Sunday, 4 March 2012

A few thoughts about elephants.

I've had so many comments about the elephant on the cover of my book, it seemed like a good idea to blog about them.

I'm talking Indian elephants here. The African variety are bigger, and wilder, and generally best seen from the safety of a safari truck.

But Indian elephants are different altogether. I know there are those who frown at seeing them put to work - in the forests, transporting tourists, even racing! They are so majestic, is there indignity in making them 'work'?

I can see both sides. They are, indeed, magnificent - gentle, trusting creatures. They gather in families which seem as affectionate as our own (well, among the females. The males fend for themselves.) They play with their young and they care for their dying.

Yet an elephant is able to form as close a relationship with a mahout as and shepherd does with his or her dog. I know, just because we can make those relationships doesn't mean we should, but in a country with difficult terrain it is surely understandable to utilise the strength of elephants in the same way that those of us in the West use horses and dogs.

It is also misleading to think that elephants have no choice in behaving as compliantly as they do. Do you really think that an animal as big as that would haul tree-trunks if it didn't want to? If there weren't a reward - free food, affection - at the end of it. And yes - they even race, and appear to do so willingly.  I was in Chitwan, in Nepal, just after their elephant races. We were heading back from a trek through the jungle when two elephants shuffled beside each other, appeared to exchange glances, and then run back to their shelters with tourists clinging on for dear life and the mahouts cheering. (Sorry, I don't have a photo; I was too busy hanging on.)

Having said all that, I know there are places where elephants are used to carry tourists around and not given the care they need. They need not only food and water, but also frequent hosing down to keep their skin clean. As you'll have gathered, I'll take any opportunity to ride one - but not if they work all day in the Indian heat traipsing round forts and palaces with tourists on their backs (though maybe things have improved since I was in Agra).

So, what animals press your buttons? And can you, too, admit to mixed feelings about the way we live, or don't live, alongside them?


  1. Oh I love this post Jo, and I have to say, elephants really do press my button. They seem so intelligent and sensitive and I find myself completely in awe of them. I do love all animals though - dogs, horses and dolphins probably come up as my other faves. Lovely to hear you tales and experiences. I must buy your book!

  2. Enjoyed this post Jo. I too have been in Chitwan, although it was along time ago but great to be reminded of it. I thought it was stunning and we took a wonderful elephant ride through the bush there in serach of rhino. The elephants did not seem in the least exploited. In India and Sri Lanka I loved seeing the elephants bathed and pampered by their owners rather like seeing people washing cars on a Sunday morning.

  3. Good to know I'm not the only one who loves elephants - such gentle, noble creatures.

  4. Fantastic post, Jo. I love elephants - they're incredible animals. My own favourites have to be dogs and guinea pigs, though! :)

  5. Great post...have always loved elephants...but have never ridden on one
    Dogs have to be favouite...working cocker spaniels...i had three...adn there's something about sheep.We had three once (long story) and they were all such different personalities.

  6. I think you make an excellent point here. Yes, there will be places that mistreat elephants, in the same way that there are places that mistreat horses, dogs or any other animals. If tourists vote with their feet, this will surely help differentiate between those who care, and those who don't.

  7. There is a love of dogs emerging here?

    And Sarah - I so agree. We can express that respect by simply bypassing those "attractions" where animals are simply commodities. It's simply a matter of respecting living creatures, and understanding their needs.

  8. Another difference between African and Asian elephants is that African elephants can't be broken. Many of the methods used to 'tame' asian elephants have been tried on the african species without success. Basically the spirit of the elephant has to be broken before it will become compliant. It's pretty horrific.