A few days ago, in search of pictures of myself doing yoga in unusual places, I looked at photos from my 2008 trip to India and Nepal. As I flipped through them, I was struck at how foreign they seemed. I don’t mean this in a bad way. It’s just that everything looked so exotic, so other-worldly. While I sensed just a tiny bit of familiarity – after all, I was the one who took these pictures – the images were strikingly different from those I’m used to seeing in my every day life and in my travels to other countries in the west. It turns out that the sights, sounds and smells of India and Nepal are really quite exotic to many of us on this side of the ocean. Here are a few examples of what’s common there:
- many-armed statues of Hindu gods;
- dome-shaped Buddhist stupas;
- sounds of Buddhist monks chanting;
- pagoda-style Hindu temples with ornate carvings on their eaves;
- smells of burning incense;
- ringing of prayer bells and bowls;
- strings of sun-bleached, tattered flags fluttering in the wind;
- distant views of snowy peaks;
- perfectly shaped haystacks on terraced Himalayan hillsides;
- 80-ft. tall rhododendron trees with magenta flowers;
- chickens on bicycles or in four-story backpacks;
- acres of marijuana weeds growing along roadsides; and
- red-faced monkeys preening each other atop temple walls.
Each image could invoke a story, but the one that comes to mind now is that of the elephants. In both countries, these lumbering, grey beasts – familiar to us only because we see them in zoos, on screen or in photos – are everyday neighbors. They roam city streets as cars and trucks speed by. They shift from one foot to another when huddled under tin-roofed shelters in the countryside. They parade up stone walkways towards a city palace, draped in red and blue cloth and laden with tourists atop their backs. They bumble clumsily through rhino-inhabited forests. And, they snuffle up water to splash themselves and their mahouts (elephant tamers and drivers) in sprawling, mud-sided rivers. So many images of these strange and endearing beasts…
Why my focus on elephants? Because hours after scanning the photos from my trip to the Indian subcontinent, someone sent me a recent New York Times article about potential negative environmental impacts of “sustainable” tourism. It highlights one of my favorite organizations, Rainforest Alliance (they certify or verify sustainable practices in agriculture, forestry and tourism and build markets for sustainable production and consumption), and offers examples of lodges and tour operators who offer more eco-friendly experiences for tourists. What begins with a discussion of the treatment of elephants in tourist destinations offering elephant rides, ends in a worldwide debate about pachyderms and travel.
While the article mentions that elephants are often subject to abusive behavior when being trained, I found the readers’ comments most interesting. They included commendations to the lodges that provide medical care to sick or abused elephants and/or support elephant conservation; descriptions of the brutal treatment that elephants are subject to when being domesticated for tourist use or to carry cargo; claims that elephants have been working animals for over 2000 years and don’t even feel the weight of humans riding atop them; differences between easily domesticated Asian elephants and forever wild African ones; and denouncements of travel, in general, because it exploits cultures, destroys the natural environment, and produces carbon emissions (especially when travelling by air).
As I noted the range and adamancy of the commentary, my thoughts turned back to my photos and personal experiences with elephants in Nepal. We had gone to Chitwan National Park in the lowlands to visit successful conservation and development programs promoted by international and local conservation organizations. Rural communities are now engaged in income-generating activities that rely on the conservation and sustainable use of nature. Land adjacent to the park was planted with fast-growing native trees and turned into a community forest where residents harvest grasses and small trees for fodder and firewood, lead nature walks, and take tourists on elephant rides to see deer, rhinos, birds and other wildlife. I remember sitting with three others in a wooden crate mounted on the elephant’s back. While the view from on high was good, the ride was dreadfully uncomfortable.
In the local museum, I read the list of phrases that mahouts use to control their beasts: cchop = drink or spray water; juhk = bend the forelegs. These would prove useful later in the day when we were invited to watch the nightly ritual of bathing elephants in the river. Taking advantage of travelers’ wealth, opportunistic locals had set up refreshment stands along the shoreline. And, tourists were invited, for a price, to sit atop the wading elephants and get sprayed with water emanating from their upturned trunks. I participated, riding bareback, holding on for dear life as the pachyderm raised itself up from a kneeling position and frolicked in the water. It wasn’t easy staying aboard its slippery bare back, and as expected, I ended up in the river. It would be the one and only time I’d find myself swimming amongst floating elephant turds.
The next day, we visited the elephant breeding center, located in an open field outside the park. It is run by the government to raise animals to conduct rhino and buffalo counts and to patrol the park. For most of the day, female and baby elephants are kept under simple tin roofs, barely protected from the hot sun; the mothers are chained to a post and babies huddling alongside. Early morning and at dusk, they are allowed to wander in the nearby secondary forest under the watchful eyes of mahouts with hooked poles, ready to apply them at the first sign of misbehavior. Cute as the little ones were, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them, held captive on bare soil under the blazing sun.
I do not offer my personal elephant tales or the responses of The New York Times readership to make judgment on the use or abuse of elephants in tourism. For it is difficult to know the truth, and to evaluate benefits vs. costs. My point is merely to illustrate the challenges of humans and animals living together, of cultural norms and differences, of respecting all living beings, and of survival. Answers to questions such as who is right and what is right lie in the eye of the beholder. And, possibly in the memory of the elephant.