I have always been aware of elephant riding, but in all honesty, I thought it was something that was going out of fashion as people realised how cruel it was. I have only seen one physical example of this mistreatment of elephants and that was in Cambodia at Angkor Wat. I took a photo and then turned away I simply couldn’t watch those hideous laughing tourists sitting astride an elephant who had absolutely no choice in the matter. When I moved to Zambia in 2020, I assumed that with it being a place of such natural wonderment and the land of the walking safari that people wouldn’t feel the need to ride elephants.
As I started following more tourism pages on Instagram, I began to become concerned that this really was something that tourists and locals were doing. Not only were they riding elephants, but they were also posing with cheetahs and stroking lions. I was shocked.
I will state this plain and simple right now, it is absolutely not ok to pose, pet and aggravate wild animals and it is certainly not ok to ride elephants. Perhaps this generations innate desire to selfie their way through life has led to this industry still existing, but it is not ok.
If you are reading this as a person who has partaken in these activities, then I hope by the time you finish this article you will reflect on your past choices and choose never to do it again. If you, like me are shocked by the images you see on Instagram then I hope this article will help to provide some motivation to educate others and create change.
The Elephant Ride
What has to happen in order for you to ride an elephant?
Sitting on top of an African elephant thinking about how many likes this picture is going to get on Instagram, with absolutely no thought of what this poor elephant has been through. Well, let me tell you how this process works.
- From a young age elephants are taken from their mothers and forced to partake in brutal training known as “THE CRUSH”
- “THE CRUSH” is designed to break the animals’ spirits and ‘tame’ the animal teaching it to become submissive.
- During “THE CRUSH” baby elephants are tied down, beaten and made to fear their handlers and most importantly obey them
Through years of physical torture in captivity elephants go through tremendous psychological torture. This is how you are able to ride them. Did you never think, why is this wild elephant being so still? Why is this wild elephant allowing me to climb onto its back and ride it? Well, the only reason you can do this is because of the years of torture they have suffered.
Yes, people in favour of this, especially those at the Mukuni Big 5 will inform you that the animals are able to roam freely; and even if that were true they don’t wander off because they are trained to stay, they were ripped away from their mothers and have nowhere else to go.
Unfortunately this is happening in lots of places in Southern Africa, see this diagram below provided by SA People News.
Why when you could see an elephant like this in all its glory would you choose to participate in this cruelty?
Mukuni Big 5 Safaris: The Main Culprits in Zambia
Mukuni Big 5 arguably monopolize this sector of the wildlife tourism industry. Since 2009 this company have been offering these “experiences”. They are located on Plot 133, Mosi-oa-Tunya Road if you want to go and throw eggs at them (I am in no way to be held responsible for any egg related damages, egg at your own risk)! There website makes for quite the read and is frankly laughable in places. Two parts in particular stood out to me.
“We are committed to the conservation, wellbeing and livelihood of our vulnerable African Lion, endangered African Cheetah, Elephants and Caracals. We are pioneering the breeding and hopefully future release of Cheetahs here in Zambia, this being the important aspect of our Volunteer and Cheetah Conservation Trust.” – Mukuni Big 5 Safaris, 2022
The idea that they are pioneering in conservation is frankly ridiculous. I would describe Conservation South Luangwa as being pioneering in conservation (please read more about them they do such a great job in protecting Zambia’s wildlife). But cruelly allowing tourists to ride elephants no, no, no that is NOT pioneering. Secondly their breeding program and their desires to “hopefully” release cheetahs. So are no other animals on the list for release? Have any releases happened? Why is it only hopeful? Too many questions remain surrounding this vague statement.
“We are also committed to the education of our youth using our ‘education through conservation’ programme conducted at our site for school children as well as at the schools themselves . We recognise the need for our youth of today to respect and conserve our animals for the future. The future of these animals are and will be in the hands of the youth of today.” – Mukuni Big 5 Safaris, 2022
Excuse my language but F*********K! They are educating people, they are educating children. Hell no. I cannot possibly imagine what mixed messages these kids are receiving. “Be nice to animals, ride the animal, well done you were nice to animals”. I’m not sure of the reach of programs like this, but it is very concerning.
Mukuni Big 5 Safari Prices
Under the disguise of a false name, I contacted Mukuni Big 5 and enquired about the prices for international and Zambian tourists to participate in these tortuous activities. Though I didn’t use the word tortuous thought that might be too much of a giveaway. Here are the prices below.
INTERNATIONAL TOURIST RATES
As the Zambian rates are in Kwacha let me just do a little converting for you. So for the oh so cruel trip of the combined ‘lion, cheetah walk, elephant ride and sunset cruise’, international visitors will pay US$179 more than Zambian’s. It should be noted how affordable simply ‘viewing’ the animals is, this is important because it gets people in the door, it keeps this torture happening day in day out.
Why do people do it?
I have been thinking about this for so long and can barely fathom as to why tourists choose to torture animals in such ways. I’ve hand to think of this from their perspective which is hard but I’ve come up with what I think are a few potential reasons why people do it.
To take cool photos – There is no doubt that elephants, lions and cheetahs are impressive beings so of course you would want to capture pictures of them. We live in a selfie generation and for many nothing is truly captured until your face is in the photo too. Ok, so I assume this is the big draw for that “wow look at you on that elephant” response from people. I don’t get it but I’m imagining.
Education – I am a PhD student and having studied for 5 years in the areas of geography, environment, society and culture I feel lucky that I have lived through these lenses. I have learnt about the world in ways that many have not. I have seen the world, been educated on best practices at preserving rainforests and treating animals in the best manner. It’s in my blood you could say. So, I suppose unfortunately others have not had that chance and maybe with better education they would think differently about their choices. In Zambia in particular shouldn’t curriculums focus on the incredible aspects that Zambia has to offer in terms of tourism and shouldn’t Zambian’s grow up with pride in their wildlife and with the knowledge to treat it in a respectable manner? The same can wholly be said for international visitors too, shouldn’t you educate yourself on the place you are going to and the wildlife you could see. This issue of elephant riding is undertaken by international tourists and Zambian’s alike, the more information we can spread about these heinous practices around the globe the better it will be for the animals.
Affordability – I have often wondered whether people, assuming that safaris are too expensive, opt for this Mukuni Big 5 elephant ride and lion walk option as a more affordable option. But as you can see from the details above it’s still pretty expensive to partake in these activities especially for international tourists, but it is far cheaper to see these animals in this way for Zambian national than it is to go on a safari. Either way you are literally spending money to torture animals, when you could see them happy in the wild just down the road in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.
I love Zambia. It is a truly breathtaking country and frankly I have lived in no place like it. I have been lucky to visit Livingstone and Victoria Falls and the South Luangwa National Park to view the countries exceptional wildlife and plan on many more trips in the future. Don’t get me wrong this is a small part of Zambia’s tourism industry with most in the country opting to promote the wild and free version rather than the tortured selfie posing side. So many of these comments on Instagram are encouraging to see, I sometimes even think that I see more and more people these days commenting in protest of these pictures of elephant rides and cheetah walks.
Our biggest issue on this topic is DEMAND. If the demand is there, then these places will still exist. It’s only through education and raising awareness of the torture these animals go through that we will one day stop this type of tourism.
I have written about this issue in a Zambian context, but this is by no means solely a Zambian issue. This is happening in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe as well as (perhaps in greater severity) in Asia. Please research more about this issue in Asia as it’s truly terrible. Asian elephants are treated with the same lack of care as these African elephants only that most are trained to perform in demeaning and cruel shows to tourists where they perform tricks for the tourists pleasure.