Photo of Bali tourist sparks bitter debate: 'Expect a lot of hate'

·Environment Editor
·4-min read

A Bali holiday photo of a woman’s “absolutely amazing experience” riding an elephant has sparked controversy after she shared it on social media.

Nigel Mason, the owner of the park where the image was taken, was unaware of the reaction when he spoke to Yahoo News Australia on Thursday. But he wasn’t surprised.

“It is very easy in this day and age to sit down and criticise online a subject that you know nothing about, because you have been misinformed, or just that a photo offends your sensibilities,” he said.

A photograph of a woman riding an elephant in Bali has caused controversy online. Source: Facebook
A photograph of a woman riding an elephant in Bali has caused controversy online. Source: Facebook

Mr Mason’s elephant park is located in Ubud, a village famous for its free-roaming monkey sanctuary and Hindu temples.

His park houses critically endangered Sumatran elephants, which were rescued after losing their habitat to deforestation.

Social media uproar after elephant post

The controversial social media post features one of the park’s most popular attractions — riding a swimming elephant. It garnered over 800 reactions split between disapproving sad emojis, likes and hearts.

“How long before comments are locked? You're very brave to post a picture of you riding it on here. Expect a lot of hate,” one person commented.

"Love the elephants, but not to ride," another wrote.

“Don’t worry about the haters and so-called do-gooders,” someone else wrote, coming to her defence.

Moderators turned off comments.

Why are wild animal experiences controversial?

Whether it’s riding elephants, taking selfies with tigers, or swimming with dolphins, interacting with captive wild animals is shunned by many. Even cuddling koalas could be causing them stress.

Australian travel company Flight Centre maintains a “look but don’t touch approach” to exotic animal encounters it allows on its website, while Booking.com, TripAdvisor and Expedia also have restrictions.

A number of animal parks in Bali do house animals in cruel conditions, although there are some signs the Indonesian government is taking action.

Notable efforts include crackdowns on turtle poachers, and the confiscation of dolphins and other wildlife from the Melka Hotel.

Mr Mason concedes there are welfare issues with some elephant ride operators in Thailand. Source: Getty (File Image)
Mr Mason concedes there are welfare issues with some elephant ride operators in Thailand. Source: Getty (File Image)

Mr Mason concedes methods used to train elephants in some other wildlife parks are cruel, particularly those documented in Thailand, but his sanctuary instead adopted a no-punishment approach.

They fired six of the original mahout elephant trainers due to concerns about their conduct and maintain a strict policy of terminating any employee who is cruel to the animals.

High cost of caring for elephants

As the park does not receive donations or government grants, it’s reliant on tourism, including animal encounters to feed, house and care for what are now a critically endangered species.

It costs them around US $1000 ($1400) a month to care for a single elephant.

“It's a Catch-22 situation. You're damned if you do, and the (elephants) are damned if we don’t,” Mr Mason said.

His response to "the haters" is simple: "Words are cheap. Actual action costs money, time and money".

Conservation purpose behind elephant park

Mr Mason’s park began in 1997 after he became concerned about an elephant herd brought to Bali from Sumatra.

Mr Mason rescued Sumatran elephants from what he describes as
Mr Mason rescued Sumatran elephants from what he describes as "concentration camps". Source: Supplied

“They’d been only been there for about three or four months, this guy had brought them down… but didn't really know what he was going to do with them,” he said.

“He had some business plan that failed to work, so these elephants were just standing around in this deserted rice field and literally starving to death.”

As industry continued to transform Sumatra’s jungles into palm oil and acacia plantations, Mr Mason and his Balinese wife Yanie Mason ventured to the province to rescue more animals.

“We rescued them from the government holding camps, we them concentration camps, because they were pretty bad,” he said.

“The elephants were surviving in these camps for three to seven years maximum. So it was like a death sentence.”

Sumatra's forests have been cleared for paper and palm oil plantations. Source: Getty (File Image)
Sumatra's forests have been cleared for paper and palm oil plantations. Source: Getty (File Image)

Mr Mason hopes one day if the deforestation slows his 32 elephants could help provide the complex genetics required for the wild population to recover.

“In the back of our minds, that's really what we're hoping for. But it's really pretty much up to the Indonesian government,” he said.

“If they said: We’re gonna put some land aside these elephants they can be re-established in over a period of years we would certainly be very interested in that.”

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