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Walking With Giants (or seeing eles from the business end)

By John Roberts
6 April 2015 03:36:00

You may not have noticed, because we didn’t make a big song and dance about it, but two years ago we decided to phase elephant ‘trekking’ (sitting in the saddle when someone else drives) from our activities list.

First of all, let me say that (despite what you may have heard on the ill informed side of the internet and as I have said and will continue to say until I’m blue in the face) there is nothing inherently harmful in sitting in the saddle on an elephant, there are a several ways to make it harmful but, at a camp that understands elephants, it is not inherently so.

If it was inherently harmful don’t you think someone would have noticed at some point in the 4,000 year history of elephants and people living together?

That said I have a personal distaste for sitting in the saddle and going around in a circle on an elephant - firstly it is uncomfortable (for you) and secondly you learn nothing about your elephant or your mahout.  Maybe because I grew up in the jungle where sitting in the saddle was still uncomfortable but you were on an elephant because that was the only safe way to get where you were going that I cannot see the attraction of sitting on the saddle and going somewhere where you could have walked.

Either way, we took the decision to phase out the sitting in the saddle part of our activities because we want all our guests to come away knowing more about elephants and having had an emotional connection.  We found that was not possible if a guest was sitting six inches above their elephant (plus it has so far proven impossible to design a saddle that was actually comfortable).  

We also discovered that, if our guests come away with an emotional connection, they might go on to come back.

It didn’t work - I guess riding in the saddle has never been our core business but by the end of last year we still had 10% of our guests refusing all other options, even after upgrading them to another, more exciting, more comfortable experience they had said to us “No, actually, I’d prefer the saddle”.

I won’t disclose our guest profile but we do cater to a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities, our guests tend to be educated to a high level and be worldly folks and, contrary to our expectation, even when the differences in experience (& comfort) were explained one tenth of them were choosing the saddle - of course, had I lied and said it was harmful to the ele I’m sure they’d have relented, but it’s not and we don’t lie.

Still, looking back, the only so-so reviews we were getting about the elephant activities came from guys who’d sat in the saddle and we’re not allowed to turn around to our guests and say “we told you so”.

So, how do we fix it?  As of March this year we tried a new approach, we still don’t actually refuse to put the saddle on for our guests - refusing guest requests (as long as they are not harmful to the eles) is not something we do - but we do include them in our groups doing the mahout activity, everyone together, we ensure they listen to our safety briefing and hear what we have to say and do about elephant welfare and conservation, we give them a demo on what the mahout experience is actually about.

…& then we say “would you like to take your trek now?”.  Maybe it’s peer pressure, maybe it’s having met our super friendly mahouts and elephants, maybe it's something else but in March not one person turned away from the Mahout Training having been taken that close to the brink.

We’ve also introduced a new experience “Walking With Giants”, a chance to join our eles in their free roaming time or Nong Denla on his daily walk - other folks are doing this now with limited success, but we're still the only people who can ensure you're joined on your walk by an experienced Thai vet and/or a scientifically qualified expert on elephant behaviour, so that it's not just a 'walk with elephants' it's an enlightenment into how the eles are thinking.

Our friends, some agents and people in the wider world think we’re crazy “no-one’s going to pay” (for we still need to feed our eles, keep our mahouts from going broke etc.) “to just walk with an elephant”.

Well, they may be right, but I don’t think so.  Remember back in 2003?  No, I guess you don’t, but the same subset of people (most of the personalities have now moved on to other things) said “no-one’s going to pay” (for then we needed to work out how to feed our eles, keep our mahouts from going broke etc.) “to just sit on an elephant’s neck”.

Look now at how many elephants, mahouts and guests get to know each other everyday across South East Asia, who all come away with a better experience and a more natural life instead of just sitting in the saddle & reporting that they’ve been on an elephant.  Sometimes I forget that, while we were the second people in the world to introduce that activity, we were certainly the first to make it popular.

There’s a lesson in there, I think, to the ill informed side of the internet with personal distaste for the saddle - with the relatively simple, positive, approach of borrowing the activity of “Mahout Training”, refining it for our guests, and making it financially successful for mahouts and camp owners to replicate we have easily brought more elephants out from underneath the saddle than all the negative campaigns put together.

Not that there’s anything wrong with they saddle, but, you know, as the hashtag goes “just sayin’"

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