Your Comprehensive Guide to Asian Elephants

Everyone, I’d like you to meet Sambo.

Isn’t she beautiful? Don’t be fooled by the bashful look on her face, she adores attention and is quite the diva. She only eats the greenest, most tender grasses she can find, and appreciates a good manicure.

She’s also famous, or at least was a few years ago. Back then, she used to walk the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, performing tricks and giving rides in exchange for fruit or the occasional Coca-Cola. It was only in 2012 that her owner decided it was time for her to retire, and then it was another two years before she was placed in the care of the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) in Cambodia to actually live as an elephant in the forest. This was after over 30 years of walking the concrete streets of the city, and her working life had already taken a toll. She is designed for walking through mud and fields; the hard surface of the street had rubbed much of the soft pads from her feet. They are slowly being healed with iodine foot baths/manicures, which is an ongoing process at the EVP that is only made more difficult by an infected wound caused by stepping on a nail. Her lack of habits is the most troubling part, however. Growing up far from her natural environment has caused her to distrust her fellow elephants, a discouraging notion when you consider how social elephants can be and how social Sambo is with humans. She has difficulty effectively washing herself and throwing dirt on her back, which are both essential elephant habits she needs to stay healthy. She never had other elephants to teach her, so now at 55 years old she is still learning the basics.

Sambo is an Asian elephant. Smaller than their African relatives, Asian elephants also tend to be less aggressive. They are adapted to living in the often soggy jungle of their home in Southeast Asia. In the wild they live in familial herds, and can communicate over long distances by emitting a low grumbling noise that causes the ground to vibrate. These vibrations are then detected by their sensitive feet. With the amount of deforestation occurring in their native homeland, the species has become critically endangered.

Elephants in general have captured the adoration of people all over the world. As a result, it was a logical conclusion to use them for tourism. Elephants had been used as working animals for years before this as well, but they were mostly used for tasks that did not interfere much with the daily life of the elephant. The owners treated the elephants with love, and being a mahout (elephant tender) was viewed as an honor. This is not true of how the tourism industry developed. Often, elephants are worked all day, even in the intense summer heat, and are not allowed to graze as they need to stay healthy. Their diet has to be supplemented just to keep them going. Water is purposefully kept at a minimum. Dehydration saps elephants of energy, just like it does to people. This still doesn’t always guarantee an elephant’s cooperation, which makes the circumstances dangerous to all involved: the elephant, the mahout, and the tourists. Holding carriages and people on their back is very unhealthy for the elephant, as their back is actually rather weak. The strongest point is on the neck, and even that shouldn’t be ridden constantly. Even the more recent trend to “bathe with the elephants” is a dubious practice. Asian elephants don’t generally bathe more than once a day, as is required for this form of tourism. The mud they throw on their back is vital to protect them from the sun and biting insects, so washing more than necessary does not help them in any way. Also, the elephants may decide to roll at any moment, putting any bathers with them in harm’s way.

There are safe and ethical ways to see elephants. Programs such as the EVP take care of elephants that have too much of a dependence on people to live in the wild, but also allows them to mostly go about their daily elephant life (or, in the case of elephants like Sambo, learn to go about elephant life). The elephants at EVP come from a variety of backgrounds; most were formerly working elephants, but the others belong to caring owners that are no longer able to adequately tend to the needs of their elephants. Small groups of people are permitted to watch the elephants as long as they keep at a respectable distance, and the elephants are able to graze to their heart’s content. They form their own herds, despite not being related, and learn from each other. Ruby, a small and sociable elephant, has undertaken the task of getting Sambo comfortable being around her own species. Slowly but surely, Sambo is recovering and learning how to be the queen of the jungle she was always meant to be.

(One last picture of Ruby, because she is adorable!)

Pictures: Cover, Sambo, Sambo, Sambo, Ruby (all pictures within the article were taken by me)