While in Laos, my friends and I spent the day at an elephant rescue camp. These were elephants who had worked in logging camps, where they are routinely pushed to the point of exhaustion, unable to reproduce. To replenish their herd, the loggers then capture wild elephants who are also endangered due to being hunted for their tusks and because of the loss of habitat.
These elephants would not be able to live in the wild after these years of servitude. They are purchased from the loggers (for $50,000 each we were told) and they eat enormous quantities of food. The fees tourists pay enable the camps to support these majestic beings.
An ethical camp like we visited has a veterinarian on staff who examines each elephant every day to be sure they are able to work. They only work (carrying tourists like us) for half a day, then are taken to a forest where they have room to roam. They are ridden bareback, rather than with the wooden platform called a howdah which injures their backs.
We were taught the commands the mahouts (handlers) use to guide the elephants, but not one of us was able to remember any except “how” (stop!). Luckily, most of the time the mahout was with us except for the photo opportunity. I was grateful for his supporting hands on my back as we trundled down a hill. Rule number one in my Core Align exercise class where we are put into very unstable positions is “don’t fall off;” it applied here too!