Our rickety minibus rattled over dusty, potholed tracks as the sun rose above Goa. With bleary eyes and squashed knees, we snaked away from the coast for two hours until we arrived at Sahyadri Spice Plantation. The farm, situated at the foot of a mountain range by the same name, produces everything from cashews to coffee and is a popular spot on the tourist trail for holidaymakers wanting to learn about India’s rich spice trade.
We ate a breakfast of curry and lemongrass tea and flicked through a ring-bound encyclopaedia of the land’s spoils. A worker then showed our group his aromatic wares before we were led beyond the makeshift restaurant to a patch of land. There, hidden behind a toilet block, stood the other main attraction: two Indian elephants. Guarded by leather-faced mahouts and with chains around their necks, the animals - skin spotted pink with age - were silent and still as us tourists filled plastic chairs laid out in front of them.
We watched like a crowd in a circus tent as, one by one, members of the group scaled steps to a concrete podium and climbed upon the elephants’ backs. Lakshmi, 48, and Lila, 47, gave rides to 16 people over the course of an hour before being prodded to open their mouths and wolf down bunches of bananas for the second round of photo ops. For the third, visitors stripped down to their swimsuits and rode them again, this time doused in water as part of an ‘elephant bath’. As we left, the next coach-load of visitors was pulling in.
I was on a package holiday with my parents, meant as a family reunion after my little brother went off to uni and I moved to New York. My dad is Indian but had never been to Goa and it was a treat to see him light up as he explored a new but familiar place. For the first few days we sipped mango lassi, marvelled at the cows on the beach and, in an attempt to break up our sunbathing, booked a few excursions away from Candolim, where we were staying. This visit to Sahyadri was one of them, billed in the brochure as an interesting stop off on the way to the spectacular Dudhsagar Falls, a four-tiered waterfall on the Mandovi River and Goa’s top tourist attraction. But when we booked it through our Thomas Cook rep, there was no mention of elephants. It wasn’t until we were on the minibus that we learned from our enthusiastic guide, Aravind, that the first activity of the day would be riding them.
I was surprised. Elephants giving rides might seem domesticated but they aren’t, and the process of getting them to a point of such docility is little short of torture. They are frequently captured from the wild and jabbed with sharp hooks or sticks until they are ‘broken in’ - and worn down. The Indian government has been criticised for not doing enough to protect them. Seeing the creatures decorated with paint or paraded along busy streets as a way of drawing tips from tourists isn’t unusual, and elephant riding remains legal, if controversial.
Thomas Cook, however - one of the best-respected travel agencies in the UK - has recognised that the practice is cruel. Two years ago the company hit headlines for offering elephant rides in destinations including India, Thailand and Zimbabwe. Almost 175,000 people signed a petition urging the company to stop offering the activity and in January 2016, it vowed to do so. In a message on its website it states: “Thomas Cook Group is not selling elephant rides or shows in any of its markets,” and claims to be an “industry leader in animal welfare”.
But as recently as December, the firm’s customers were still riding elephants as part of tours promoted by their staff. I took photos of sunglass-clad Brits beaming as they sat on elephants being pulled along on pieces of rope. The spice plantation workers promised that the elephants’ “only job is carrying ants on their back” and “there is no harness so it doesn’t hurt one bit”. But though they claim the animals - gifted to them by the government to produce manure - have good lives, distressing footage shows otherwise. Handlers were seen prodding and hitting the elephants with wooden sticks to get them to stand still or or to coax them to perform for the cameras. This abuse took place in full view of gawking tourists, so I dread to think what happens when the gates close each night.
The rep who sold my family the tour at the Phoenix Park Inn told me the following morning that Thomas Cook has been taking holidaymakers on elephant rides in the region for the past nine years. He never mentioned his company’s promise to stop offering the experience. When I asked him if the rides were popular with tourists, he answered: “Some people love it. Other people think it is not right that they are being used for money. You can’t make everybody happy.”
When approached for a comment, Thomas Cook said: “It is clear this excursion should not be available to book through Thomas Cook, and we are working to rectify this immediately.
“We were the first organisation to remove animal excursions from sale as the direct result of auditing against independent welfare standards, and we are continuing to review the programmes we offer our customers.”