Gaborone – From the end of this month, no elephants will be permitted to be ridden in Botswana. Abu Camp, the only facility that allowed elephant back riding in the country, has been directed to terminate its elephant back safaris.
Botswana is seen as the international custodian of the African elephant and has the world’s greatest herds. At the CITES convention earlier this year, it voluntarily relinquished its Appendix Two listing of elephants, giving them maximum Appendix One status, seeking their further protection. It has also refused to sell it stockpiled ivory and has disallowed all hunting on state land.
The ban on the riding of elephants is an extension of these moves linked to a new government policy, guided by Minister of Environment TK Khama, to improve the welfare of elephants in captivity. His department studied their subjugation in being forced to carry tourists and found it unacceptable.
For centuries, Asian elephants were trained to be ridden as working animals, but recently conservation organisations have highlighted the cruelty involved.
Elephants are a lot like humans. They socialise, have families and friends, feel pain, sorrow, happiness and more. In many tourist outfits, they are isolated from other elephants and live in virtual solitary confinement.
The first commercial elephant rides in Africa began in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s and soon spread throughout Southern Africa. In the region there are now 39 commercial elephant venues, holding around 215 captive elephants. At least 25 of these offer elephant rides. Seven of them force elephants to do tricks for tourists.
According to the NGO World Animal Protection, most tourists go on elephant rides because they love elephants. They don’t know about the intense physical and psychological pain involved.
"They will not be told that baby elephants are cruelly taken from their mothers, and their spirits harshly broken for training to give rides and perform tricks for tourists.
"This includes chaining and close confinement, loneliness, tight restraint with ropes or chains and isolation from other elephants and deprivation of food and water. Severe pain is often inflicted with pointed metal bullhooks, wooden battens, and whips.
"The cruelty elephants endure during breaking stays with them throughout their lives and can leave them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And after breaking there is no end to their suffering."
Abu Camp supported the Botswana ban. "Following an extensive review of its programme and in compliance with recent government directives" it said in a press release, "as of 31 December 2016, Abu Camp will no longer allow guests to ride elephants.
"The camp will continue to focus its programme on respectful, less intrusive forms of elephant interaction and education … including its immersive walking-based experience."
Among the 39 facilities in Southern Africa that offer elephant experiences, 15 of them in South Africa offer rides, seven in Zimbabwe and two in Zambia.
In 2014 photographs and graphic video footage showing baby elephants being abused at Knysna Elephant Park and its subsidiary, Elephants of Eden, sparked a global outcry. The NSPCA laid criminal charges against their directors and management.
Existing South African Elephant Norms and Standards(ENS) prohibit the capture of wild elephants for permanent captivity as well the import or export of elephants, a move which effectively capped the booming elephant-back safari industry.
* This article was first published by the Conservation Action Trust.