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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

Kafunta Safaris
Simon Espley

I am a proud African, of the digital tribe, and honoured to be CEO of Africa Geographic. My travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, real people with interesting stories and elusive birds. I live in Hoedspruit, next to the Kruger National Park, with my wife Lizz and 2 Jack Russells. When not travelling or working I am usually on my mountain bike somewhere out there. I qualified as a chartered account, but found my calling sharing Africa's incredibleness with you. My motto is "Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change". Connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter.