I looked over at the water, sparkling invitingly in the heat of the midday sun. It was almost within touching distance, which made the frustration that I couldn’t even harder to bear. I was quickly bumped back to reality, quite literally, when I felt a child squeal with joy as him and his father climbed up into the seat that was tied to my back and sat down with a thump that, although no less painful, I had become used to over the past 30 years.
A bullhook to the leg signalled we were off and I began to take the small steps that the chains around my legs would allow. I had lost count how many times I had walked this same route. This was the fifth time already today.
My pace is slow until the bullhook forced me to speed up again. I am tired, so very tired.
We may look strong – you’d be forgiven for thinking we can barely feel your weight on our bodies. But, our spines cannot support it – doing this day after day is injuring them beyond repair.
The large chair the riders are sat on rubbed back and forth as I walk, irritating blisters that had already formed and adding new ones. I feared it wouldn’t be long until they were infected. My feet weren’t much better.
A sudden pain shot through my body as I was poked with the bullhook for a third time to signal I needed to stop to allow the tourists to pose for a photo. One moved down towards my head, the chair rubbing again as he slid off it. I stared at the camera, my face couldn’t be further from the beaming smile on top of me.
I heard him say the image will guarantee likes on social media. This is what my pain and suffering is worth, a number that will disappear in a few days when they find and upload the next perfect photo opportunity.
As we came to the end of our route and the child and his father stepped off my back, I could see the little boy running towards me out of the corner of my eye. Suddenly he was in front of me, his arms outstretched and before I knew it, gripped tightly around my trunk. A let out a loud trumpet as I tried to move away, the chains seeming to tighten the grip and yank me back.
The boy fell to the floor and let out a loud cry, which reflected how I felt as the bullhook came into contact with my body once again.
The father grabbed his son in his arms and squeezed him tight. I yearned for my mother as I watched them walk away. The man holding the hook was running alongside as he apologised profusely for my behaviour. I would pay for that later, I feared.
As the sun started to set and the last tourists left, the long agonising day came to an end. I craved, as I always did by this time, peace and quiet, away from the noise of screaming children and talkative adults. But, this was just the start of an even longer and more agonising night.
As the seat was removed from my back, providing some relief, a selection of limp leaves and mouldy vegetables were dropped at my feet. Far from the fresh, lush vegetation I could see around me as I walked. I daren’t reach for it – the repercussions aren’t worth it – I had learned that the hard way.
While the seat is gone, the chains that connect my feet to my neck, are not. They are simply attached to a pole by another chain, three metres long at the most. I can barely move. There is neither a person nor another elephant in sight – although I can hear them, crying out in distress over the shouts to shut them up for disturbing the humans. I had learned very quickly to keep quiet, it was a lot less painful that way.
We aren’t much different to you, you know. We may look different – you don’t have a trunk and we don’t have two legs but we socialise, we have family and friends, we feel pain and sorrow as well as happiness and joy. We never forget.
There is a hard concrete floor beneath my feet and the sound of cars whizzing past the other side of the wall. Horns honk loudly in the darkness. I am left alone, with only my thoughts – and they far from comfort me.
As I drift off I’m taken back to happier times, as I am most nights. In my dreams I am free. A youngster, running around my mother’s feet. Playing with my siblings. But, there are so few of those memories and as hard as I try to cling to them they are fading as each year crawls slowly by. The memory that is sadly still very clear is the day I was snatched from them and it isn’t long until I am back there. The cries from my family, as I was taken dazed and confused in the middle of the night, still haunt me to this day.
The first few nights were horrendous. I heard the human say he intended to break my spirit as he started training me to give rides and perform for tourists. It didn’t take long, my spirit started to break the moment I was snatched from my mother. But that wasn’t enough for them – they kept me in a tiny pen which, regardless of the fact my legs were tied together, wouldn’t have allowed me to move anyway. I was desperate for food and water but days and days went by and still I wasn’t given anything. I struggled with the loneliness but I longed for it when the humans appeared. If they weren’t screaming at me, they were beating my tiny, defenceless body.
I cried each night from both the pain of separation and fear for the future.
I was right to fear it. If I thought the first few weeks were bad it was nothing compared to what was to come.
I can’t blame the tourists, not really. It’s not their fault I am here. The sign on the park door reads ‘orphanage’. They think we have been rescued and given a better life. They don’t see how we are treated. To them we are an incredible experience and the park offers the opportunity to get closer than ever to us. Why can’t they be happy to see us from a distance as we are them? Perhaps they don’t realise but by continuing to come here they do help ensure that I, and others like me, continue to live like this.
Humans often profess their love for me. If that is true, how can they want me to live in these conditions? I certainly wouldn’t wish this on someone I loved. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
Tourist, I beg you – put yourself in my position, just for a moment. One day, out of the blue you are torn from your blissfully happy life. You know your mother was injured but you’ll never know whether she survived or not. You can only believe she did or you may truly die of a broken heart. Although the conditions you now live in, this might be the better option. You have become a tourist attraction, suffering for their enjoyment.
As the sun begins to rise I prepare for yet another day exactly the same as the last. This is my life now and I have resigned myself to that. It has been this way for three decades and I will continue until the day that death comes to relieve me of that.
For many, the story ends there but as it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones. A miracle happened. I was rescued. And I don’t mean in the way these humans had purported to but truly, truly rescued.
My new humans are gentle and kind. The chains were removed and a bullhook no longer comes into contact with my body. I have been given space to roam, access to water and delicious food to eat. My wounds were tended to and I felt loved and cared about for the first time since I left my family.
Tourists still come to see me in my new home but they don’t sit on my back or clamber over my body. Rather than endless hours of interaction, small groups come to see me twice a day. They walk alongside me as we wander through the forest, feed me the freshest, juiciest vegetation before rubbing me down as I take the weight off my feet in the cool, refreshing water.
While I will never roam freely again, I have escaped the shackles that confined me. Now only the scars remain as a physical reminder of the inhumane treatment I was subjected to.
This story is fictional but for many elephants, this is their reality. It is estimated that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 elephants in captivity around the world. By visiting these unethical places and seeing them as a tourist attraction, we are allowing this to continue. If you want to get close to an elephant then volunteer at a sanctuary that rescues them from these horrendous conditions and never ride them.