Ivanhoe

Orphaned Elephants Earn their Keep

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

Simon Espley

Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. His travels in Africa are in search of wilderness, real people with interesting stories and elusive birds. He lives in Cape Town with his wife Lizz and 2 Jack Russells, and when not travelling or working he will be on his mountain bike somewhere out there. His motto is "Live for now, have fun, be good, tread lightly and respect others. And embrace change". The views expressed in his posts are his own. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

  • Imms R.

    I highly suggest you research what the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the organization Big Life does, to see better solutions to elephant-human conflict. Please note, it consists of doing what’s best for the animal and not a pocketbook.
    Just because you didn’t see the yelling, beating, and prodding being done, only means that these animals have already been successfully abused into blind obedience. Those long spear like batons were used to in their made-for-capacity before these elephants were ‘presented’ to you. What you’re watching is an elephant circus with elephant circus tricks. You have paid for animal abuse. You are a participant in animal cruelty.

    • Agreed.

      • Richard Boddington

        It can be disputed Selma because I have personally spent a great deal of time at Adventures With Elephants and no elephant abuse of any kind occurs. Sean and his staff treat the elephants like royalty. Before making inaccurate sweeping statements on the internet you should actually do some research first. 30, 000 elephants a year are being killed by the poachers in Africa, the day will soon come when African elephants can only be found on reserves like Adventures With Elephants. This is a sad reality.

        • JonelPrice

          Richard Boddington, Selma Baldi Richardson clearly stated: the cruelty to elephants is widely researched and documented on the internet. It sounds more like YOU are the one not doing your research. It would seem that you are merely pushing the agenda of one organisation…. not letting a moment go by without mentioning their name in an effort to gain some free exposure on the internet – for your own gain.

          • Richard Boddington

            Again, nonsense Jonel. I challenge you or anyone else to publish that “cell phone” video of abuse at this elephant park. If you don’t have it, then you have zero proof and are merely posting rubbish on the internet. Sean Hensman and his team are doing amazing work to save elephants, a lot more than any so called “animal rights” organization is that is for sure! I am waiting for that video…..

          • Richard Boddington

            I publicly challenge you to visit this park Jonel and report back with your findings.

          • JonelPrice

            You really do go to extremes to try and promote this particular establishment! Perverse incentive, perhaps? I quote from Imms. R (above): “Just because you didn’t see the yelling, beating, and prodding being done, only means that these animals have already been successfully abused into blind obedience. Those long spear like batons were used to in their made-for-capacity before these elephants were ‘presented’ to you. What you’re watching is an elephant circus with elephant circus tricks. You have paid for animal abuse. You are a participant in animal cruelty.” Do your research, Richard Boddington. The cruelty involved in training elephants, can not be disputed. And it won’t be in the open, of course, so your challenge to me means nothing.

          • Richard Boddington

            Well Jonel I have spent a lo of time with Sean actually on his property, so I have FIRST HAND knowledge, so I know 100% what I am talking about. Question….have you even set foot on the African continent Jonel?

            You are smearing the good name of an incredible group of people who go through great lengths to help and care for elephants, all I can say is, shame on you! What’s worse is that you make these claims without even one shred of evidence to back up what you are saying.

            And BTW, I am not a share holder in this property, I live in Canada and have no business interest.

            There’s an old saying that applies to people like you Jonel….”Only the closed mind is certain.” Describes you perfectly.

            Once again I publicly challenge you, provide proof for your baseless claims, or delete your comments. In a court of law the burden of proof would be on you to back up any claim that you make, so, let’s see you back it up.

          • Richard Boddington

            That link you provided is laughable! It has nothing to do with “elephant abuse.” It’s about a US senator complaining about US pork barrelled spending. So what if a grant was given to Adventures With Elephants to see if elephants can sniff out bombs. If you had knowledge of Africa whatsoever, you would understand that this is actually a good program. But you’re just another misinformed white person sitting behind your computer with zero on the ground knowledge of Africa.

          • Richard Boddington

            Even more hilarious Jonel you have completely ignored the comments made by the writer of this article, another person who was actually THERE! He says, and I quote from above:

            “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.”

            His qualifications are as follows, what are your qualifications to write anything you are posting?

            “Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. He travels extensively in Africa, seeking wilderness, real people and elusive birds. The views expressed in his posts are his own. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.”

          • JonelPrice

            It would seem as if the establishment is under international scrutiny, and not in a good way. And Sean Hensman has had huge financial motivation to enslave, and torture, the elephants into obedience: http://www.biznews.com/undictated/2015/05/08/sa-resort-listed-among-us-govts-outrageous-pork-projects/amp/

            Just proves my point: where there is profit to be made, the welfare of the animals will come last. And this establishment you promote, is no different.

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