Elephant at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Help End Elephant Riding at Angkor Park, Siem Reap

A petition to end elephant riding was started after an elephant called Sambo, whose job was to carry tourists around Angkor Archaeological Park, home to Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, collapsed and died. We are posting here to ask our readers to sign it.

We’re posting here to ask you to help end elephant riding at Angkor by signing the petition on Change.org addressed to the Apsara Authority, which operates Angkor Archaeological Park. There are 1.5 million of you and just 3,861* signatures are needed to take it to the 150,000 supporters required.

*UPDATE 16 June 2016: The organisers of the petition have advised that as of today over 172,000 signatures have been collected and they are going to deliver the petition to the Apsara Authority, asking them to ban elephant rides in the park. If they are successful we’ll post the news here. Watch this space.

Help End Elephant Riding at Angkor

I’m not sure if that’s Sambo, pictured above, who died two weeks ago. But if it isn’t, it’s one of her 13 companions who cart tourists around the archaeological park, day in day out, and do the difficult climb up a steep, bumpy track to Bakheng Mountain, so they can watch the sunset over Angkor Wat.

Terence took that photo on our very first visit to Siem Reap some years ago. But back then, before we moved here three years ago, we, like many others, weren’t as aware as we are now of how painful it is for elephants to carry tourists in those contraptions.

It wasn’t until we did an elephant mahout experience shortly after at the Four Seasons Tented Camp in Thailand’s Golden Triangle, where we got to feed the elephants, ride them bare back, and bathe them in water, which they absolutely loved, that we learnt not only how much damage those awful things can do, but how badly working elephants can be treated.

The elephants at the Four Seasons Tented Camp, like many at the good elephant sanctuaries around the region, were rescued from similar situations to Sambo’s. They had been mistreated and they had the hideous scars to prove it.

The elephants were very much enjoying their five-star retirement and the guests who stayed were equally happy having the opportunity to get up close and learn about these big beautiful animals – to feed them, wash them, play with them. Their fees to do the mahout experience paid for the elephants’ accommodation, meals, and veterinary bills.

If this petition helps end elephant riding at Angkor Park, there needs to be a plan for the future of these elephants and alternative jobs for the mahouts employed by Angkor Elephant Company who currently look after these extraordinary creatures.

I have no idea how these mahouts treat their elephants, and I have to say that I’ve never witnessed them treating them badly, but then I’m not at Angkor every day. But we shouldn’t assume that because most working elephants are mistreated, that Sambo was, and her mates are too.

Like the rest of the region, we’ve had a heat wave here in recent weeks in Siem Reap, and the vet that examined Sambo determined that the 40-45 year old elephant, who had worked her job in Angkor Park for fifteen years, had died from a heart attack as a result of heat exhaustion.

We don’t have a Four Seasons Tented Camp here, but we do have 200 hotels, including a crazy number of five star hotels, and scores of travel companies making big money from tourism to Angkor and Siem Reap.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see some of those more responsible hotels and travel companies partnering with the Angkor Elephant Company to establish an elephant sanctuary near Angkor Park?

The Sambo Angkor Park Elephant Sanctuary could not only provide a retirement home for Sambo’s colleagues, but it could provide work for her mahouts, and plenty of photo ops for the countless tourists who I guarantee would pay a fee to have the chance to get up and close to these incredible animals.

The fees in turn would pay for elephant feed and full-time trained carers and a vet. It would also provide opportunities for the abundant volunteers that descend upon Cambodia each year and help to get them out of the orphanages.

Please help end elephant riding at Angkor Park, by signing the petition at Change.org so that Sambo’s mates can go into retirement and live a life of luxury – like the millions of tourists who visit Angkor who choose to ride them.

If you’re visiting Siem Reap, please see our post on why it’s important to travel responsibly in Cambodia and our comprehensive Guide to Responsible Travel in Cambodia.

Your Angkor Elephant Questions Answered

UPDATE: 7 May, 2016

Since posting this yesterday, it has been one of our most-visited stories, readers have been clicking out to the Change.org petition, and there are now just 1,725* signatures needed. We’ve also received some questions via email and social media on the subject, so we thought we’d provide our responses here for everyone to see.

Q. Why should we help end elephant riding? Elephants have always been part of the history of Angkor.

A. It’s true that elephants have been part of Angkor’s history since the beginning. Elephants helped to build Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and many other temple cities, carting the massive stones down from the mountain quarries. They were an integral part of the Khmer Empire armies, carrying soldiers and weapons, and even participating in battles. They also paraded in royal processions and carried kings and royal parties.

Many scenes in the bas reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and Banteay Chhmar illustrate the important role of the elephant. In one very vivid, detailed bas-relief on Angkor Wat’s southern gallery, King Suryavarman II leads a military parade from atop a magnificently dressed elephant whose head is held high, seemingly with pride.

