The guide is quick to let everyone know that the elephants that are bowing in front of us were all rescued. They’ve come to here in Zambia from Zimbabwe after being saved from poachers or people hoping to turn them into pets. But as I look across at the row of beautiful elephants saddled by riders I can’t help but feel like there are some serious ethical flaws to the game, despite the origin of the elephants. Like swimming with dolphins, these elephants are essentially here for our amusement, and the company’s fiscal balance, rather than their well-being.
I climb a wooden staircase and stretch my right leg across the broad back of the matriarch of the herd. The handler says something in Shona and the gentle giant creeps ahead. I sway from side to side as she does.
There is no doubting the appeal of this type of safari. Beyond the novelty of riding a massive African elephant, the position on their backs offers a completely different perspective of the savanna below. Rather than being blocked by the brush, tall grass and trees, I look down on my surroundings, I can see everything.
We approach a herd of giraffe. Though they are aware of us, they aren’t afraid nor are they concerned. I sit nearly at a level with the long necked creature. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a wild giraffe and I’m looking at them at eye-level. They are such awkward animals, but at the same time they have a gracefulness to the way they sway their necks and a peace to the way they look at us.
The elephant lumbers on through the brush not at all concerned about finding a space in the brush. She presses right through the trees, trampling the forest as she walks. At a clearing, a pair of impalas sprints from side to side hopping dramatically as they do. In the trees, a couple orange hornbills twist their necks to look across at us but they don’t flee in fear.
There is no doubting the experience. It is brilliant. But is it right?
Does the fact that you’ve rescued an animal give you the right to train it as you see fit? Are you not trading one human effect for another? Shouldn’t these animals be rehabilitated to go back into the wild, or at least some sort of sanctuary where they can live semi-free? Shouldn’t the baby elephant be brought up like a wild elephant rather than ridden around and trained for future use as an elephant-back safari vehicle?
Unfortunately, the answer to all those questions point to the fact that there is a serious ethical issue with what is going on in Livingstone with the elephant-back safaris. Essentially, these animals are being exploited for the financial well-being of the company that rescued them. They have no intention of returning them to the wild, but rather hold them captive as to continue earning from them an income.
The devil’s advocate might call this a necessary evil. For one, excursions like this teach people about elephants and the need for their conservation. There is a significant educational factor to the program here, and tourists learn the need for elephant conservation. Secondly, one could ask how we see it fit to ride horses, bulls, ostriches and whatever else people ride but not elephants. These elephants aren’t just trained, they are domesticated.
At the end of the day, I know that activities like this won’t end anytime soon. In fact, my guess is that their popularity in Southern Africa will only grow. And when it comes down to it, maybe excursions like this are necessary to the conservation and education effort. But for me, I find it more than a little bit difficult not to sit on the back of an elephant and think that this animal should be free. This animal should be wild. This elephant should be wandering without a saddle and a camera wielding tourist on its back.