FILE - With Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, elephants walk in Amboseli National Park, Tanzania, Jan. 2015.
FILE - With Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, elephants walk in Amboseli National Park, Tanzania, Jan. 2015.

AUSTIN, TEXAS - Of the 2,000 elephants around the world being used for entertainment, some 200 are in Africa — a trend that animal rights activists say is growing as African elephants are becoming a fixture of southern Africa’s burgeoning tourist industry.

But animal rights activists say the image of happy tourists mounted atop a tranquil elephant is anything but a pretty picture. The U.S. Humane Society has long said the practice is cruel, inhumane — and dangerous to both humans and elephants.

“Cruelty that may not be evident to spectators often occurs behind the scenes in various forms — in abusive training methods used to try to control animals of this size, in chaining them for many hours a day, and in depriving them of social contact with other elephants,” the organization says. It adds that elephants are unpredictable, prone to rampages and also can carry diseases, like tuberculosis.

Fresh campaign

London-based advocacy group World Animal Protection recently launched a campaign to stop what it says is a worrying trend. Kate Nustedt, the group’s director of wildlife, said her organization has counted 39 entities that offer elephant rides in southern Africa.

Although many of the more prominent organizations say on their websites that they use only positive training techniques, Nustedt says wild animals like elephants do not enjoy being used for entertainment.

“No elephant enjoys giving rides or being in entertainment, ever or anywhere,” she told VOA News. “The level of abuse that goes into getting an elephant, whether it’s Asian or African, to perform or give a ride is actually horrendous.”

Cruel training

African elephants, which are bigger than their Asian counterparts, were long thought to be untrainable. But recently, she said, trainers have made inroads using processes activists describe as cruel.

“They’re taken, sometimes months old, from their mothers,” Nustedt said. “And when they’re very young, juvenile elephants, they go through what’s called the crush. And in this they’re trapped in a small cage, tied up with ropes so they can’t move. And there are things called bullhooks that elephant trainers use.

"These are basically sticks with sharp, pointy metal at the end of it. And they beat the elephants with these until they have sores and terrible markings that appear, and sometimes infections get into them when they’re going through this, and it can be for up to a week’s time. And they’re poking them with sticks, hitting them with whips and wooden batons as well until the elephant’s spirit actually breaks,” said Nustedt.

The human motivation is simple: money. At several elephant sanctuaries in Johannesburg, a 10-minute elephant ride can cost about $35. That means that in a day, an obliging elephant out-earns the average South African human.