The splendid Elephant Terrace at the entrance to the Royal Palace in the temple city of Angkor Thom features beautiful bas-reliefs of elephants and their mahouts, along with carvings of three-headed elephants with their trunks pulling lotuses out from the ground. These terraces formed the foundation for royal receptions.

Elephants served as temple guardians, particularly on the 9th and 10th century structures. There are elephant statues at Bakong and East Mebon (including one particularly preserved one), although my favourite is the handsome moss-dappled elephant statuefound deep in the jungle up at Phnom Kulen, on the site of the ‘lost city’ of Mahendraparvata.

Q. If elephant rides are banned, the mahouts (elephant keepers) will lose their jobs. They are very poor people. This is not fair.

A. That’s why we believe an Angkor Elephant Sanctuary should be established in or near Angkor Archaeological Park. Some are suggesting that the elephants be sent to the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri province, which is far from Siem Reap.

An Angkor Elephant Sanctuary would not only provide a retirement home for the elephants, but also jobs for the mahouts, and perhaps a new, more ethical and more sustainable business for the company currently operating the elephant rides.

Many elephant parks in other countries, which had a business model based upon elephant rides have evolved into elephant sanctuaries, offering tourists the chance to learn about elephants, feed them, wash them, and, in some cases, ride them bareback, and take photos with them.

These new sanctuaries are charging the same fees for these experiences so haven’t lost money. If anything, as people become more educated and desire these more responsible experiences, the sanctuary stands to make more money than before.

Q. I don’t think Apsara Authority will ban elephant rides. What will they get out of it?

A. We disagree. We believe the Apsara Authority has much to gain in fact. Trust us on this: we’ve now been writing full-time on travel for over 15 years. We’ve updated scores of travel guidebooks. We know what sort of tourist attractions succeed and fail.

Elephants have a long history at Angkor. They played a major role in the building of these majestic cities, in battles, and in royal processions. They feature on many temples, in carvings and bas-reliefs. One of our favourite elephant statues is up at Phnom Kulen, where the Khmer Empire began.

An Angkor Elephant Sanctuary provides an opportunity for the Apsara Authority, which is responsible not only for the operation of Angkor Archaeological Park, but its archaeological sites and their protection, preservation, development, and ongoing research.

An elephant sanctuary would provide a chance to develop a further tourist attraction that highlights and educates visitors about the significant role of the elephant and to direct tourists, especially elephant and wildlife lovers, to other archaeological sights.

Q. Elephants are big, strong animals. How can carrying small people hurt them?

A. You’re right, they are very strong, but they are not made to carry a 50-70kg chair with the additional weight of 2-4 adults. Doing this continuously results in painful abscesses on the elephant’s back, behind their legs and under their tail, and over many years results in deformities and scars.

Experts claim that elephants should not walk at a brisk pace for more than four hours a day, yet many who work in elephant camps, taking tours on treks, often walk all day, on hilly terrain, with little time to rest, drink and eat. It’s even tougher on the elephants in extreme heat of the kind we’ve had recently across the region.

Elephants in the wild, by contrast, spend up to 20 hours a day foraging and drink up to 100 litres of water a day. Perhaps surprisingly, they do not like being in the sun for long and can easily suffer from heat exhaustion. In the world, they will rest when they need to, often in the shade, and bathe and play in rivers, streams and lakes to keep cool.

But this is not just about the pain and harm from elephant rides, it’s about the cruel measures used to train elephants to be obedient, from the time they are babies, and the ongoing abuse during their working lives. Many elephants are beaten, starved, shackled when they are not working and kept in chains when they are, resulting in injuries which go untreated and painful deformities.

Watch this documentary An Elephant Never Forgets for insights into the horrible conditions of elephants in Thailand’s elephant tourism industry. If this doesn’t make you want to help end elephant rides…

Q. But I haven’t seen the mahouts at Angkor do bad things to their elephants. How do you know the elephants are treated badly here?

A. Forcing elephants to work all day every day is in itself cruel and a form of mistreatment, no matter where it’s happening, whether at Angkor or one of the countless elephant camps in Thailand. Because if the elephants are working all day every day, which is not natural to them, it means they are over-worked, exhausted, under-fed, and dehydrated. See above for more on elephants in the wild.

We also haven’t seen the mahouts at Angkor treat their elephants badly. At the Four Seasons Tented Camp, which provides a home for rescued elephants, we met gentle Thai mahouts who loved their elephants dearly, so we appreciate what you’re saying.

But many mahouts do mistreat elephants and it often happens behind the scenes. Elephant conservation and animal cruelty organisations have reported countless cases of elephants being viciously hurt with sticks, hooks, knives, spears, and even nails, to show the animal who is boss and force them into submission. They have evidence of scars, broken bones and deformities to prove it.

