Orphaned Elephants Earn their Keep

Many moons ago I went on an elephant-back excursion at Victoria Falls.

My wife and I loved the experience and were very aware of the amazing relationship between the elephants and their handlers.  But since then we have heard of so many bad reports about the growing use of elephants as public exhibits, the brutal training methods and the babies taken away from their families for the elephant-back riding industry. It has caused a cloud to hang over my memories of that lovely encounter in Zimbabwe.

elephant back safari zimbabwe south africa

The handlers had tons of interesting facts to tell about ellies

And so I decided to go back and take another look, more carefully this time.  I chose an operation near Bela-Bela in South Africa, called Adventures with Elephants.  By some co-incidence the family owners are the same team who handled the elephants that I rode in Zimbabwe (something I found out on arrival).  I was a paying guest and my decision to create this post was subsequent to my visit, unsolicited by the operators.

For those of you that feel that we (humans) should not use elephant or any wild species in any commercial way, there are some notes for you at the end of this post.

So, my experience this time around:  I opted out of the elephant-back ride (I ride horses and mountain bikes but for some reason I don’t want to ride an elephant again – no big deal, just a personal line in the sand) and decided that I would rather spend a meaningful hour with the small herd of elephants and their handlers, and to get to know them all better.  I was on the lookout for any signs of elephant discomfort or anxiety, and signs of irritation or bullying from the handlers.  I saw none of that.

We watched the small herd appear from the dense thorn scrub, take a quick bath in a nearby dam and follow their handlers to where we were gathered.  No chains, no shouting, no prodding – just an unhurried meander to the exhibition area.  Quite an intro!

elephant back safari south africa

The herd arrives!

The elephants and their handlers lined up in front of us and initially performed some basic voice-command tricks – lie down, high five, turn around etc.  I guess this was to show us that the elephants are safe to be near.

elephant back safari south africa

After the basic drills (pictured above) things got interesting.  We got to know each elephant and their handlers individually and we were amazed at how different each elephant was – not only in regards to appearance but also character.  Along the way we touched the ellies, stroked them, gave them voice commands, fed them, played soccer with them, were showered with water by them, and learned some really very interesting ellie facts.  The elephants were very relaxed and often very curious – showing obvious interest in us.  It was a very special experience for my wife and I – a real honor.  I thanked each elephant and each handler as we moved along. It needs to be said that the elephants were at all times during this close encounter tethered by one leg to a chain which gave them ample movement but prevented them from moving beyond a safety circle.

elephant back safari south africa

There was never a sense of anxiety – for us or the ellies!

When not performing the elephants have the run of a large piece of bushveld during the day and at night they go into large nighttime quarters.  Specifically grown crops and commercial pellets supplement their natural browse diet.

Now, that prickly issue of whether elephants should be used as the means to a commercial end.  I discussed this with the manager Sean Hensman.  Wisely he did not try to create rules for everyone else, instead he focused on their situation.

These elephants were going to be shot as ‘problem animals’ by various landowners – the future for so much of our wildlife.  They were young animals, not capable of looking after themselves.  Does Sean allow them to be shot or does he take them in and give them a decent life – which by the very nature of the size and intelligence of the animal, has to involve a degree of training and hands-on management.  And, if these animals can earn their keep by educating us all about elephants – then surely that is the best solution?  Rather than try to conclude this debate in this post, read the facts here and decide for yourselves.

elephant back safari south africa

We learned lots about elephants

My concluding thoughts: 

We totally enjoyed our encounter with these elephants and would encourage others to do the same.  These elephants are well looked after, seem happy and willing to engage with tourists… How sad it would have been if they had been terminated, as was the original plan before they landed in the hands of the Hensman family.

The main issues to look out for when visiting wildlife exhibits are firstly where the animals were sourced from (captive-bred is best), secondly are they housed in suitable quarters that give them ample access to sunlight, exercise, socialization with their own kind, natural habitat, clean food and water? Thirdly,do you feel that the animals look happy, engaged and relaxed?

Resources like the Africa Geographic blog and social media ecosystem are good tools to garner advice and info.  So are Google, Youtube, Tripadvisor and various other online resources.  Use them.  And enjoy your travels responsibly.

Read another first hand account of Adventures with Elephants here

Keen to visit South Africa? Check out Kapama Private Game Reserve, one of Africa Geographic's Special Places.

About Simon Espley

Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, although he also enjoys the odd printed magazine. He has travelled extensively in Africa – walking, driving, boating, biking, horse riding and flying his way in pursuit of wilderness and elusive birds. Simon is a chartered accountant and successful businessman in the online.social.mobile space. He is a director of Africa Geographic Holdings and bigFIG Digital Media. The views expressed in his posts are his own and not necessarily those of these entities. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/beata.levine Beata Levine

    I volunteered in Antelope Park , Zimbabwe and the elephants were a sheer delight. All the same as above and guest paid to ride. We as vols made their treats (molasses and hay) and after walking them we had their treats waiting. They knew and went running like children in a candy shop. Life is good for the elephant and yes the average tourist learns about the brillance of these animals. It is certainly a better choice to save than kill.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Simon.Espley1 Simon Espley

      Antelope Park – hmmmmm

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1278088283 Cheryl Semcer

        Is that where you went in Zimbabwe Simon? I was also a volunteer at AP and although I never saw any abuse it broke my heart that those elephants had to give rides and swim with people on their backs. When I went to Africa I didn’t know any better but once I was on an el’s back I knew it didn’t feel right. Since that experience I have become an advocate against elephants in zoos, circuses and any form of exploitation. If I had not had that time with those els I wouldn’t be where I am today – educating people and attending circus protests, and lobbying congress. When I speak to families and legislatures about the intelligence these beings have and how strongly they connect with one another I can say it from the heart, from experiencing this first hand. These animals are not meant for captivity!
        It was the same situation at AP that you described. These four els had been orphaned in the 92 drought and now had to “earn their keep” (exact words from trainer). They were well cared for spending most of their time in the bush grazing but they always had handlers with them, carrying bullhooks and whenever a guest wanted a ride they had to leave grazing and just being an elephant to being a commodity. They were never allowed to be real elephants. Is this life of captivity better than death? In this case I think so but then again I am not the one who has to cart around tourists on my back.

