I touched the dry trunk of Dennis, a ‘rescued’ teenage Sumatran elephant, and apologised. “I’m sorry, boy,” I whispered into his solemn expression, “you shouldn’t be here”.
Gently running my palm over his sandpaper-like skin, I tried to imagine where he should be. What he would be doing. Who he would be there with. The answers were easy to find. The opposite of here.
I was standing in Bali’s Elephant Safari Park, it was October 2011 and I was looking into the pitiful eyes of one of the saddest looking elephants I’ve ever seen. And there were tens more besides him.
By this point in my life, aged 21, I was just beginning to understand that many of the ways I’d wanted to get close to – and understand – wildlife before now were not really what they seemed. When it comes to ignorance, I’ve been top of the class before; and pretty much every activity that I now understand as being part of and parcel of a serious and corrupt wildlife industry, I’ve been a party to at some point. I suppose that should earn me the name of ‘hypocrite’, but I hope to many it makes me the ideal person to talk about these things – I’m under no illusion as to my own mistakes and lessons, and if I could challenge and re-evaluate my embarrassingly unknowing view of these things, so can anyone.
But standing in The Elephant Safari Park, I was beginning to be a bit more wise. I’d had my reservations about the place before visiting, but having experienced Addo Elephant Park in South Africa, where rescued elephants are kept in a natural environment and integrated in a tourist programme which isn’t detrimental to their well-being, I’d hoped – when my travel buddies had suggested visiting the place – that Elephant Safari would be the same.
With the usual pamphlet spiel about educating tourists, conserving the species and the unique chance to learn about these creatures up close, it sounds the ideal place to re-create an ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ moment – elephant riding through the Bali forest. But when you dig a little deeper, you find on the same premises, these gentle giants are being made to perform circus tricks, paint pictures before a crowd (for sale in the gift shop for a hefty price apparently befitting of such a unique gift) and interact on cue with young, unsuspecting audience members. From where I stood and photographed – with the foresight that I would be talking about the experience in this kind of capacity somewhere down the line – I felt the physical and psychological effects on these beautiful beings was evident.
Embarrassingly, TUSK Trust patron Prince William found himself in a similar resort earlier this month, though in China; not Bali. I use the term ’embarrassingly’ as His Royal Highness was looking to promote animal rights, particularly the plight of the elephants, as he finished his tour of the country which had imposed a year-long Ivory trade ban in honour of his visit. Though the ban may not be the cause for celebration it first seemed, it was perhaps not as much of a disappointment to conservationists as Sky News breaking the story that as the Prince was at a so-called elephant sanctuary, drumming up publicity and media coverage of his mission to highlight the fight to conserve and save endangered species, a number of the beautiful creatures were on the same grounds, less than a kilometre away, penned with their legs shackled, waiting to perform a twice-daily, hour-long show for tourists.
Thankfully, the silver-lining to incidents such as this, is that it is beginning to be recognised that elephants performing tricks are often whipped and beaten in order to learn the arduous circus routines they are forced to perform; yanked and prodded by sharp steel-tipped bull hooks behind the scenes – much like the men in blue appeared to be doing at that Elephant safari park in Bali.
Shortly following the Duke of Cambridge’s speech, and the pitiful announcement of China’s year-long ivory ban, the welcome news reached my ears that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s three touring circuses will phase out elephant acts from its 1,000 shows a year, by 2018: 133 years since P. T. Barnum bought his first one.
Ringling Bros. announced the ban following intense pressure and criticism from animal rights protesters, prompting hope for those calling for an end to Seaworld’s water circus cruelty.
Despite this, however, on the 6th March, a proposed new UK law to ban the use of wild animals in circuses was blocked for the 12th time. Blocked by three Tory backbenchers, any parliamentary discussion on the matter has now been automatically ended under parliamentary rules covering backbench bills. There will be no further opportunities to debate the Bill before the General Election, meaning that it has now “fallen” and would need to be reintroduced under the next government if it is to become a reality.
It’s a sickening blow for campaigners – and anyone who cares about the welfare of animals – to feel like traditional, cruel and outdated practices are being maintained, while progression is stunted. But just as I was wondering what message the current government is giving out to future generations and the youth of today, optimism reached my ears.
In an impactful open letter, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have asked Tim Burton; tasked with re-telling Disney’s Dumbo, to consider changing the ending of the original story to see the elephant calf and his mother live out their days in a sanctuary. …Perhaps like the one that the Born Free Foundation are currently hoping to raise the funds to build in Europe?
It is my ultimate hope that the real world will follow that idealistic altered ending that PETA are calling for (and on that note I’ll be announcing my fundraising plans for contributing my small part towards Born Free’s elephant sanctuary goal soon). That way I won’t have to ever find myself looking into the longing eyes of elephants like Dennis in the future, and wondering whether that leg he’s limping on can take the strain of performing circus tricks much longer.