There are 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. and this made me reluctant to visit “Adventures with Elephants” in Bela-Bela, South Africa. After reading some amazing reviews, I decided to go and take a careful look for myself. I was on the lookout for any signs of elephant discomfort or anxiety, and signs of irritation or bullying from the handlers.
On arrival at Adventures with Elephants, my family and I was met by the astounding sight of 5 elephants casually strolling from the dense thorn scrub and coming towards us. The elephants decided to take a quick bath in a nearby dam. After cooling down, they casually strolled up to where we were gathered. No chains, no shouting, no prodding. Quite an intro!
The elephants and their handlers lined up in front of us and got introduced to us by Adventures with Elephants manager Sean Hensman. Sean told us that 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. So the question then was: 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?
And then it was the elephants and their handlers turn, they 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.
After the basic drills 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 family and I – a real honour.
Then it was time for an elephant-back ride, it is not the most comfortable thing to do and I won’t ride an elephant again – no big deal, just a personal line in the sand. My son and friends decided to also swim with the elephants and what an experience that was. It is fascinating to see these big animals enjoying the water as much as humans and again it is worth mentioning there was no prodding, no hitting, the decision to swim was up to the elephants.
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.
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?
Read another first-hand acount of Adventures with Elephants here