonderful place called Elephant village. Its a village with family owned elephants. They care for these loving animals so much. They give you a one on one experience! They are very careful to the elephant and the heat. Its a wonderful place! !!!! This place cares about their elephants its not just the money! !! Tell them the color festival girl Stacey sent you :))) it will be your favorite place there and you will leave feeling good those elephants! !!

Deepa Krishnan said...

Dear GaGa - You are perhaps misinformed about the timings of the rides, what is allowed, and what is not. Evening rides are allowed.

HERE ARE THE TIMINGS:
The summer and monsoon season timings for elephants (April to Sep) at Amer Fort are:
7:00 am to 10:00 am in the morning
3:30 to 5:00 pm in the evening

April - only 3 rounds per elephant are allowed (summer beginning)
May and June - only 2 rounds per elephant allowed (peak summer)
July to Sep - only 3 rounds per elephant allowed (monsoon season)
Oct to Mar - 5 rounds per elephant are allowed (winter season).

Elephant ride is not permitted downhill.

During Navratra festival, there will be no elephant rides at Amer. The dates of this festival are:
Chaitra Navratra - 31 Mar 2014 to 09 APRIL 2014
Winter Navratra - 25 Sep 2014 to 03 Oct 2014

There is also a possibility that on 29 July and 5 Oct, there will be no elephant rides (depending on the sighting of the Eid moon).

Anna Button said...

I bought bananas for the elephants as my guide said we could see them in the Elephant village. There were two which were chained up. I was told not to feed them. They said one was aggressive. I took no notice and fed him. He was fine and loved the bananas. As I was leaving, the man was heating up hot tar. You could see the elephant's head swinging from side to side. He did not look happy. I asked what the tar was for. He said he painted it on the bottom of their feet to protect them. I don't know if that was true as we had to leave. Or was he using it as punishment. Another elephant was chained in the hot sun and I wasn't allowed to feed him, they said as he was cooling down. They had no water. It upset me.

Anonymous said...

My guide said he would take me to visit the Elephant Village. I bought bananas. Cannot say for sure whether it was the elephant village as I did not see any lakes or water. There were four elephants, two were in the shade, two were chained up in the sun. I was told not to feed the two in the sun chained up. They said one was aggressive. I fed him some bananas and he loved them. They said the other had just finished working and therefore couldn't have any. He was chained up facing away from the other 3 elephants. One man was boiling a tar like solution right in front of the elephant which he said was aggressive. We left and behind the fence we could hear him shouting. He standing right in front of the elephant and the elephant was swaying side to side. We asked the guide to ask him what the solution was for. He told us it was to paint the soles of his feet to prevent him from getting infections. I am wondering whether it was a form of punishment. There was no drinking water there for them either.

Deepa Krishnan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deepa Krishnan said...

The presence of visitors puts pressure on owners and mahouts to treat animals better. So I think it is better that more tourists go see the elephants, until such time when we get a big scale government action banning the whole thing. Without watchful visitor eyes, and without the money from tourists, the condition of elephants would be worse. It's an ironical contradiction but staying away from the elephants is not the answer to the problems.

Ann, coming to your experience, tar may be the usual way to treat the feet of elephants. Neither you nor I understand elephant care or training methods and we don't know what the routine is like. So thinking of some particular action as cruel may be just our ignorance.

I think if a mahout tells us that a particular elephant is aggressive, it is better to listen to them, instead of going to feed that elephant. By ignoring their instructions, we place our life at risk and worse, we also endanger the lives of all the people involved (who would need to come rescue us if something goes wrong).

Deepa Krishnan said...

Hopefully the government will wake up at some point and come up with a plan to provide alternative income and training to the mahout families. Or come up with a set of rules governing the treatment of domesticated animals.

Janis R said...

Deepa - Thank you for these insights before we arrive in India. Grateful for time to think on these issues.

phuket elephant trekking said...

Very useful blog, India is one of my dream destinations.

Woo said...

2016 and this terrible riding of Asian elephants continues at Fort Amber despite the Inspection reports of the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), see photos/video of findings on line published by PETA India. Hopefully the Indian Gvt will enforce its banning in Goa and in Rajasthan, that it asked the local Gvts of these states to consider in Dec 2015. You just have to put 'elephant riding cruelty?' in to an internet search engine and a mass of information is available. You can choose cruelty free contact with elephants in Thailand, in Nepal, in Laos, India is lagging behind in this respect. The best way to see an elephant is in its natural habitat, or in very good sanctuaries where retired elephants live. I once rode an elephant in India, I knew nothing of what I was contributing to in the life of this elephant - which is based on terrible cruelty from the day they are captured from the wild and broken - see Phajaan or Paajan on youtube to the end of their lives. Asian elephants have curved spines, they are not meant to be ridden or carry huge weights of people plus seating, it causes spine and other musculoskeletal injury. The chaining of their legs when not working causes deformation of legs and foot disease, the sharply pointed sticks, or the Ankaras they use to inflict pain in order to control the elephant wounds them and is a cause of abscesses. They work all day in burning heat - the Asian elephant though, is a forest elephant. The Mahouts need an alternative livelihood, investment in this alternative and in training is needed, the owners of the elephants are very wealthy and they should contribute to training and welfare programmes for Mahouts, who are often poor. As should the Gvt of India - a hugely wealthy country - take care of Mahouts far better than it does. Please do not contribute to this cruelty. Dont ride elephants! Thank you.