  • Verney Moyo

    We are constantly fighting for the survival of wildlife, and for the habitats that they utilize. Where elephants can be used to further the conservation cause, without harm and stress to themselves; they could become a pivotal tool in the education of natives and tourists alike in the wiles assailing the conservation of African Wildlife. The financial benefits this implicates to the persons who keep them, in my mind, become secondary as long as the enterprise is being used to assist in conservation, and, hopefully, if a portion of the returns, of what ever size, are invested into conservation efforts. There is corruption and animal cruelty exhibited in the wildlife industry within many other parts of southern Africa…I hope blogs like this one will help to expose and STOP the abuse of our rich heritage; the Bushveld…before it is too late…

  • Julie Saunders

    Thank you for a very interesting article. I too was initially not sure whether I was doing the “right” thing when deciding to take an elephant back ride in Vic Falls, Zambian side in December. However, from just a brief and superficial visit, I saw no sign of cruelty and in fact was deeply touched by the whole experience and felt honoured to be accepted so trustingly by the elephants The handlers impressed me too with their dedication and kind handling and knowledge. the elephants all had such a traumatic background and amazing how forgiving and dignified they were – great ambassadors for their species!

  • joysmith7mr@gmail.com

    My husband Keith, granddaughter Beckie and I visited Sean at Adventures with Elephants last Easter. We had a really memorable experience, just as you describe. Keith and Beckie also swam with the elephants and it was very much up to the ellies whether they went in the water and whether they swam – no pushing, prodding or cajoling. They did swim, and obviously loved it. They are well cared for and happy and are educating tourists and South Africans about these magnificent and intelligent animals. Sean grew up surrounded by elephants and clearly loves them and ensures they have a good life. Great place to visit!

  • http://twitter.com/elephantlovers Elephant Lovers

    This is modern day slavery. Elephants are more fascinating in their natural habitats. They have the right to live their lives as God genetically programmed them to do – to be a keystone species in their ecosystems and on our planet. We humans have not right to exploit them. We think we are the only ones on the planet but we are not and climate change will hone that point. The only education elephant riding fosters is that slavery is OK, alive and well. We look on human slavery with abhorrence and our grandchildren will do the same on animal slavery.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Simon.Espley1 Simon Espley

      Thanks for the comment, interesting and certainly a definite line in the sand. I am interested in what you feel should be done with elephants that are ‘surplus to requirements’. I get that in the perfect world elephants are never ‘surplus’, so lets not debate whether elephants should be culled, controlled etc and lets not get into privately owned versus wild elephants. But on a practical level, what happens to those elephants that have to be moved or removed?

    • http://www.facebook.com/nicky.tyler.10 Nicky Tyler

      Did not mean to “vote up” this comment! I agree with those below, in an ideal world they should be in their natural habitat, but when these elephants that would otherwise have died can be used to educate and be ambassadors for their species it is turning a negative situation into the most positive it could be

      • http://twitter.com/elephantlovers Elephant Lovers

        You have been bought and sold by zoo spin when you say they are ambassadors, and they are hardly educational. That is like saying you know about human beings because you have observed only those in prison. In a zoo you are not seeing an elephant, you are seeing a tragedy.

    • Sheila

      Of course it is more fascinating to see elephants in the wild but the circumstances that brought them here kept them from being killed. Would you have preferred if they were killed? I think if the elephants didn’t want to do it, they wouldn’t be forced to do so. There are no bullhooks or electric prods forcing them to perform. No different from getting dogs to do tricks or riding on a horse. Would you consider that to be slavery?

    • http://www.facebook.com/hannes.debeer.311 Hannes De Beer

      In a perfect world – - -

  • Sheila

    Doesn’t seem to be at all like those unfortunate captive elephants in zoos and circuses who are not allowed to roam and are trained with electric prods and bullhooks. Goes to show that elephants don’t need to be beaten or poked and prodded. They are gentle and wise animals and unless the elephant is in musth, there is no need to fear them. I do believe that elephants do not belong in zoos or circuses. They need to be around other elephants and they need to be able to roam over large distances. Although these animals are not in the wild, it sounds like they have everything they need to keep them happy. Definitely better than being killed because they got into someones garden.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1778273699 Jody Stickney

    “…give them a decent life – which by the very nature of the size and intelligence of the animal, has to involve a degree of training and hands-on
    management.”
    ???

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=754904616 Ana Zinger

    NOT COOL AT ALL! Elephant back safari is a dreadful practice! If you know anything about elephants, you must know that this is not OK! Spend the time, the money, and the energy to give them a happy life! Please get informed! AG should know better! Please read Daphne Sheldrick’s book!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=754904616 Ana Zinger

    Please read Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss researches! Please! Get informed!

  • Isa M

    While visiting the Elephant Stay in Thailand, pianist Paul Bartonl had the chance to perform a duet with Peter the elephant. The two performed some 12 bar blues together, and Peter can even be seen shaking his head along to the music. See it here for yourself!
    http://www.qltyctrl.com/elephant-plays-blues-piano-player-thailand/