I have never had a face-to-face encounter with an elephant in my entire life until I reach the Kingdom of Cambodia. Understandably, like Thailand and Laos, Cambodia has much use, for centuries of elephants. May it be for transportation, hard and manual labor on the fields and now, tourism. I am captivated by these tender giants since I was young, watching oriental movies where an elephant is considered a friend and a family. Rudyard Kipling’s classic, “The Elephant Child” is a constant companion in my search to understand better these graceful giants.
When I arrived in Siem Reap and touring around Angkor complex, on my way to the Bayon temple, three elephants waited for tourists to board them for $20 each way. My tuk-tuk driver pointed it out to me if I wanted to ride it but I begged off. I alighted from his tuk-tuk and decided to walk around and took a photo of the elephant with their handlers. I would love to exchange ideas with the handlers however unsuccessful was I on my attempts. Seemed they do not want to be talked and naturally, as aware as I am of animal rights, I would love to ask how these elephants are cared for. The handlers just avoided me, as if I am a potential disaster so to speak.
I walked around towards Bayon and saw monkeys on the wild who seemed to be disturbed by the presence of hundreds and thousands of tourists flocking towards their abode for centuries and if only they can speak, they would shout, where is our peace?
The stark realization I have about tourism is its abuses to animals and in this case, the elephants. No matter how my tuk-tuk driver convinced me that the elephants I saw were cared for and are feed regularly, I still find it odd why people would want to ride them for photos and also, they are very much able to walk the same way these elephants do walk for those dusty mornings and afternoons. I can never even reconcile my principles that while tourism is benefiting people, so should with animals. These principles are however challenged when I saw the elephants. The tourist capitalism as I call it is taking its toll on the elephants.
In the Philippines, the Manila Zoo still patronizes the elephants in their cages and people simply would love to see them, not in the wild but in the zoo. As a backpacker, as much as I can, I avoid zoos for I find it painful to see animals supposedly on the wild, in their natural habitat, but as tourism demands, placed in inhumane cages (modern semantics: enclosures). Thus, this post celebrates with the WWF the World Elephant Day! Take a photo of the elephants, just DONT ride on them, will you please?
It is I believed that while tourism benefits community, so it must be our solemn duty to protect our animals. We share the same benefits though at a different levels. We pay and get paid, while they get nothing and sadly, we make sums out of them. Everytime we board on the backs of elephants, we pay and in Cambodia, its $20 each way. How much then goes to animal welfare? Nil if there is. How much then goes to the owners and handlers? More, as always! We live in a society so cruel and abusive, manipulative and scheming but let us not wait until the monkeys run wild and the elephants run amok. Like us, they can feel and they know they are being used for profit. It entirely depends on our ability to consider their welfare above our own touristic barbarism, least, our touristic ignorance too.