Q. Why are you focused on Angkor? Why aren’t you boycotting all elephant rides and elephant parks?

Our focus at Grantourismo, since we launched at the end of 2009 with our global grand tour of the world, has been slow and sustainable travel; local travel and the idea of living like locals; experiential travel, and learning and doing things; and responsible travel and the idea of giving back to the places we travel.

We simplified that to ‘slow, local and experiential’, because we believe that those three forms of travel are inherently more sustainable and are rooted in responsible travel. You can read more about our philosophy on our About pages.

We have never condoned elephant rides anywhere, nor have we ever visited or written about an elephant park. They are not responsible forms of tourism. But regardless, we are animal lovers, and despite the joy we get from spending time with animals, we are very uncomfortable visiting many zoos.

We have only ever supported elephant sanctuaries that provide homes for rescued, abused elephants who cannot be returned to the wild. We would love to see all elephants be able to roam free like these beautiful elephants we observed in Kenya.

We are focused on Angkor because we live in Siem Reap, just fifteen minutes away from the Angkor Archaeological Park. The recent death of Sambo is a chance to draw attention to the situation at Angkor, as much as the larger problem, and an opportunity to advocate for change while it’s timely and in the media and in people’s minds.

Q. As a tourist, how do we tell the difference between an elephant camp and an elephant sanctuary?

A. An elephant camp has a model of tourism based on elephant rides, treks, and sometimes elephant shows, which also involve training that requires abuse for the elephant to remain obedient.

An elephant sanctuary is a place that offers safety, care and protection to elephants rescued from elephant camps, zoos, shows, circuses, logging companies, and street-begging. They rehabilitate the animals and when possible release them to the wild. Often they are situated on an expansive property that may be fenced in but replicates the wild, so that the elephants aren’t in confined spaces.

Sometimes elephant sanctuaries may offer short experiences and longer term volunteer opportunities, from a day to a week, where people get to learn about elephants, feed them, walk with them, and watch them bathe. These experiences raise vital funds because it’s very expensive to feed elephants and pay veterinarian bills.

The earsasia.org website has links to ethical elephant sanctuaries and projects in Southeast Asia, as well as a guide to signs to look for at elephant parks/camps to determine whether the elephant is being well cared for and whether they are being treated humanely. Only visit ethical elephant sanctuaries to help end elephant riding.

Q. If I can’t ride elephants at Angkor, where can I see elephants up close in Cambodia?

A. Here are a few ethical elephant tourism operators in Cambodia. As we hear of more we’ll add them. If you know of any please leave them in the Comments below.

The Elephant Valley Project

Mahouts are encouraged and paid to retire their elephants at The Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri province, ran by British expat Jack Highwood. Mahouts are paid a wage and continue to care for the elephants, feeding them, and ensuring they don’t escape into the wild, where they’re under threat from poachers. Visitors get to walk with the elephants and observe them at play, in the jungle and river. Day trips (from US$55) and overnight two-day stays (from US$125) are available to tourists, bookable in advance on their site. Short- and long-term volunteers are also welcome.
www.elephantvalleyproject.org

The Mondulkiri Project Elephant Sanctuary

Cambodian local, Mr Tree, has an agreement with the indigenous elders of the Bunong tribe to rent an area of forest to protect it from logging and provide a home for rescued elephants. He also plans to start a breeding programme. On their one-day Elephant Adventure Tour (US$50) and two-day Elephant Adventure and Jungle Trek Tour (US$75), participants walk with the elephants, swim with and bathe them, observe them in their natural habitat, and relax at the lodge, while learning about the local Bunong people.
www.mondulkiriproject.org

Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary

The Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, formerly the Kulen Promptep Sanctuary, is an animal and environmental conservation project located on one million acres of jungle habitat, straddling the provinces of Preah Vihear, Siem Reap and Odor Mean Chey. Operating in partnership with the Chiang Mai-based Save Elephant Foundation, the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary is the last refuge for thirty-six species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, including six listed as Critically Endangered. The Asian elephant is on the highly threatened species list. The Sanctuary is financed through an ethical eco-volunteer program and private donations.
www.cambodiawildlifesanctuary.org

Please feel free to leave further questions in the Comments below or email them directly and and we’ll transfer them to the post. If we can’t answer them, we’ll find people who can.



There are 2 comments

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  1. Heidi Bloomer

    Are any of the ethical elephant tourism operators you listed, suitable for kids ages 5 and 7? We are planning a trip to Cambodia in Feb and I’m glad I read this ahead of time. Thank you!

  2. Lara Dunston

    Hello Heidi – I recommend you contact them directly as some operators have restrictions on children and some don’t. Also, it really depends on the kids. We have friends who have children of that age who are well travelled and adventurous and active, and would probably love it, but then I know of children who are not used to being around animals and probably wouldn’t cope at all. I’d love to hear back from you after your trip to see how you found it. And do let us know if you need any other Cambodia trips. Thanks for dropping by!


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